Almanac Rugby League – Grand Final Day 2023: The cream rises to the top


For general use


Footy never ceases to amaze; at it’s best it’s pulsating and an emotional rollercoaster; it’s an 80-minute game; when the going is tight and the big moments come, the cream rises to the top; it ain’t over until it’s over. Clichés one and all, but all too true! In both the NRL and NRLW Grand Finals, the best players in the respective competitions refused to accept defeat and found a way to lift their sides to win with just a few minutes on the clock. When was the last time you saw consecutive games in which a player scores a hat-trick of tries and ends up on the losing side? Yes, MOH, you’ve just gotta love footy, even when it hurts!



Don’t be surprised if The Courier Mail leads with ‘the one that got away’ as it reports on last night’s NRL Grand Final. In a game that kept us all on the edge of our seats until the very end, the Penrith Panthers came back from 16 points down with less than 20 minutes on the clock to defeat the Brisbane Broncos 26-24. It was a game played at Origin speed with momentum changing several times. Penrith dominated the first half, suffocating Brisbane and forcing mistakes but led by only two points at half time as the Broncos defended well and scored right on the break. But the defensive effort used up a lot of petrol.


Brisbane looked like they’d run away with it as Mam zipped and zapped as he scored three times in ten minutes after the break; Brisbane led 24-8; Penrith heads were down and they looked gassed. They were one score from done.


But an unnecessary pushed pass on the hour changed the momentum to give Penrith a sniff. Cometh the moment, cometh the man – Nathan Cleary. His slicing run and well-timed pass put Moses Leota in the clear to bring the margin back to ten points. Suddenly the Panthers were on the prowl with renewed energy and belief. Five minutes later a Cleary 40/20 gave them position and possession; Stephen Crichton only needs the flimsiest of invitations; he accepted and the difference was down to four. Brisbane were running on empty, a couple errors didn’t help; desperate defence held out but they were a litre of fuel short to get to the 80 minute mark. With only two minutes on the clock Cleary spotted a chink in the line and with a  jink he was over in a blink.


In the end you’d have to say that, on the balance of the season, Penrith deserved to win the premiership. Quite simply, they have been the best team of the past few years. The best team of the NRL period? Arguably. The best of this decade without a doubt. They’re just a complete squad who gel to perform as a great team. Even when they looked down and out last night, you couldn’t say that they wouldn’t fight back.


Cleary scored his second Clive Churchill medal, probably fitting since it was a combination of his three decisive plays that won the game. Moses Leota must have featured after his ferocious running and brutal defence. The forward pack as a whole rose to the occasion in the last twenty minutes and won big metres with every set against a tiring defence.


Herbie Farnworth was a tower of strength for the Broncos all night and Jesse Arthars was safe under relentless pressure. Adam Reynolds made a couple of uncharacteristic kicking errors but otherwise directed his side well; Ezra Mam was electric and shapes as their No. 6 for years to come. Tom Flegler had possibly his best game for Brisbane while Payne Haas and Billy Walters were strong and creative respectively.


Brisbane will be very disappointed. They didn’t choke; they simply ran out of  fuel and got overtaken by the best in the business with the checkered flag in sight. They would have beaten any other team last night; it’s just their bad luck that the other team involved was Penrith. The Broncos have exceeded everyone’s expectations this year and got within two minutes of a premiership. In the relative calm of the next few days I hope they’ll realise that it has been a very good season. Their premiership window is still open.


Referee Adam Gee had a very good game!



It was a similar story earlier in the afternoon. For 60 minutes of the NRLW Grand Final, Gold Coast Titans ‘contained’ Newcastle Knights fullback and dual Karyn Murphy medalist Tamika Upton to two try assists and restricted her running game with suffocating defence. But it’s a 70-minute game and those last ten minutes told the final story.


