A gruelling 2021 NRL season came to an end with the Penrith Panthers prevailing over the South Sydney Rabbitohs 14-12, and it was Panthers co-captain Nathan Cleary who was the recipient of the Clive Churchill Medal.
Cleary was instrumental in guiding Penrith to its third NRL premiership – and first since 2003 -, as the club got their vengeance after last year’s grand final loss to the Melbourne Storm.
The halfback was Penrith’s playmaker and involved himself in plenty of plays to help set up many scoring opportunities. He contributed six points – two conversions and one penalty goal – to further his side’s tally and work towards the win.
It was a heroic display for Clearly who was playing with an injured shoulder, contributing 22 runs with the ball for 107 metres. Spending the full 80 minutes on the ground, the 23-year-old also broke three tackles while making 17 of his own across the entire encounter.
The most prolific part of Cleary’s game was his kicking though, with 21 kicks which travelled a total of 649 metres to gain some important meterage up the ground and keep the pressure on South Sydney’s backline.
Speaking on Channel Nine’s coverage post-game, the 23-year-old said this premiership was the culmination of numerous years of hard work.
“It honestly feels like a dream. We’ve been working so long to get to this moment. I’ve been dreaming of this moment [for] my whole life and it’s finally here,” Cleary said.
“To everyone back in Penrith, that’s for you guys. [We] can’t wait to party with you guys once we get back. We did it, we did it.”
His awarding of the Clive Churchill Medal was a special moment for Cleary, but he was humble in accepting the honour, which was bestowed to him on the dais by his coach, and father, Ivan.
“It’s so much more than this [Clive Churchill Medal]. Any of the boys could’ve got this. It’s a big group effort. To get the win, it’s amazing”, he said.
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After a loss to South Sydney in week one of the finals, Penrith was forced to make their way to the Grand Final – and eventual premiership – the long way around.
Cleary mentioned that the first-week loss put them on the back foot, but consecutive wins against Parramatta and Melbourne to reach to decider had them believing they could get the job done on the night at Suncorp Stadium and make up for last year’s defeat.
“Losing a grand final, it’s a different kind of hurt, you can’t explain it and I think that’s what makes this so much more special. We had the hurt of last year, we came back and we did it the hard way,” he said.
“We lost the first round of semi’s, got written off and we just kept turning up for one another and it’s unbelievable.”
Cleary, the son of Penrith coach Ivan, commented on the feeling of winning a premiership at this level together, their embrace after the final whistle showing the emotion and joy shared between the two.
The pair have become the second father-son combination to win a title at the club, following John and Martin Lang’s 2003 triumph.
“It’s what we spoke about when we first came together and we had one rough year and then the heartbreak of last year and oh man, it’s just special to do it with him. Yeah, that embrace was just emotional but it’s the best,” Cleary said.
The Halfback of the Year from the 2021 Dally M Medal awards, Cleary was full of praise towards the club and teammates, citing the family-like nature that connects the club and its fans.
“That’s what makes us special. Every time we’ve worn this Panthers jersey, we do it with pride and it means a lot more than just playing for us, it’s the whole community,” he remarked.
“We know how much fans love their footy and to do it alongside my brothers that I’ve grown up with, we are just like a big family, it’s amazing.”
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