Eamonn Tiernan is the NRL Editor at foxsports.com.au and he writes Extra Time fortnightly.
Broncos coach Kevin Walters has opened up on the haters after breaking the shackles and making his first NRL grand final as a head coach.
For reasons nobody has ever been able to truly explain, the man who won six premierships as a player – yes six – has always been doubted as a coach.
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Walters’ ability has been questioned since he took the reins in 2020 from Anthony Seibold, who had just overseen Brisbane’s only wooden spoon in club history.
The critics started as external voices before two of his players – Selwyn Cobbo and Tyson Gamble – dropped scathing assessments, in separate podcast interviews, of Walters as a coach.
After their comments went viral, both players apologised profusely and retracted them but the damage had been done and the slights stung Walters.
Nevertheless, he kept coaching his way and now less than three years after being appointed Walters has taken the Broncos to their first grand final since 2015.
If Walters’ men can stop the Panthers’ threepeat on Sunday night then he’ll become the first person to win an NRL title as both a player and coach.
Despite the incredible turnaround, some critics still refuse to pay their respects to Walters and claim he’s a frontman for halfback Adam Reynolds who is the real captain-coach.
Walters is well aware of the sledge but the 55-year-old emphasised he has always believed in his ability to coach and plan for the powerhouse club.
“That stuff has been said, yes, but you don’t really listen to those people or those comments,” Walters told foxsports.com.au.
“I always had a good firm view and sight on where we were trying to get to and more importantly how we could get there.
“I’m not out to prove people wrong, I want this club to be successful and not just this year but for many years to come.”
The criticism of Walters infuriates his son Billy, who has been Bisbane’s most improved player in 2023, but that didn’t surprise the old man.
“Yeah we’re a pretty tight mob, the Walters gang, we’ve got each other’s backs,” Kevvie said.
“People will always criticise, regardless of results or whatever so we just block it out and get on with things and I’m really happy for Bill that he’s in a position now to play in a grand final which is a really special thing for him.
“It’s special for everyone involved at the club to get into the grand final but this club is about winning grand finals, it’s not about making them.
“We want to do something special – it’s not just about getting here – it’s about doing something special on Sunday.”
Walters is confident his club can replicate the success of the Panthers who are playing in their fourth straight grand final on Sunday, despite losing stars every year to salary cap pressure.
The Broncos are facing their own cap squeeze with several young guns, including Reece Walsh and Ezra Mam, tripling their value this season.
“It’s lots of people working together to make sure we do get it right and that we get the right numbers on the contracts for the players and get the right roster,” Walters said.
Cronk rates Cleary & Reynolds before GF | 01:17
“A lot of things have to go right and we have to get that right for that to happen.”
Penrith seemingly have a conveyor belt of talent that just keeps producing, but Walters said there was no need to replicate Ivan Cleary’s club because it already exists in Brisbane.
“Without disrespecting Penrith, we’ve always had a great production line here at the Broncos,” Walters said.
“If you look across all the clubs you can see how many quality Brisbane players there are at other clubs.
“Guys playing NRL, playing Origin, winning trophies, so it’s about hanging onto those players in the future and making sure we keep the right people in the building.
“We’ve always had a good lineup of junior players coming through, it’s a matter of hanging onto those players and making sure they progress through like these boys have.”
WILL A THREEPEAT MAKE CLEARY THE GOAT?
Where does Eels legend Peter Sterling sit in the pantheon of rugby league greats?
It’s a question Panthers No. 7 Nathan Cleary might be quietly asking himself before he goes to bed on Saturday night.
Cleary is on the cusp of leading his side to a once-in-a-generation feat, with Penrith just 80 minutes away from three straight premierships.
It hasn’t been done since Sterling led Parramatta to a trifecta of titles between 1981-83.
If Cleary can replicate that feat in the salary-cap era, then few will dispute his name becoming a permanent fixture in the GOAT conversation.
At just 25 he’ll be mentioned in the same breath as Wally Lewis, Andrew Johns, Mal Meninga, Arthur Beetson and Sterling.
But more importantly, if Cleary continues on his trajectory then he’ll leave everyone in his wake according to former champions Mal Meninga, Greg Alexander and Corey Parker.
Cleary has already won two premierships, several State of Origin series with NSW and a World Cup with the Kangaroos.
“People only remember (Andrew) Johns and (Johnathan) Thurston at the back end of their career… nobody remembers where they started,” Broncos great Parker told foxsports.com.au.
“Cooper Cronk was a 14 coming off the bench just doing a job… Nathan Cleary is the only exception and he will surpass every one of those players, he’ll be the greatest No. 7 the game has ever seen if he’s able to continue on the trajectory he’s on right now.
“Nobody will come close.”
The only prize that eludes Cleary is the Dally M Medal, but if he stays fit the game’s highest individual honour is not a matter of if, but when.
It’s tough comparing eras because the game has become so professional, but Alexander said you’d be hard pressed finding a player more clinical than Cleary.
“He’s always looking to improve. He showed right back in 2016 when he made his debut that he was going to be a special player and Nathan has continually driven himself to become a better player,” Alexander told foxsports.com.au.
“I’m so impressed with how he brings new things into his game when he’s got the ball. His deception, his ball-playing ability, his ability to go into the line, his kicking game, his defence, his goalkicking.
“It’s a long list of things that Nat’s very good at and he’s continually working on ways to break defences down, which is just another of the things that makes him a great player.
“He’s a great player because of who he is, the skills, the courage, the toughness. Even this year without Jarome Luai he realised he needed to run the ball more and he’s a dangerous runner.
“He’s strong and has footwork and just has that ability to get in-between defenders and trouble them and then he’s got the passing game as well.
“There’s not much he can’t do and he keeps driving himself which means that he’ll probably drive himself to be the best of all time.
Debate sparked over the value of Luai | 02:06
“I had a look at the numbers against people we think have been the best in the game and Nathan’s numbers certainly stack up.
“It would be someone courageous to say he won’t (end up the GOAT).”
Cleary’s Kangaroos coach Meninga told foxsports.com.au the only thing that can stop the halfback’s rise to the very top is the man himself.
“A wise man once said to me the secret to success is longevity,” Meninga said.
Cleary’s co-captain Isaah Yeo admitted he might be biased but said he struggled to think of any player in history who compares to Cleary.
“I don’t think there’s any halfback that has done what he has done at his age,” Yeo told foxsports.com.au.
“I won’t say it to his face, but I’ll certainly say it to you, what he’s done I don’t think it has really been done before by a 25-year-old and he’s still got so much footy in front of him.
“I feel like he’s getting better and better each year, it’s a privilege to play alongside him and I can’t rap him enough.”
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