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Bunker Review – Grand Final

The most even and unpredictable NRL season in years has been capped by one of its greatest-ever grand finals. 

A classic by any measure

Penrith’s 26-24 eclipse of Brisbane will be regarded by some as the best grand final of all time. There’s no hint of hyperbole or recency bias – it truly was an epic encounter that stands comfortably alongside Canberra’s extra-time triumph against Balmain in 1989, Newcastle’s last-gasp victory over Manly in 1997 and North Queensland’s buzzer-beater against Brisbane before prevailing in golden point in 2015.

The sheer volume of mandatory grand final era (1954-present) records beaten and equalled, and first X since Y stats only add to the game’s instant mystique:

  • Penrith’s comeback from 16 points down was the biggest in grand final history
  • The total of 50 points (crushing the 38.5 line) was the equal-second-most in a grand final (the record is 54, in Newcastle’s 30-24 win over Parramatta in 2001)
  • Brisbane’s 24 points was the equal-highest by a losing team in a grand final (with Parramatta, 2001)
  • The 36 points piled on in the second stanza was a record for a half of grand final football
  • Ezra Mam’s hat-trick was just the fifth in the mandatory grand final era – after St George’s Eddie Lumsden (1959 and ’61), Brisbane’s Steve Renouf (1997 Super League) and Michael Robertson (2008) – while it was the first from a player on a losing team and, clocking in at just 11 minutes, the fastest
  • Stephen Crichton scored in the grand final for a fourth consecutive year, the second-longest streak after St George winger Johnny King’s famous run of crossing in six straight deciders (1960-65)
  • Nathan Cleary became just the third player after Bradley Clyde (1989 and ’91) and Billy Slater (2009 and ’17) to win two Clive Churchill Medals
  • Penrith becomes the first team in 40 years (Parramatta 1981-83) to win three straight grand finals
  • Ivan Cleary joins Parramatta’s Jack Gibson (1981-83) as the only non-playing coach to win three consecutive grand finals, while Panthers co-captains Cleary and Isaah Yeo join the Dragons’ Ken Kearney (1956-60) and Norm Provan (1962-65), and the Eels’ Steve Edge (1981-83) as the only threepeat skippers.

Brave Broncos stall on big stage despite Mam brilliance

Brisbane’s performance is destined to go down as the finest by a losing grand final team, with no other runner-up engendering more sympathy since Balmain’s 1989 heartbreak.

The error-riddled Broncos defended their line spectacularly under a Panthers first-half barrage and created a scarcely believable 8-6 halftime scoreline courtesy of Tom Flegler’s powerhouse try.

Ezra Mam’s blazing hat-trick will live on in grand final folklore, despite the result. Jesse Arthars and Herbie Farnworth played out of their skins. Payne Haas and Pat Carrigan couldn’t have done much more.

They would have beaten most other teams from grand finals down the years.

But the painstaking reality is their two linchpins and match-winners struggled to aim up across the 80 minutes. Adam Reynolds – hampered by a groin injury suffered mid-match – was unable to exert his usual influence and calm his effervescent troops, while two botched line dropouts proved costly.

Reece Walsh exploded to set up Mam’s third and looked dangerous with every touch, but he was unmistakably quiet and superbly shut down by the Panthers, who twice forced him back into the in-goal and kept close tabs on him to thwart the No.1’s usual threat on the edges.

On the surface, the Broncos have all the tools to go one better in 2024 and create their own dynasty. But how they bounce back from this shattering defeat, without Farnworth and Flegler, remains to be seen. The great grand final hard-luck stories – the ’89 Tigers, the ’97 Sea Eagles, the ’99 Dragons and to a lesser extent the ’15 Broncos – all endured sharp declines in their follow-up season…and the ’23 Broncos have more demons to exorcise than most after being on the wrong end of the biggest-ever collapse in a premiership decider.

Panthers climb the ranks of best ever

This Penrith outfit’s place in history as one of the greatest teams of all time is well assured.

Four straight grand finals, three minor premierships and a historic title threepeat – a collective achievement no other side in the salary cap era can come close to.

One of the most impressive aspect of the Panthers’ reign is that they’re self-made: just one member of Sunday’s starting line-up has played at NRL level for another club.

To beat Brisbane, they had to produce incredible resolve. A slender lead that did not reflect their first-half dominance turned into a 16-point deficit in a flash – an unfamiliar position for this Penrith side. Injury setbacks played into their plight, too, with Jarome Luai’s night ending with half an hour left and Isaah Yeo forced off for an HIA.

Of course, the comeback of all grand final comebacks was engineered by Nathan Cleary, who defied a disastrous start to the second half defensively to pull off a string of massive plays, setting up two tries then scoring the 77th-minute match-winner himself. In 18 Churchillian minutes he went from modern great to future Immortal.

But the Panthers are no one-man band. Dylan Edwards was monumental in a 300-metre performance that would have garnered another Churchill Medal most years. James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota confirmed their status as one of the great front-row pairings. Stephen Crichton came up with another colossal big-match display in his final game for the club. Liam Martin was typically outstanding, while role-players Mitch Kenny and Jack Cogger played above themselves in the hottest of pressure-cookers.

As the celebrations die down, attention will turn to achieving four consecutive premierships, which would leave them behind only South Sydney (five straight from 1925-29) and St George (11 straight from 1956-66) in the code’s history.

Grand final rematch the early tip for ’24

A cut above this season, the Panthers and Broncos opened as red-hot favourites for another showdown in the 2024, with perennial big guns the Storm, Rabbitohs and Roosters in next bracket. The Cowboys, Sharks and Eels remain relatively highly rated despite their respective declines this year, while the Warriors’ and Knights’ watershed campaigns weren’t enough to promote them into the top tier of contenders for next season – though they are two of just six teams to open at a shorter price than they were in the 2023 pre-season. The Raiders are expected to slide, while some improvement from the Bulldogs is anticipated.

2024 NRL PREMIERSHIP ODDS

TEAMCURRENT PRICE2023 PRE-SEASON PRICE
Penrith Panthers$3.75$4.00
Brisbane Broncos$4.50$17
Melbourne Storm$9.00$7.00
South Sydney Rabbitohs$9.00$11
Sydney Roosters$9.00$6.50
North Queensland Cowboys$15$11
Cronulla Sharks$21$10
Parramatta Eels$21$13
New Zealand Warriors$23$51
Newcastle Knights$26$67
Manly Sea Eagles$31$21
Canterbury Bulldogs$46$21
Gold Coast Titans$51$41
Canberra Raiders$61$26
Dolphins$61$67
Wests Tigers$101$26
St George Illawarra Dragons$101$41
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