The Panthers’ finals success has thrust both Nathan and Ivan Cleary in to the conversation for both the best halfback and coach of all time.
Brisbane and Penrith’s menacing forward packs are also set to go to war to decide who lifts the trophy at the end of the 2023 season.
Meanwhile, the Warriors’ resurgence has stolen the hearts of a nation, while the Panthers will be ready for whatever Reece Walsh throws at them.
Read on for all of the big talking points out of the NRL Preliminary Finals.
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PANTHERS STATEMENT THRUSTS BOTH CLEARYS INTO GOAT CHAT
The Penrith Panthers are through to their fourth straight grand final after producing a “statement” performance against the Storm, according to Michael Ennis, who also declared coach Ivan Cleary is “right there with” the best coaches in the game’s history.
While the Fox League panel marvelled over Penrith’s star players, club legend Greg Alexander quickly put the spotlight on Ivan for leading the seriously impressive feat.
“To do what they’ve done now, to win the minor premiership in a season where there was plenty of question marks over them coming into it because of the loss to some key players, both assistant coaches move on, Ivan Cleary gets two new assistant coaches and no one skips a beat,” he said.
“While you’re crediting the players, Ivan needs to be mentioned because he has done a remarkable job.
“To make your fourth straight grand final and lose big-name players, to bring new players in — unheralded players — and just to get the job done, Ivan really deserves to get a lot of credit.”
It sparked Ennis to question where Ivan now sits on the list of rugby league’s greatest coaches.
“Four straight grand finals and the exclamation mark is that these blokes are 23 to 24-years of age,” he said.
“Yet they’re still able to be motivated every single year to get through 27 weeks of the regular season and then dial in and get themselves back to this point where they’re going to play in another grand final.
“Where does that leave Ivan? Where does he fit in that conversation of great coaches? He’s right there with all of them.”
Making the Panthers’ achievements this season even more remarkable is the fact they’ve done it without Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau, who both left for rival clubs.
There were many who predicted the loss of that duo would really hurt the Panthers — James Graham was one of them — but the tight-knit team has proven their doubters wrong.
“When they lost Koroisau last year I genuinely questioned it, I thought ‘he’s the one, this is the breaking point, they’re back to the pack’,” Graham admitted.
“And they’re not. You could argue they’re better than they have been before.”
At the forefront of Penrith’s 38-4 win over Melbourne were co-captains Nathan Cleary and Isaah Yeo.
Matty Johns summed Nathan up as a “class act” after a performance that included a try, a try assist and many other try involvements, while Ennis believes the composed halfback produced “one of the great second halves.”
“His kicking game, his decision making and his ability to steer the side around and close out a preliminary final was exceptional,” Ennis said.
It comes just days after the 25-year-old revealed his ambition to become the greatest player of all time one day. And while he still has some way to go, champion halfback Cooper Cronk can see the potential to put him “in the conversation.”
“He’s doing things at 25 that some of the greatest players haven’t even got close to,” Cronk said.
“If he continues at this trajectory absolutely he’s in the conversation but right now his feet are planted exactly where they need to be.
“He’s the puppeteer of a very good football team and the chances of his team are in the palm of his hands.”
Yeo finished with a game-high of 166 metres, four tackle busts and 30 tackles — one miss — to be declared by Johns as the best player on the field.
“Brilliant player,” he said.
“He’s very much the compass, he will not give the ball sideways or to Nathan if something is not on — he’ll cop the bruise himself.
“In my opinion I think he’s the most intelligent player in the competition.”
‘Reece lightning’ IGNITES the burners! | 00:39
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THE CRUCIAL MIDDLE BATTLE
The Broncos and Panthers are set to face off in this year’s grand final in a huge clash of two imposing forward packs.
Penrith’s front rowers dominated the Storm’s middle on their way to a grand final, with James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota delivering barnstorming performances.
Brisbane’s trio of Payne Haas, Pat Carrigan and Tom Flegler were also impressive to down the Warriors.
But now they have an ever bigger job on their hands to down Penrith’s middle forwards, and former Warriors and Broncos winger Denan Kemp is yet to see a team achieve the feat.
“What I find interesting with Leota and Fisher-Harris, for years they’ve had a target on their back of I want to get one over those boys,” Kemp said on the Matty Johns show.
“I can’t remember anyone in the last three years who have put it over Leota and Fisher-Harris.”
“They just love the contest don’t they. It’s part of the culture in the west, they just love the contest,” Sam Burgess added.
Outside of the middle forwards, Eels legend Nathan Hindmarsh heaped praise on backrower Scott Sorensen and Liam Martin.
Penrith’s edge duo will also have their work cut out for them against former Panther Kurt Capewell and Jordan Riki.
