Nathan Cleary stuns amid brutal Panthers reality: Good, bad, ugly of NRL grand final

A couple of Penrith players might be regretting their decision to leave after a third-straight premiership.

Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu, pictured here alongside Nathan Cleary.
Stephen Crichton and Spencer Leniu are leaving the Panthers, while Nathan Cleary continues to rise to greatness. Image: Getty

😃 The good: Nathan Cleary masterclass leaves legends in awe

😔 The bad: Departing Panthers players facing brutal reality

😡 The ugly: How did Brisbane choke so badly?

Nathan Cleary is on another planet

So, are there any Nathan Cleary critics still out there? Incredibly, the Panthers No.7 still had his share of doubters before turning in arguably the greatest grand final performance of all time to drag his team over the line against Brisbane on Sunday night.

The knockers are thin on the ground today. There was some remarkable footage shown post-game of Johnathan Thurston on the sideline holding his head in disbelief at what he'd just witnessed from Cleary.

There were try assists, the third tackle 40/20 and finally the match-winning four pointer – a 20-minute highlights package that will be talked about as long as the game is played.

JT, as we all know, is one of the game's best but he was almost speechless watching the Cleary show unfold. "I was just mind blown. He pretty much said 'get on my back and I’ll get you home'," Thurston told Channel 9.

"At 24-8 everyone was thinking it was the Broncos but this is a champion of our game. He hasn't even hit his peak yet. It’s unfathomable what he's going to do for the rest of his career. I'm in awe."

Immortal Andrew Johns added: "Somehow he willed his team to win the biggest game of the year. Who knows how far he will go in his career but we are seeing something very, very special."

Will departing Panthers players regret their decision?

You wonder if all those players who left the Penrith Panthers of their own volition will one day regret their decision. You couldn't help thinking that as you watched Stephen Crichton lift the premiership trophy for the third straight year.

'Critter' is off to Canterbury where the only 'trophy' lifting he'll do in the near future is likely to be of the wooden variety. It's been a similar deal for his old Panthers teammate Matt Burton, who's spent two largely forgettable years at the Dogs as the mountain men won two more comps without him.

Stephen Crichton, pictured here with Panthers players after the NRL grand final.
Stephen Crichton celebrates with Panthers players after the NRL grand final. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Viliame Kikau is another, taking the big money on offer at Belmore this year, as did hooker Api Koroisau at the Tigers. You can't blame players for chasing the dollars as they only have a finite time in the game.

And in a lot of cases, clubs are only too happy to kick players to the kerb when their time is up or the salary cap bites. But, in professional sport, nothing beats winning. And Penrith do plenty of that.

Kevin Walters' devastating admission after grand final loss

They say you've got to experience the pain of losing a grand final to win one. That's certainly held true for Penrith, who lost the 2020 decider to Melbourne before going on a three-year tear.

But what does it do a team's psyche when they are beaten in a grand final they should have won. Brisbane had one hand on the Provan-Summons trophy and were booking its seat for the plane ride home when they collapsed in record-breaking fashion.

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Discover more of our NRL Finals coverage.

As you listened to heart-broken players and coach Kevin Walters try to explain where it all went wrong, you wonder how such a young side can pick itself up and go again. The emotional damage will be immense.

"We should have won that game, but we didn't. Hats off to Penrith," Walters said. "In the next couple of days we can sit back and be really proud of that, but we wanted to win a premiership this year and we didn't get it so that pisses us off.

"The whole stadium thought we had done enough. It's hard to get your head around what happened." It sure is.

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