NRL Grand FInal 2023: Nathan Cleary wins Clive Churchill Medal, second half display, reaction, Panthers defeat Broncos

Nathan Cleary has cemented his place in rugby league folklore as one of the greatest players of all time, becoming just the second player in the modern era to win two Clive Churchill Medals.

Playing one of the greatest halves of football the sport has ever seen, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat almost single-handedly.

Staring down a 16-point deficit with 17 minutes left in the second half, Cleary took matters into his own hands, brushing off Kurt Capewell and putting Moses Leota over for a try against the run of play before booting a 40-20 off the third tackle of the next set, and throwing the last pass to send Stephen Crichton over.

With the Panthers down four with two minutes left, Cleary took on Adam Reynolds inside after beating down on a tired Broncos defensive unit for almost 10 minutes.

Cleary threw a dummy, stepped off his left and into a glaring space under the posts.

The inevitable occurred with the man of the moment, taking the ball over the line to level the scores, and converting from straight in front to complete a historic third straight Premiership for Penrith – the first in the NRL era.

Cleary has been explicit in his chase for greatness, declaring earlier this year that he wanted to be the best the sport had ever seen.

“I wouldn’t say it motivates me, but it’s something I want to get to,” Cleary told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“It’s something I want for myself. I feel like if I can get the best out of myself, then I could play to a level that may be considered great or in that conversation.”

Cleary, still only 25 years of age, sees no end or limit to the achievement possible for him in the sport, reacting to the award with another statement of intent, and paying tribute to the Broncos.

“It honestly doesn’t feel real right now. Can’t wait for it to set in. To the Broncos boys, absolute beast team … very young,” he said.

“Shoutout to Ezra Mam as well. You’re a freak. Thank you for that game, it’s the hardest game I have ever played.

“To our boys it’s nothing but love. We work so hard for this.

“We are still getting started, let’s go.”

The NRL world was stunned by Cleary’s second half.

News Corp’s Tim Michell said: “Nathan Cleary has just produced one of the greatest 20 minutes into Aussie sporting history.”

Nine’s Mark Gottlieb said: “Nathan Cleary. Wow! I’m in awe. You can never question him again. This is a superhuman performance. Out of this world. Unbelievable. I’m speechless.”

Rugby league Immortal Andrew Johns said the last 20 minutes put Cleary among the greatest halves of football by a halfback in a grand final.

“Nathan Cleary has just elevated himself into NRL immortality,” Johns said.

Mat Thompson said of Cleary’s masterclass: “He’s just elevated himself into champion status.

“This is beyond belief. There is disbelief about what they have achieved tonight. It looked like they were going to lose by 30.”

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