Nathan Cleary has admitted his performance in the NRL grand final wasn't his finest ever with the Panthers and the halfback producing a remarkable 30 minutes to steal the game from the Broncos. Cleary scored the match-winning try against the Broncos after dragging his team from 16-points down in the second-half to help the Panthers win 26-24 and claim their third-straight NRL premiership.
Cleary was ecstatic after the win as he joined Panthers great Brad Fittler for an interview amid the wild post-match celebrations. The Channel Nine team were glowing of Cleary's game with Andrew Johns claiming it was one of the best halfback performances in an NRL grand final ever.
However, when Fittler asked Cleary if that was his best individual performance in a Panthers jersey he was much more critical. "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 have a few lapses of judgement in the first half with a number of last play tackle options not going to plan, before a disastrous missed tackle allowed the Broncos through. Although the champion halfback turned the game around with 25 minutes to go with a brilliant 40/20, before his solo try won the match for the Panthers.
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.
Fittler pointed out Cleary was being 'tough' on himself when judging his own performance with most of the NRL world erupting over his influence in final 30 minutes.
Just finished replay on Fox
Cleary was even better second time around
What a freak
— BUZZ ROTHFIELD (@BuzzRothfield) October 1, 2023
The main reason why panthers will go down as the greatest team ever. Nathan Cleary will go down as the best to ever do it, what a champion.
— Top Red (@IrelandCooper) October 1, 2023
That’s the greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen, Nathan Cleary👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻
— Ryan Tawn (@ryan__tawn) October 1, 2023
Nathan Cleary compared to NRL legends
Cleary's final 20 minutes helped the Panthers produce the biggest comeback in NRL grand final history - eclipsing the 14-point deficit the Melbourne Storm overcame in the 1999 decider against the Dragons. Cleary claimed his second Clive Churchill Medal after the virtuoso display in the final 15 minutes, as well as his third premiership.
The 25-year-old now has more premierships than legendary halfbacks Johns and Johnathan Thurston, who were both singing his praises after the match. "That was the greatest performance by a halfback in a grand final ever," Johns declared.
Considering the NRL Immortal was outstanding in the 1997 and 2001 grand finals for Newcastle, the comments are huge. Thurston was also phenomenal in the 2015 decider, while legendary halfbacks Peter Sterling and Cooper Cronk have produced some grand final masterclasses over the years.
Questions are now being asked as to whether Cleary has surpassed the other great halfbacks to be the greatest ever. Of halfbacks to have played more than 100 matches, only Cronk, Arthur Halloway and Bobby Bugden have a better winning percentage. Leading journalist Phil Rothfield wrote on Sunday night: "The superstar Penrith halfback with three straight grand final victories is as good if not better than any of rugby league’s best No.7s."
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