What a difference 12 months makes. After being accused of ignoring Dylan Edwards when he won the Clive Churchill Medal in 2022, Panthers players were over the moon for Nathan Cleary on Sunday night.
The Panthers halfback won his second Clive Churchill Medal after a staggering 15-minute burst in the second half that helped the Panthers turn a 24-8 deficit into a 26-24 victory. Cleary had two assists and scored the match-winner as Penrith produced the biggest comeback in NRL grand final history to win their third-straight premiership.
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Cleary was named man of the match for his incredible second-half display, with teammates bursting into cheers and mobbing their co-captain when his name was read out. One of the first players to congratulate Cleary was fullback Edwards, who won the gong himself in 2022.
The reaction of Cleary's teammates came in complete contrast to last year's grand final when none of the Panthers players even seemed to notice that Edwards had won the medal. The Panthers' reaction was branded "pathetic" and "sad" as not a single player congratulated Edwards before he made his way onto the stage.
Whether or not the players realised Edwards' name had been called out remains to be seen, but they certainly appeared to have learned their lesson on Sunday night. This time around everyone was paying attention and gave Cleary the congratulations he deserved for winning the prestigious medal.
The 25-year-old was presented with the medal by Manly legend Cliff Lyons, who won the gong in 1986. The medal has previously been presented by Clive Churchill's son Rodney, but that honour was taken away after he made some inflammatory comments about Latrell Mitchell.
The NRL has decided that all the past winners will get a turn to present the medal moving forward, with Lyons stepping in for the absent Peter Sterling this year. The plan was for Sterling to present the medal at this year's grand final because he was the first winner back in 1987, however the Parramatta legend couldn't change his plans at the last minute.
"I'm pretty chuffed about it," Lyons told Yahoo Sport Australia about being asked to present the medal. "(NRL CEO) Andrew Abdo called me and asked if I was keen and I was. Unfortunately, Sterlo couldn't get there but I'm available and looking forward to it.
"I remember that day (in '87) and my name being called out for the award. It was pretty thrilling and exciting. It's a big part of grand final day and I'm happy to be part of it."
Nathan Cleary says Panthers 'just getting started'
Cleary has now put himself firmly in the debate to be the greatest halfback we've ever seen. His three premierships are more than legendary No.7s Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston had (two apiece), and his career winning percentage by a halfback is only bettered by Cooper Cronk, Arthur Halloway and Bobby Bugden.
Cleary said on stage as he collected his Clive Churchill that Penrith are "still just getting started". The 25-year-old later said there is no end in sight to the club's dynasty.
"The best thing about going three in a row is it gives you the opportunity to go four," Cleary said. "It's something dad (coach Ivan Cleary) has spoken about a lot.
"It's just a journey, it's not a destination. I know that winning is a lot more fun than losing. It's an enjoyable group to be part of. Everyone is allowed to be themselves, it is fun. That's how it should be."
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