Johnathan Thurston has highlighted the brutal moment Reece Walsh failed to "fill the space" and allowed Nathan Cleary to score the match-winning try in the NRL grand final. With the Panthers down 24-8 with 15 minutes to play, Cleary produced an absolute masterclass to lead his side to an incredible 26-24 win.
The halfback sliced through the Broncos' line to set up a try for Moses Leota, before laying on the final pass for Stephen Crichton to score in the corner. And in what is the crowning moment of his career so far, Cleary scored the match-winning try with just two minutes remaining to seal the biggest comeback in grand final history.
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With the Panthers camped on the Broncos' line, Cleary got the ball at first receiver on the blind side before stepping back off his left foot. He sliced past Adam Reynolds and Billy Walters and into a yawning hole to break the Broncos' hearts.
While Cleary's match-winner lit up the NRL world, some have pointed out that Walsh was way out of position and didn't slide across in time. Dissecting the match-winning try on Channel 9 after the game, Thurston pointed out that Walsh didn't "fill the space" created when his teammates slid to their right.
The fullback appeared to be ball-watching and allowed himself to stop moving, rather than keeping his feet going and moving across to plug the gap. While there's no denying the 21-year-old had a sensational season, the fullback had a grand final to forget.
Apart from a scintillating line-break to set up Ezra Mam's third try in the second half, Walsh had one of his more underwhelming games in the last few months. Walsh was limping early in the match and wasn't able to influence the game like he has done so often.
The 21-year-old knocked on and was dragged into his in-goal after running sideways, while also giving the Panthers a seven-tackle set after kicking the ball dead. He had just six runs for 32 metres in the first half, and despite being better in the second, he was found out a number of times in defence.
NRL fans call out Reece Walsh over grand final performance
One fan wrote on social media: "No shortage of blame goes to Reece Walsh on that last try. He was ball watching instead of tying under and left a massive hole for Nathan Cleary to waltz on through."
Another commented: "Reece Walsh went missing in the first half, had a couple of good moments in the second and was out of position all game. Wonder Boy got found out and Nathan Cleary is the Clive Churchill medal winner."
While a third wrote: "I was fully at attention when I saw Walsh out of position for that last try. Cleary masterclass and Walsh disaster class in one match."
Watch the Cleary try. Walsh just half asleep 😴 let him stroll through. Just lack of concentration
— RickRacing (@racingsbests) October 1, 2023
2 key moments in defence stood out for me with Walsh. Just totally clocked off on that late cleary try as you mention and the kenny try he is just ball watching instead of covering just in case, which was poor imo. Fatigue prob a factor, but got be better then that still in a GF
— Mathew (@Brooma_23) October 1, 2023
Reece Walsh’s fault for not being in position for the last try - time and time he’s let my Broncos down with his inability to defend and I am SICK OF IT
— Bearded J (@Bearded_J_NZ) October 1, 2023
Has there ever been a fullback who plays more out of position than Reece Walsh? The guy is never where he needs to be.
— Fellidd Paddmaye (@AlanBailey2) October 1, 2023
Reece Walsh went missing in the first half, had a couple of good moments in the second and was out of position all game. Wonder Boy got found out and Nathan Cleary is the Clive Churchill medal winner.
Those are the facts Jack.
— TheKayoKid (@TheKayoKid171) October 1, 2023
As a neutral. Incredible by Penrith and specifically Cleary that was extraordinary. Reece Walsh that was abysmal, constant missed tackles, out of position, hero plays and ultimately it cost a Grand Final #NRLPanthersBroncos
— Aaron Preston (@APrez10) October 1, 2023
— Archie (@archibaldfoley) October 1, 2023
This last 20 minutes from Nathan Cleary has been incredible. This game from Reece Walsh has been embarrassing, the single biggest reason why his team has lost. Fascinating game #NRLGrandFinal
— Aaron Preston (@APrez10) October 1, 2023
Panthers cement legacy with three-consecutive premierships
The win surpassed Melbourne's comeback from 14 points down against St George Illawarra in the 1999 grand final as the biggest-ever in a decider. It also staked Penrith's claim as one of rugby league's greatest-ever sides after they became the eighth team in history to win three straight premierships - and the first since Parramatta in 1983.
"There was that great Parramatta side, but that wasn't the NRL-era either," coach Ivan Cleary said. "But things were different, it was just pretty much the Sydney comp back then. And I say that without trying to take anything away from what they did.
"We're not here to try and explain where we sit in history. I think we will be able to reflect in the next few days, it's a pretty remarkable achievement. It's totally surreal. I don't know how to explain it."
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