NRL Grand Final 2023: Calls for Nathan Cleary to be an Immortal after Penrith Panthers three-peat, rugby league CV

Nathan Cleary will be a rugby league Immortal one day.

The star halfback wrote himself into folklore by almost single-handedly steering Penrith to a thrilling 26-24 comeback over the Brisbane Broncos to claim a historic premiership three-peat.

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With 20 minutes to go, the Panthers looked down and out. Enter Cleary.

He made a line break to set up Moses Leota for a try before nailing a 40-20 to gain crucial field position.

The Panthers nearly lost control of the ball on Brisbane’s defensive line, only for Cleary to flick the ball backwards as it found Stephen Crichton, who used brute strength to contort himself over the line.

Cleary was everywhere, taking an errant line dropout on the full on the sideline to set up another charge forward.

Then came his crowning moment. With three minutes remaining, Cleary sliced through a tired Broncos defence to score — using his footy IQ to ground the ball between the posts to ensure there was no way he could miss the matchwinning conversion.

It was possibly the greatest 30 minutes of football produced by a player in a Grand Final, especially if you consider Cleary’s defensive lapses that led to Ezra Mam’s earlier tries.

The one criticism of Cleary has been he is a somewhat boring, albeit supremely clinical player compared to the likes of Johnathan Thurston or Andrew Johns.

Before this Grand Final, could you name a signature Nathan Cleary play or game?

His two-point field goal against Parramatta last season was epic, but it came in a regular season loss.

Where was his Billy Slater chip and chase State of Origin try? Or a moment like Joey Johns’ last-gasp dummy down the blindside to win the premiership for Newcastle in 1997?

But Cleary finally got his legacy defining moment, turning the game on its head in a way only the likes of Michael Jordan, Lionel Messi and Tom Brady have.

The praise came thick and fast for the halfback, with many predicting he is a certainty to become the next Immortal when he retires.

“Nathan Cleary has just elevated himself into NRL immortality,” Johns said in commentary on Channel 9.

Phil Gould posted on social media: “Most of the best halves and playmakers in the NRL are well into their 30s. Nathan Cleary is 25yo. Let that sink in. Legendary performance tonight. Amazing comeback.”

Sports journalist Mark Gottlieb said: “If Joey got almost instant Immortal status the moment he retired they’ll be elevating Cleary to an Immortal before next season at this rate.”

Commentator Sam Hewat said: “I cannot reiterate how insane that was from Cleary. All without his number 6 on the field. He WILL be an immortal, no question.”

The ABC’s Zane Bojack added: “One of the most supreme performances by a number 7 in a grand final ever.. he has willed the Panthers to the title.. Nathan Cleary, future immortal.”

Johns was named an Immortal in 2012, relatively soon after his retirement, but there might be a few other legends ahead of Cleary in the queue.

Cleary has surpassed Cooper Cronk (who won a lazy six grand finals) to put himself alongside Peter Sterling, Ricky Stuart, Thurston and Johns in the debate for who is the best No. 7 ever.

Broncos great Darren Lockyer, NRL games record holder Cameron Smith and Cowboys legend Thurston are all near certainties to eventually receive rugby league’s highest honour.

If Cleary can conjure another premiership or two as the Panthers continue to feel the salary cap squeeze, he will elevate himself to another stratosphere and make his Immortal case undeniable.

Cleary is yet to win a Dally M Medal, largely because he plays in the same team as Isaah Yeo and Dylan Edwards and misses club games for Origin duties.

Whether he wins a Dally M probably won’t matter to his Immortal case.

And just wait until he finally dominates an Origin series.

List of NRL Immortals

Clive Churchill

John Raper

Reg Gasnier

Bob Fulton

Graeme Langlands

Wally Lewis

Arthur Beetson

Dally Messenger

Frank Burge

Dave Brown

Norm Provan

Mal Meninga

Andrew Johns

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