Andrew Johns has declared Nathan Cleary's performance in the NRL grand final the greatest by a halfback in a decider ever. The Broncos had one hand on the premiership trophy when they led 24-8 with just 15 minutes remaining in Sunday night's grand final.
Cleary had two absolute shockers in defence at the start of the second half, missing tackles on Ezra Mam and Reece Walsh that led directly to Broncos tries. But the Panthers halfback showed why he is already regarded as one of the greatest players of all time, producing an attacking masterclass to lead his side back from the brink to a third-straight premiership.
'DISAPPOINTING TO SEE': Cliff Lyons' revelation about Latrell Mitchell
The 25-year-old laid on tries for Moses Leota and Stephen Crichton to cut the deficit to just four points, before scoring a brilliant solo try in the 78th minute to break the Broncos' hearts and give the Panthers a 26-24 win.
It marked 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."
Nathan Cleary is a thief !
He has just stolen the Clive Churchill medal off Ezra Mam.
The greatest clutch performance I’ve ever seen in a grand final.
— The Oracle (@BigOtrivia) 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 is only 25 years old
Nathan Cleary might already be the greatest player Rugby League has ever seen #NRLGF
— A-A Ron 🇷🇺 (@_red_wood) October 1, 2023
Nathan Cleary could be up there with greatest ever
— paddy fitzsimmons (@PaddyFlamingo) October 1, 2023
Greatest grand final performance by an individual?
What a king.
— Adam Peacock (@adampeacock3) October 1, 2023
Nathan Cleary's masterclass performance in NRL grand final
Making his feats even more remarkable was the fact five-eighth Jarome Laui had to leave the field after re-injuring his shoulder. Around the same time, co-captain Isaah Yeo and second-rower Scott Sorensen left the field for head injury assessments as well.
While back-up half Jack Cogger was brilliant, Cleary put the team on his back. "I wanted to do that (step up) once 'Romey' and 'Yeoy' went off it kind of felt like a free shot," Cleary said. "We had nothing to lose to be honest. We're in a grand final, that's why I give credit to 'Coggs' for unlocking me.
"I had to remind myself, every part of me was saying it was easier to quit. But I had to keep fighting that feeling."
Cleary said the heartbreak of losing the 2020 grand final to Melbourne steeled him. "I think my experience from the past, particularly that 2020 Storm grand final, helped me to be in the game at the end of this one," Cleary said.
"Sometimes things feel s*** at the time, like they did in that 2020 game, but I think it's made me who I am today. I wouldn't say I was rattled (against Brisbane), I was probably disappointed with what I was doing. I mention that 2020 grand final again, I was rattled that night. I reckon that's helped me in a moment like tonight."
Sign up to our newsletter and score the biggest sport stories of the week.