'Classless': Uproar over Nathan Cleary's contentious NRL grand final act

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Pictured here, rivals Nathan Cleary and Cody Walker get in a scuffle during the NRL grand final.
Nathan Cleary's reaction to Cody Walker's intercept pass was branded 'classless' by NRL fans. Pic: Channel Nine

Penrith's grand final-winning halfback Nathan Cleary has come under fire over an ugly incident in Sunday night's 14-12 win against South Sydney in the NRL decider.

Cleary took out the Clive Churchill Medal as the man-of-the-match in what was a gripping final game of the NRL season.

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Souths had been tackled just once inside Penrith's 20-metre zone but were hanging on, with the scores locked at 8-8 with 13 minutes to play as Penrith squandered chances.

The wall finally burst though, with star Rabbitohs playmaker Cody Walker's all-or-nothing cut out pass intercepted by Panthers winger Stephen Crichton who ran 35 metres to score and create a six-point lead.

It was effectively a match-winning play by the Panthers winger and a cruel blow for Walker, who had earlier scored one of the great grand final tries to get the Bunnies back in the contest.

The Panthers halfback was the first to let Walker know about his blunder too, with the pair almost coming to blows as Penrith teammates raced in to celebrate with Crichton after his incredible solo try.

"Cleary gives him a bit of a 'yeehaw'," Channel Nine commentator Phil Gould said as Walker grabbed the back of Cleary's jersey, angrily reacting to the provocations of his rival.

Referee Gerard Sutton saw nothing from either player that warranted further punishment but viewers were not impressed with Cleary's actions, insisting he should have been more focused on celebrating with his teammates than taunting his rival playmaker.

Walker responded to the heartbreak of throwing the intercept pass by setting up Alex Johnston to score his 30th try of the season and give Adam Reynolds the chance to level the scores late on.

However, Reynolds' sideline conversion attempt flew agonisingly wide of the right post to leave Rabbitohs fans gutted.

Walker then threw a pass over the sideline with just over two minutes to go as a possible Johnston match-winner went begging, before Reynolds' two-point field goal attempt fell well short of the uprights.

It was only Bennett's third loss in his 10th grand final as a coach, his appearances now stretching across five decades with four different clubs.

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Penrith's third title was a breakthrough for Cleary in his 370th game as a coach, becoming the only man to win one for the first time after their 250th game.

The Panthers' victory comes after a 17-game winning streak was brutally snapped by Melbourne in last year's grand final.

There was no such shellshock on Sunday night, Penrith clean with the ball and playmaker and Clive Churchill medallist Nathan Cleary calmly directing traffic.

"I can't sum up my emotions. This year has been totally different. It's a two-year thing, three-year thing really," coach Cleary said.

"There was at least five who shouldn't have been playing today. It was a calculated risk on a lot of boys.

"I woke up at 2am this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. Thinking three or four of them could have been gone by 10 minutes.

"It's purely on courage these boys have won."

Penrith simply thundered through Souths in the first half, making 1070 metres to Souths' 632 in front of a COVID-19-capped capacity crowd of 39,322.

Seen here, Panthers players celebrate their NRL grand final win over the Rabbitohs.
Panthers players celebrate their NRL grand final win over the Rabbitohs at Suncorp Stadium. Pic: Getty

Souths were resolute but Matt Burton finally sliced through, breaking the deadlock after 16 minutes of peppering the line.

Walker's brilliant individual try was the reply, the Souths five-eighth fending off Nathan Cleary as he beat four men to keep his side in the game.

But Penrith kept coming, controlling the ruck to exhaust Souths as they edged ahead 8-6 at the break.

A groggy-looking Dane Gagai had earlier passed a HIA after a tackle gone wrong, while Souths teammate Jai Arrow was eventually ruled out in the second half after he was taken high in the first 40 minutes.

Souths had won 16 of their past 17 games after a huge defeat to Penrith in May, overcoming the suspension of Latrell Mitchell on the eve of the finals to make the decider.

But ultimately, it was one dreaded intercept that cruelled them.

"He's OK," Bennett said of Walker.

"How many tries has he set up this year? How many times have we seen that happen.

"I have coached some wonderful players, they have all thrown an intercept try from time to time.

"It's just something that happened. We can't do anything about it now."

with AAP

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