NRL Grand Final preview: Can Brisbane Broncos prevent a Penrith Panthers three-peat?

BRISBANE BRONCOS coach Kevin Walters faces the toughest assignment in Australian Rugby League ahead of Sunday’s NRL Grand Final – figuring out how to stop the Penrith Panthers from winning their third straight premiership.

Brisbane have qualified for their first decider since 2015 under Walters, eying their first title since 2006 — and they couldn’t have asked for a sterner test. 

Ivan Cleary’s Panthers are chasing their third consecutive title — a feat no club has achieved since Parramatta in 1981-83.

While Brisbane have already beaten Penrith once this season, Walters understands the magnitude of the task in front of him. 

“We’ve got a big job ahead to make sure we get the week planned really well and get into Sunday and give ourselves every chance for another great performance,” Walters said after the Broncos’ 42-12 thrashing of the Warriors in their preliminary final. 

“I’ve got a lot of faith, a lot of confidence, in our team that next week’s going to be very exciting and we will be in there right up to our eyeballs.” 

Skipper Adam Reynolds added: “Obviously it’s a tough challenge. Penrith are one hell of a team and they showed again on the weekend (against Melbourne in the preliminary final) how good they can be — and I know how good we can be as well.” 

Penrith have cruised through this play-off series to qualify for their fourth Grand Final on the trot, thumping the Warriors 32-6 then the Storm 38-4. 

Nine pieces of their starting 13 this Sunday — Dylan Edwards, Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o, Jarome Luai, Nathan Cleary, Moses Leota, James Fisher-Harris, Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo — have featured in every one of those deciders. 

All are one-club players aged 23 to 28, who’ve forged deep connections from playing so much footy together under coach Cleary. 

Penrith boast an incredible record over the past four seasons. Since the start of 2020, Penrith have won 87, lost 16 and drawn one — a mind-blogging win rate of 84 per cent. 

The star of the show over this four-year purple patch? The coach’s son Nathan. 

The 25-year-old halfback missed seven weeks mid-season with a hamstring injury, but the Panthers have lost just one of their nine games since his return in Round 21. 

Cleary has been at his imperious best in Penrith’s two finals win, tallying 34 individual points and setting up plenty more through his confident playmaking and composed kicking game. 

Stopping the superstar number seven will be top of Walters’ to-do list, but the Panthers boast quality across the park. 

With five-eighth Jarome Luai (shoulder) and centre Izack Tago (pectoral) back from injury for their preliminary final, coach Cleary enjoys a full-strength squad to pick from besides rookie winger Taylan May. 

So do Walters’ men stand a chance this Sunday? 

While they’ll enter their first Grand Final in eight years as outsiders, the Broncos’ attacking weapons give them plenty of hope — and their biggest threat is the white-hot Reece Walsh. 

The exhilarating 21-year-old fullback has been the catalyst of Brisbane’s 2023 surge, making a spectacular return to his junior club this season after cutting his teeth as a rookie at the Warriors. 

And Walsh isn’t the only Ferrari in Walters’ garage. 

Kotoni Staggs, Herbie Farnworth and Selwyn Cobbo are rep stars out wide and stand-off Ezra Mam provides jack-in-the-box X-factor. 

Kangaroos Payne Haas and Patrick Carrigan supply the starch up front, and halfback Reynolds pulls the strings with all the nous you’d expect from a 273-game veteran. 

The recruitment of the ex-Rabbitoh has been vital to Brisbane’s revival, but the coach deserves much of the credit.

Broncos fans, spoiled by six Premierships across the club’s first 19 seasons, have been waiting 17 years for title number seven. 

These underdog Broncos possess all the ingredients to worry the all-conquering Panthers in the Grand Final. What Walters cooks up this Sunday remains to be seen.