Broncos legend Darren Lockyer has declared Nathan Cleary entered elite company after his NRL grand final performance with the Panthers winning three-straight NRL titles. Penrith became the first team in over 40 years to win three-straight NRL premierships off the back of a final 20 minute masterclass from Cleary.
The champion halfback turned the game around with with a brilliant 40/20, before his solo try won the match for the Panthers. Cleary helped the Panthers turn around a 16-point deficit to steal the victory.
And Lockyer gave Cleary some high praise after comparing him to arguably the greatest halfback the game has ever seen. "I remember in 2005 when Joey (Johns) kicked a 40/20 here in Origin and then he just went on a roll," former Broncos captain Lockyer said.
"It was like that with Cleary. Isaah Yeo is in the HIA. Jarome Luai is out (injured). Cleary takes them on himself. It was a ridiculous performance by him."
Lockyer was in awe of Cleary's class at such a young age and pointed out the halfback still has plenty of year ahead of him to build a better legacy. "Nathan has got eight years to go, maybe more. His legacy already is enormous," Lockyer said.
"Maybe with Origin he wants to tick a few more boxes but in terms of club halfbacks the last bloke to do that was Sterling. It is incredible, and I don't know if a bloke like Sterlo won a game like that on his own in the 1980s. Cleary won that game. Penrith didn't win that. Nathan Cleary did."
Lockyer added the Panthers needed him to step up when they were down, and the champion halfback did just that. "He was the only option. I was watching the game thinking, 'We have only got to keep him quiet and we have got this'," Lockyer said.
Nathan Cleary critical of his own grand final performance
While the NRL world has been full of praise for Cleary, the halfback was quite critical of his own game. Moments after winning the premiership, Brad Fittler asked Cleary if that was his best individual performance in a Panthers jersey.
However, Cleary was much more critical than those watching. "Nah, because the start of the second half was awful. It was so bad. Disappointing not to put in the full 80 minutes, but can't complain," Cleary said.
Cleary did go on to admit the clash against the Broncos was arguably the toughest NRL game he had played in, comparing the pace to a State of Origin game. "That's up there with Origin for sure. There was so much fatigue," he added.
"I just kept talking to myself, 'keep going'. Then we got a bit of a roll on. It could have been easy to give up. But we just kept fighting because that's what we do." Cleary was referring to the Panthers' stunning comeback, which saw them overturn the biggest deficit in an NRL grand final of all-time.
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