No Final Score for Coaching but this was Golden Point!
This Penrith side would have beaten Queensland.
You cannot imagine the hunger in a team that has been the best in the competition for two seasons, has fallen short once, and been made to take the long road the second time.
A team with all the talent, hardness, and desire to be called the best in the toughest contest in the realm of contact sports.
The Panthers just about swept the pools in the Dally M’s. And almost half the team were Origin players.
They have the competition's most underrated coach and its best playmaker.
And then they came out and played the game of their lives.
Put all of that and hindsight together, and Penrith was never going to lose this game. It shouldn’t have even been a contest. Yet it became one of the great Grand Finals. The South Sydney Rabbitohs were the only team in this year’s competition that could have stayed in this contest till the final bell.
In the first half, they absorbed one of the most dominant displays by a Grand Final opponent and somehow staggered into halftime only two points down. They were flattered by a scoreline courtesy of a stroke of luck from the stray forearm of Kikau, and a piece of classic Cody Walker brilliance.
But when the half-time whistle blew a reprieve to a flagging South Sydney, there had really only been one team in the contest.
What kept them in the game up to that point had them looking like a different side in the second half. Words from the old master, conjuring inspiration in spheres that even Wayne Bennett himself couldn’t fully comprehend.
As often happens in the big games, half-time changed the momentum, and Souths came out ready to seriously test the competition's best defense. They were better from the resumption. They found space up the middle and wrestled back possession and field position.
Souths were the better team for long passages of the second half.
Wayne, as he always does, made his players share in a belief that no pragmatist would have. He gave them the formula to defy the odds and a team’s ultimate destiny. And they almost pulled it off.
For us mere mortals, it produced a contest for the ages.
So that is credit where it is due to Wayne and his team. But the story really isn’t about him. Grand Finals are ultimately about winners. And sometimes about the dawn of a new era.
Ivan Cleary has been one of the best coaches in the competition for a decade.
Like Wayne in his early coaching years, there has been criticism of his manner and his lack of engagement with the media. It is unfair criticism because he is who he is.
There were claims that statistically he was too old and had coached too many NRL games to win a competition. Like the theory you need to win in week one of the finals, that has been put to bed.
When it comes to instilling belief in your players, where does this rank in Ivan’s coaching performances?
There were a dozen reasons for this team to start to think they were going to be denied once again.
They were busted and seemingly starting the game with only half a tank of gas. Yet they were the more energetic in the first half, and at their grittiest best in the second.
There were moments that swung the contest, with Stephens Crichton’s intercept the obvious difference. And for both teams, there were individual performances that will be spoken about throughout the off-season.
In such a grueling and energy-sapping contest, the big men made their mark. Tom Burgess was inspirational for Souths.
For Penrith, I give the quiet achiever award to Viliame Kikau. He seems to have lost his potency in attack, but his defense in this game was colossal. He played more like a lock than a second-rower, chopping down attackers around the ruck. For such a big man, he must be one of the best ‘bootlace' tacklers in the game. Not only did he push himself to the limit in defense, but he also made some crucial tackles that snuffed out building danger from the opposition.
Performances like this made the difference. And all the while, Nathan Cleary quietly went about doing what he does. He continually put his team where it needed to be on the field, and this ultimately kept Souths out of the contest.
One thing Wayne Bennett has never done is coach his son to a Grand Final victory. The pressure on father and son must have been immense. It would have been all-consuming if not for the psyche that exists in these two unique individuals. The outside noise was deafening for everyone else. But the Cleary’s calmly kept the volume down.
To be a premiership-winning coach was Ivan’s destiny. It maybe could have come sooner, but this will be all the sweeter. It might be called the pinnacle of his career, yet he is still young enough to achieve so much more.
And his manner won’t change too much. He won’t be paying close attention to what everyone else is saying. He will go on doing just what he does, away from all the criticism and the noise.
Leave the fairy tales and the romance to the press and the elder legends of the game. This ending is real. Ivan Cleary is now where he was always destined to be.