The Titans dominated early, rattling Newcastle with both creative attack and energetic defence to get out to an 8-0 lead. Newcastle settled midway through the half and then ran in three tries in seven minutes to seize the initiative and take a 12-8 lead into the break. It seemed a case of ‘how far Newcastle?’ But Gold Coast returned serve early in the second period to get out to a six point lead and then held on gamely as the tide of possession turned in Newcastle’s favour. It was a gutsy effort as they fought tooth and nail to get the ball out of their defensive area but they couldn’t find a line-busting play to get themselves into position to extend their lead.


Then up stepped Upton. In the first instance her composure gave her that split second of time to spot a hole in the defensive line and she needed no further invitation to score adjacent to the posts. The conversion levelled the scores. Five minutes later a probing grubber rebounded favourably off a Titans player back onto Upton’s leg to leave the fullback with no-one between her and another try which was, again, converted. Suddenly the Knights had the lead and the momentum while the Titans rued the luck of the bounce. There were no last minute miracles and Newcastle became back-to-back premiers.


Upton is a phenomenon. At age 26 she has won four premierships (from four Grand Final appearances), two Dally Ms, two Karyn Murphy medals and a couple of State of Origin series with Queensland. She’s not the fastest player on the field nor the hardest hitter in defence. But she has ‘it’ between the ears and couples that with an instinctive knowledge of where to be and when. Injury permitting, she may well be the best player of her era by the time she retires.


But it was anything but a one woman show for the Knights. The Southwell sisters also rose to the occasion when the going got tough. Hannah is grit and determination personified and led her team in word and deed; Jesse, a dual premiership player at just 18, guided her teammates around the field with the aplomb of a veteran. Yasmin Clydsdale, not unlike the animal with the same name (even if spelt differently), was an absolute workhorse in both attack and defence. To their credit, the Knights didn’t get flustered when they were behind; they simply stuck to the task knowing that the tide would turn eventually in the face of their relentless attack.


The Titans will be disappointed but they have been the feel good story of the season. After finishing last in 2022, they battled their way through the season to make the last day, getting to within ten minutes of what would have been an absolute miracle. Jaime Chapman was outstanding – not many players score a hat-trick of tries in a Grand Final and end up on the losing side. Her defence was of the highest standard. She must have gone close to winning the medal for best on ground. Shannon Mato, Jessika Elliston and Georgia Hale were also impressive up front and fullback Evan Pelite was safe and reliable at the back. The Titans may have been the beaten team; it could have been different; unfortunately for them the other side had Upton.


Referee Belinda Sharpe had a great game!


The NRLW continues to go from strength to strength and seems to have coped well with this season’s expansion. With player pay and conditions improving, we can expect the rise and rise to continue in future seasons.



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About Ian Hauser

A relaxed, Noosa-based retiree with a (very) modest sporting CV. A loyal Queenslander, especially when it comes to cricket and rugby league. Enjoys travel, coffee and cake, reading, and has been known to appreciate a glass or three of wine. One of Footy Almanac's online editors who enjoys the occasional editing opportunity to assist aspiring writers.


  1. roger lowrey says

    You know much more about these things than an old Bunny in hiding like me comrade.

    However I watched the second half only because dinner was done and dusted and the other viewing options weren’t brilliant but I get the feeling the Panthers were a bit lucky.

    Am I wrong?


  2. Ian Hauser says

    As much as I hate to say it, no, the Panthers weren’t ‘a bit lucky’, RDL. Credit where it’s due; they refused to accept that they were gone! (Expletive! expletive! expletive!) A bit of hyperbole around today but time might give a bit of perspective.

    I thought the AFL big one was awful apart from the closeness of the scores. Not a great advertisement of the skills and thrills of footy, ie give me the Cats any day. Just a succession of rolling mauls across the arena. I read MZ’s piece and I admire his capacity to find pearls among the dross but I can’t see a game like that winning many new adherents. Or what am I missing? Please send enlightenment north!

    Take care, RDL; when’s your next epistle on electoral boundary redistributions coming out? Or a post-Dan evaluation of all things Victorian? I’ll find those infinitely more engrossing than Saturday’s match!

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