Socrates doesn’t normally comment on common, garden variety, pro sports news… but he got his analysis so wrong, on this occasion, that he couldn’t keep himself away from his keyboard. How did your prediction go? Did you predict the NRL Grand Final scenario? Over to Socrates for his description of the one he got wrong.
The third scenario… the one I didn’t see coming… was the story of last night National Rugby League Grand Final. I haven’t seen a major event outcome as surprising as this since Nero won the Chariot 1500 at the 67 AD Olympics.
I am the first to admit that I am a lousy judge, but I only saw two possible scenarios playing out in the Sunday arvo GF. Only two… and one slightly more likely than the other.
Most of the first forty minutes conformed to what I saw as the most likely scenario for the NRL’s final game of the season. I predicted that Penrith’s superior efficiency in offence and defence… their relentless team proficiency in most aspects of the game… would outdo Brisbane’s individual player brilliance.
With an 8 – 6 half time lead, to the Panthers, it looked like I was bang on target.
Offensively, Penrith are always unrelenting. While rarely gob-smackingly startling in attack, they never give their opponents any rest. Most NRL teams manage four hit-ups, one set play and a kick in each set of six tackles. Not Penrith. The Panthers team challenge the defense on every single tackle. There is no let up.
Predictable… but it works
Luai, for example, has two stock plays. Both are predictable and easy to read. Sometimes he simply swings the ball as fast as possible to his outside man. Alternatively, he darts to the left of his defender then suddenly bounces back to the right with a huge step to either charge at a resulting gap or change the direction of the play by linking up with teammates on his right. Predictable or not, such a play conforms to the effective Penrith principle of involving as many players as possible in each play and to do it with the optimum energy. Some people say boring. But it works. Even when such plays do not result in a line break or a try, they sap defensive energy. The very next tackle will do something similar. And the next again. No let up!
The same can be said for the Penrith defense. It’s unrelenting. Smothering. For every yard an opposition runner makes, there is one of the smaller Penrith players ready to pick up the player by the legs and, with the assistance of a couple of large forwards, carry that attacking player as far back as the referee will allow. The Panthers have also perfected the Melbourne “tackle hold down” to a point that the Storm, even in their wrestling hey-day, never achieved. Cleary’s sublime kicking game is central to this defensive strategy of keeping opponents as far away from the try line as is humanly possible.
Brisbane run riot!
That’s what happened in the first half of the big game. Efficiency in offense and defense (and good kicking from the coach’s son) did the job and Penrith were in the box seat. Not blisteringly good, but on top, none the less. Just as predicted.
After the break, my second most likely scenario came to the fore. I predicted that if Penrith did not bring their very best game, the individual brilliance of Brisbane would do them in. As the third quarter drew to a close it looked like my back up prediction was going to be the right one. The Brisbane, (under the leadership of half-back Reynolds), back line ran riot with Ezra Mam seemingly putting the flagging Panthers to the sword with three tries. The score with twenty-three minutes to go? Brisbane 24, Penrith 8.
I was ready to pat myself on the back with the knowledge that I had read the outcome of the game nearly perfectly. While I had predicted a Penrith win, my suggestion that if the Panthers were unable to maintain their maximum pressure approach to the game, Brisbane would have too much fire-power for the reigning champions. With eighteen unanswered points to the Broncos, the Panthers were shot!
Nup. Smarty-pants was wrong. Dead wrong. And the scenario that unfolded in the final twenty minutes I didn’t even remotely see coming.
Back into the grind?
After the game, various Penrith players were heard to say things like, “the boys dug deep”, “the boys got back into the grind”, “the boys left nothing out there”, “the boys brought it home” and “I’m so proud of the boys.”
“The boys” turning the game around in the final quarter was not the scenario that I saw unfold. I don’t think “the boys” had anything to do with it. The scenario that I saw unfold was “the boy” (singular) in the form of Nathan Cleary, seeing that the game was almost done, and realizing that he had nothing to lose, decided that he would have to take things into his own hands. Over the final twenty minutes he almost single-handedly (let’s give a smidgen of credit to Crichton, perhaps) took the Bronco’s apart.
In any other GF it would have been Ezra’s medal
Never has a half back… or any other team member for that matter, I suspect… so individually changed the course of a Rugby League grand final. Not only was it his forty-twenty that completely changed the momentum of the match… plus his lone effort to score a try with only two minutes left on the clock to ice the game… that made Cleary’s effort beyond outstanding, because he also played a leading role in the setting up of the two tries that bridged these two momentous events. Before yesterday I didn’t even consider Cleary an elite ball-running half. To me he was more of an organizer, a kicker, and a play-maker. How wrong I was. The bloke can do anything. In any other grand final the Broncos Ezra Mam would have done more than enough to win a Churchill Medal. Not this year.
I may have gotten it completely wrong in that I didn’t even come close to predicting this outcome, but I can take consolation in the fact that I have seen one of the most improbable conclusions to a sports match of all time. Sorry Panthers “boys” but it wasn’t you who won the 2023 NRL Grand Final. It was “the boy” Cleary who cruelly and emphatically ripped it out of the Brisbane team’s hands.