Nathan Cleary described the opening 20 minutes of the second half of the grand final as some of the worst footy he’s ever played.
But what happened next is why he’s on the verge of NRL immortality and being described as the “best player in the world, full stop”.
The Panthers halfback has achieved more by the age of 25 than most players can ever dream about, and he can now be mentioned in the same sentence as the great Andrew Johns who described Cleary’s efforts in the 26-24 win over Brisbane as “the greatest performance by a halfback in a grand final”.
It’s something no one saw coming with 20 minutes to go with Penrith down 24-8 and their quest for a third-straight title seemingly over after Broncos young gun Ezra Mam torched them with a 10-minute hat-trick.
Cleary was at fault for two of those tries but flushed the missed tackles and vowed to carry his team to victory in perhaps the best 20-minute burst we’ve ever seen.
It started with a line break to set up Moses Leota, he then kicked a 40/20, put Stephen Crichton over for the fourth grand final in a row and then did it all himself with three minutes remaining to break Broncos hearts across the country.
“He’s the best player in the world, full stop,” halves partner Jarome Luai said having spent the final 30 minutes on the bench with a shoulder injury.
“We spoke on the bench and I asked Peach (Tyrone Peachey) ‘do you believe?’
“I don’t think anyone gave us a chance down by 16 points with 20 to go and the Broncos on fire, but when you’ve got that No.7 in your team, you can never count that team out.”
For Cleary, this was a case of redemption three years in the making after he threw an interception that led to a Storm try in the 2020 decider that ultimately proved the difference on the scoreboard.
What he’s achieved since then has been unprecedented, and he says that harrowing moment three years ago helped him drag his side to victory this time around.
“It’s honestly a whirlwind right now,” said Cleary, who has lost eight club games since that heartbreaking grand final.
“It’s pretty crazy and I don’t really have words to describe it. It feels like a dream.
“I think the 20 minutes before it was close to the worst I’ve ever played, so it was nice to finish on a high.
“My experiences from the past – particularly that 2020 Storm grand final – helped me to be in the game at the end of this one.
“Sometimes things feel sh*t at the time like it did in that 2020 game, but I think it’s made me who I am today.”
His dad had the best seat in the house for the comeback, and while Panthers coach Ivan Cleary questioned whether his side would do it with Brisbane in total control, he noticed something from his son that gave him confidence that they could.
“The start of the second half weren’t his best moments, but I did see his face on the big screen after a try when he was coming back for a kick-off and I thought to myself that he actually looked really clear,” he said.
“If you look at the 2020 grand final, he wasn’t, so I thought that was good news.
“I didn’t think (we would see) what happened after that, but that explains the lessons he learnt gave him the clarity to go after it.”
The representative No.7 finished the night with his second Clive Churchill Medal and officially removed the word “fraud” from the vocabulary of the last few doubters who questioned whether he was an elite halfback.
“I don’t like rapping him when he’s sitting here, but I just feel like what he’s done in this space of time, there’s been no other halfback who has done it,” co-captain Isaah Yeo said.
“I reckon if you put his statistics up against any other halfback that’s played at this point with him being 25, no one has done what he’s done.
“That 20-minute period he put the team on his back and he’s won us our third grand final in a row.
“It’s a privilege to play with him.”