The pinnacle of the Australian rugby league season saw the top two sides in the competition, the Penrith Panthers and the Brisbane Broncos, take the field at the Accor Stadium in Sydney for the 2023 Grand Final as the Panthers looked to secure their third consecutive trophy against the side who last picked up the ultimate prize back in 2006.
Whoever won todays game would join the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters who have both won the competition on four occasions in the modern era, but the bookies were favouring the Panthers as they handicapped them by four points on the coupon.
The Broncos won the opening match of the season against the Panthers by a single point, but the Panthers were triumphant in round twelve, it promised to be a classic between two evenly matched sides as the best in the competition went head to head.
A raucous full house welcomed the sides onto the field on a clear spring evening to strains of Hells Bells by AC/DC.
A brutal opening six minutes lived up to the pre-match billing. The first real chance came after a sensational 40-20 from Billy Walters put the Broncos within striking distance but a wayward pass saw an overstretched winger Jesse Arthars slip into touch.
A couple of handling mistakes from the Broncos put Penrith on the offensive on ten minutes but this time it was Brisbane´s turn to block their advance through stubborn defence.
An error at the play the ball by Kotoni Staggs gifted the Panthers the ball from a scrum on the ten-metre line and Penrith forced a drop-out. A short drop out was tapped back by Herbie Farnworth, and after a single bounce Mitch Kenny picked up the ball unchallenged and walked over from five metres for the opening score of the game. Stephen Crichton took the conversion and added the extras as regular goal kicker Nathan Cleary seemed to be nursing an injury.
Penrith added a penalty on twenty-nine, this one from the boot of Cleary, after a Reynolds goal-line drop-out went out on the full. All eight Panthers points coming from errors at the drop-out.
With two minutes of the half remaining the Broncos opened their grand final account when Thomas Flegler took a Tyson Smoothy pass to cross under the sticks after great pressure on the Panthers line. Adam Reynolds added the conversion, and the sides went into the sheds separated by just two points after a half dominated by Penrith.
The Broncos hit the front on forty-five with a superb fifty metre solo run and dive over in the left corner from Ezra Mam as he carved through the Penrith defensive line. Adam Reynolds added the conversion from wide for a 12-8 lead.
On fifty-two Mam was in again as he stepped off his left foot and went through a gap to sprint in from thirty metres. This try was much closer to the sticks as he gave Reynolds a simple conversion. Just as the first half had been all Penrith, the second was being controlled by the Broncos.
A ten-minute hat-trick for Mam was completed on fifty-five as he took a Reece Walsh inside pass to go in from thirty. Reyolds added the conversion, and it was looking like it was all over as a competition, Penrith being blitzed.
Nathan Cleary’s skill grabbed a lifeline for the Panthers as he dummied and broke the line before finding Moses Leota inside to score from twenty metres. Cleary added the conversion, and the arrears were down to ten points.
On sixty-seven the Panthers were in again with Stephen Crichton running the angle from twenty metres and pushing off his tackler to roll over the line and ground. Cleary added the goal from wide and now it was a four-point game with eleven minutes remaining.
Reynolds put a kick out on the full and gifted possession back to Penrith deep inside their half, but the Broncos defence held strong and kept the attack at bay.
The Broncos were forced to drop out on seventy-five and in the fourth tackle Cleary scooted from acting half back and jinked through three tacklers to dive over under the sticks to give himself a simple kick to put Penrith back into the lead with just two minutes remaining.
Penrith managed to hang on until the final hooter to signify a third consecutive grand final win after the biggest ever grand final comeback in the competition’s history.
It was simply a sensational Grand Final which swung one way and then the other with Penrith totally dominating the first half, Brisbane blasting through the Penrith defence at the start of the second and then the most amazing of fightbacks to seal the win and lift the trophy.
Brisbane have only themselves to blame for squandering a sixteen point lead and allowing three unanswered tries from the Panthers, the Panthers will count this as the most impressive win of their back-to-back three as they continue their incredible 2020's decade at the peak of the Australian game.
Penrith Panthers: Edwards, Turuva, Tago, Crichton (T, G), To’o, Luai, Cleary (T, 4G), Leota (T), Kenny (T), Fisher-Harris, Sorensen, Martin, Yeo. Subs: Cogger, Smith, Leniu, Garner. 18th Man: Peachey.
Brisbane Broncos: Walsh, Arthars, Staggs, Farnworth, Cobbo, Mam (3T), Reynolds (4G), Flegler (T), Walters, Haas, Capewell, Riki, Carrigan. Subs: Smoothy, Piakura, Hetherington, Palasia. 18th Man: Oates.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 8-0, 8-4, 8-6 : HT: 8-10, 8-12, 8-18, 8-18, 8-22, 8-24, 12-24, 14-24, 18-24, 20-24, 24-24, 26-24 :FT.
Lead Exchanges: Penrith – Brisbane – Square - Penrith.
Referee: Adam Gee.