“Every single one of them was superb. Liam Martin, Scott Sorenson was really strong again,” Matty Johns said.
“You got Fisher-Harris, Leota, you have all the big names in there and then you have players like Sorensen who is very, very handy,” Hindmarsh said.
“He can still produce something that other teams aren’t expecting because they’ve done all their homework on the big boppers, Liam Martin and all those and obviously Sorensen comes out and has a blinder.”
While every player has a role to play for the Panthers, both Johns and Burgess believe the Broncos have to shut down Yeo if they want to lift the trophy.
He was labelled “the best player on the field” by Matty Johns, running for a game-high 167 metres.
“He has just got every part of his game in balance,” Burgess said.
“They play physical but then all of a sudden when they are coming out of trouble and you want to play physical against them, he (Yeo) just steers the ship,” Johns said.
‘HOWLER!’: Broncos forward pass? | 00:47
WHY THE PANTHERS WILL BE ‘WAITING’ FOR WALSH
Broncos young gun Reece Walsh has been one of the NRL’s in-form players this season.
But now the speedy fullback comes up against the competition’s benchmark defensive line and Luke Keary issued a big warning to the 21-year-old.
The Roosters five-eighth is certain Ivan Cleary and his coaching staff will be plotting a plan to dampen his attacking output.
Walsh’s speed makes him a dangerous threat off the back of shape, consistently assisting tries for his wingers and centres.
However, Keary believes if any team can stop him, it’s the Panthers and stopping marquee players is crucial to grand final success.
“I can guarantee you, Ivan Cleary and Ben Gardiner the defensive coach, were sitting there tonight and they are going to formulate a plan to stop Brisbane,” Keary said.
“In particular Reece Walsh. We’ve seen it on the big stage numerous times.
“Jarryd Hayne in 2009, Ben Barba, Michael Morgan in 2017, these guys are having terrific seasons and the opposition is waiting for them with a plan.
“Penrith have been the best team over the last five years and they are going to come with a plan to stop Reece Walsh.
“It’s going to be fascinating to see how Penrith stop (him).”
While Walsh may have a target on his back, league legend Cooper Cronk believes the gun fullback is up to the task.
It would have been easy for Walsh to go in to his shell after throwing a wayward pass in to the path of Warriors winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
However, he “erupted” and took the game by the scruff of the neck, recording three try assists to down his old club.
“That first half was absolute chaos… (Walsh) threw an intercept for Watene-Zelezniak and I thought from my own experience that when you do that on the big stage, you put the gun back in the holster,” Cronk said.
“Walsh ended up with six line break assists and three try assists, he went on with it.”
‘I’m super proud of the boys’ | 11:12
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WEBSTER AND JOHNSON DELIVER AS ‘UP THE WAHS’ SWEEPS NATION
The resurgence of Shaun Johnson as an elite NRL halfback has been a sight to behold and one of his teammates says it will be a “stitch up” if the 33-year-old doesn’t win the Dally M Medal.
Johnson has aged like a fine wine in 2023 and produced career-best form under the tutelage of rookie coach Andrew Webster.
Warriors fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad believes Johnson is a certainty to take home the top prize at the Dally M Awards on Wednesday night.
“He’s going to win the Dally M bro, if he doesn’t it’s a stitch up,” Nicoll-Klokstad told foxsports.com.au.
Johnson has one year remaining on his contract and Luke Keary was asked on Fox League if the Kiwi playmaker can maintain form for years to come.
“I think he does, I’d put my money on that he does pick up the Dally M,” Keary said.
“He’s signed on for next year and they look good. Been through a lot the last few years the Warriors.
“They look like a different team this year, congratulations to Andrew Webster.
“He’s got the whole country behind them, take nothing away from them this year.”
‘Up the Wahs’ chats spread like wildfire this season and the Warriors’ redemption was one of the big stories of the season.
With many pundits tipping them to compete for the wooden spoon, Webster inspired the New Zealand side and took them all the way to the preliminary finals.
NRL great Cooper Cronk backed the Kiwis to build on their 2023 success and believes the best is yet to come.
“There’s a lot to be proud about if you’re a New Zealand player, administrator or fan,” Cronk said.
“From what they did last year to what they are doing now. The coach is in the conversation for the Dally M coach of the year award.
“You go through their list and they are all playing career-best football, and the biggest thing to come out of the year is the Warriors have caught the imagination of the country.
“They are the number one ticket in town and they will continue to do that again in the off-season.
“Would have been great to see them go on and play in the grand final, but there’s a lot to look forward to.
“Andrew Webster looks like a certainty to hold on and coach the Warriors for a while.”
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