October 1, 2023: Accor Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park
My beloved Brisbane Broncos made the National Rugby League (NRL) grand final for the first time since 2015. They were up against the might of Penrith Panthers – the back-to-back reigning premiers who were aiming for a three-peat. If the Broncos win against the all odds, they will break their 17-year premiership drought since their last NRL title in 2006.
Following several nervy errors at the start, the Bronx conceded eight points to the Panthers after a couple of short goal-line drop-outs had gone horribly wrong, with the first leading to a ‘gifted’ try to hooker Mitch Kenny, while the second resulted in a penalty goal as the ball didn’t travel the required 10 meters. I’m not a massive fan of short drop-outs, particularly so early in a match. If you regain possession, great; but when it goes pear-shaped, there’s always a risk of gifting points to the opposition from close range. Ultimately, those two points by the penalty goal proved to be the difference between winning and losing the premiership.
The Broncos hung on defensibly after the shaky start… then suddenly, BANG! they went on a try-scoring frenzy, with prop Tom Flegler crashing over just before halftime, while five-eighth Ezra Mam scored a hat-trick in the space of 11 minutes in the second half to lead the Panthers 24 – 8.
In the lead-up to the decider, much was focused on Brisbane’s lack of grand final experience, but it didn’t matter in the end. It’s funny that those big plays came from one of the least-experienced players in 20-year-old Mam, breaking the defensive line at will. And his last try came off the brilliant combination with fellow grand final debutant and 21-year-old fullback, Reece Walsh.
Most of the Broncos’ tries came while Penrith’s starting props James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota were off the field. But once they came back on, the momentum shifted almost immediately, with Leota getting a pass from halfback Nathan Cleary to score in the 62nd minute. Center Stephen Crichton scored five minutes later, before the eventual Clive Churchill Medal winner Cleary put the final nail in the coffin with his 77th-minute individual try to snatch the game from death 26 – 24.
Earlier, 11 minutes into the second half, Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai had come off nursing a shoulder injury – and many Bronx supporters in the stands must have thought: “We’ve got this in the bag now.” But champion halfback Cleary took full control of the game and dismantled Brisbane’s defence with ice-cool precision to clinch their third consecutive title with the greatest comeback in NRL grand final history.
I was filthy with the result; it was a game the Broncos could not, and should not, have lost after leading by 16 points with 18 minutes left on the clock. Last year, I experienced a similar disgust when, on the verge of a Top 4 finish, the Broncos imploded inexplicably with five losses in the last six games of the regular season and just missed out on a spot in the finals series. This year, they left it until the last 20 minutes of the season to implode, so it’s still a considerable improvement on last year, I suppose…
Regardless, I’m enormously proud of what this young Broncos squad has achieved this year – of their transformation from the wooden spooners in 2020, to the grand finalists in just three years. As they say, you must “lose one to win one”, so let’s win it next year, eh?
P.S. – The NRL will be kicking off its 2024 season at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas in early March, with the Broncos taking on the Sydney Roosters, while the Manly Sea Eagles (aka ‘Wolverines’) will be up against the South Sydney Rabbitohs (aka ‘Gladiators’) in a double-header. If you are in the vicinity, don’t miss these blockbusters!!
Main image: Broncos supporters at the 2023 NRL Grand Final