Penrith Panthers have won a thrilling NRL grand final at Lang Park, beating South Sydney Rabbitohs 14-12.
Penrith, having led 8-6 at half-time, held on after a frenetic contest played at a tremendous tempo that captivated the 39,322-strong, COVID-limited Lang Park crowd.
Nathan Cleary, who won the Clive Churchill Medal for best on ground off the back of a tremendous kicking display that kept the pressure on the Rabbitohs throughout, was euphoric post-match.
“This doesn’t even feel real. I’m pinching myself,” Cleary told ABC Sport after the game.
Despite playing an NRL grand final in Brisbane for the first time, fans of both sides packed the stands at either end, the flag-waving masses helping to create a tremendous atmosphere.
It is Penrith’s first premiership since 2003 and third overall, and the scenes of jubilation that greeted the final whistle —both in the stands and on the field — showed the disappointment of last year’s decider was firmly behind them.
“The loss in the grand final last year, that really hurt,” Ivan Cleary told ABC after the game.
“It’s one thing to say you want to make up for it, but it’s so hard to get back here.
Souths, having beaten Penrith in the first week of the finals, were supposed to benefit from the extra rest their 16-10 victory in that game earned them.
However, the Panthers were relentless in both defence and attack, rushing to the line and forcing the Rabbitohs back with huge hit after huge hit, belying their supposed fatigue and never allowing Souths to settle.
Penrith swarmed the Rabbitohs in defence, forcing Souths into energy-sapping runs away from their own in-goal that would eventually tell.
In the opening 10 minutes, the Panthers forced two goal-line restarts off the back of some immaculate kicking by Cleary.
A third resulted in the opening try of the game, Matt Burton running onto a perfect Jarome Luai pass to burst through a massive hole in the Souths defence, drained by the repeat sets, bewildered by an excellent lead run by Liam Martin.
Cody Walker hit back almost instantly with a stunning solo try to flip the momentum of the contest on its head.
Souths might have been denied territory, but Cody Walker ignored that to capitalise with one of the Rabbitohs’ only entries to the Panthers 20.
He ran onto an Adam Reynolds pass before cruising past three despairing Panthers, including a dismissive shove on Cleary before accelerating past Dylan Edwards to score a wonderful solo try.
Cleary and Reynolds exchanged penalty goals either side of half-time, leaving the sides locked at 8-8 for the majority of a excruciatingly tight second half.
The tightness and tension of the occasion demanded that any mistakes be brutally punished — and it looked like that mistake would be Walker’s.
His floating pass wide was intercepted by Stephen Crichton, who romped home from 40 metres out to give Penrith a telling advantage with little over 10 minutes remaining.
Souths then threw caution to the wind and scored a sensational try through Alex Johnston, having moved the ball nicely down their left side through quick hands by Walker and Dane Gagai.
Reynolds would have backed himself to nail the conversion from the sideline, as he has done on countless occasions, but it went wide by the narrowest of margins in the tightest of grand finals.
Reynolds was then unsuccessful with a two-point field goal attempt in the final minute, sparking delirious celebrations among the Panthers fans at the Caxton Street end of the ground.
A devastated Reynolds crumpled to the ground at the siren, his efforts in a beaten side deserving more from an exhilarating contest.
“Sorry we couldn’t get the job done tonight,” the Brisbane-bound half said.
Penrith coach van Cleary rejoiced in his side’s performance, paying credit to the five injured players in the side.
“This finals series, we had five blokes who wouldn’t normally play … the bravery of these boys is amazing,” he said.
One of those players was his son Nathan, who will need shoulder surgery in the off season.
“That was like I was in a dream up there,” Cleary said of Nathan winning the Clive Churchill.
“So proud of him.”