NRL Hits and Misses: Panthers continue to find junior stars to beat the system

This week we take a look at an incredible grand final victory for the unstoppable Panthers, ponder some injury scares for the Broncos and wonder what the slushy machines were doing on the sideline.

Read on as we take a look back at some of the biggest hits and misses of grand final day.


Panthers continue to find junior stars to beat the system

There's a reason no other team had done it since the Parramatta Eels of the 1980s, winning three straight grand finals is supposed to be impossible. The whole salary cap system is designed to level out the spread of talent so that no one team can dominate for too long. The Panthers have found a way around that, through the strength of their junior development system. As soon as they release a player because his ability-level has exceeded the amount the Panthers can afford to pay him, they have the next super star lined up waiting for his shot at glory.

Nathan Cleary was the star of the miracle fightback against the Broncos, but not far behind him was centre Stephen Crichton. Crichton is one of those players who has come through the ranks to be a super star in his own right. The salary cap has squeezed him out of the side and he will pull on the blue and white of the Bulldogs next season. Let's hope he has had his fill of premiership success, because it could be a long time before he is handed another medal on grand final day.


Key leg injuries scare Broncos in first half

Five minutes had not passed before Reece Walsh copped a stray boot from a teammate while defending his own try line. The flashy Broncos fullback fell on his back clutching at his shin, with everyone affiliated with the Broncos holding their collective breath.

He hobbled about in back play for a while, before receiving attention and playing on. It was clear that the bump was concerning him, but he kept finding his way into position during backline moves. He hit the ball at speed, but it was hard to tell exactly how much spark was missing from his acceleration. He was a little quiet by his own lofty standards for the rest of the first half.

With 15 minutes remaining before the break the Broncos spread the ball to the right and Adam Reynolds was dragged down after throwing a pass. His legs parted awkwardly, and he remained on the ground in obvious pain. He too was able to take his place in the backline, but shortly after kicked a short goal-line drop out over the touch line on the full for a penalty right in front to take the Panthers out to 8-0.

Ezra Mam stepped up to cover for any ongoing struggles they both might have had, crossing for three tries after the break to tear the Panthers apart. The third was set up by Walsh who looked to be running freely once again.


Forwards surprise with first four-pointers of the night

Not many people had Mitch Kenny as their first try scoring option for the grand final, but there he was, the right man in the right spot at the right time. Broncos half Adam Reynolds put up a near perfect short goal-line drop out. No Panthers player even contested the ball, as Broncos centre Herbie Farnworth leapt high and batted it back towards his own try line. The problem for the Broncos was that the ball went to no one and dribbled along the ground as Kenny poured through, picking it up and crossing untouched.

Kenny was paying a neat $26 on TAB to score the first try of the match. Perhaps his best mates and family members might have had a nice little collect, but most punters would have had their money on players out wider.

Not to be outdone, Broncos prop Tom Flegler was the next to score a try in the 38th minute. He charged up the middle of the field and crashed over next to the posts. Flegler was paying $9 on TAB to score a try at any time during the grand final. The conversion took the Broncos to within two points of Panthers at the break.


Players provide their own heat on balmy night

It was steamy first day of October that greeted both teams at Accor Stadium. By the time the first grade grand final kicked off the temperature had eased slightly to 30 degrees. Still it must have felt much hotter in the middle as both teams engaged in some early push and shove.

The Broncos were determined not to take any rubbish from the cocky Panthers, and reacted instantly to anything that upset them. As the game progressed the pace took some of the angst out of both teams as they focused on regaining their breath while denying the opposition any advantage.

With nine minutes remaining, in what was turning into a thriller, Stephen Crichton landed heavily on Reece Walsh who had gathered a ball on his own line. Tom Flegler wasn't happy with the treatment dished out to his fullback and grabbed Crichton around the neck as players again charged in from everywhere.


Slushy machines on the sideline?

With the thermometer hovering around the 35 degree mark, players in the earlier games were certainly struggling, but I'm not so sure the slushy machines on the sideline would have helped. Heat management is all about hydration and cooling the core temperature of players, surely any benefit from a slushy would be outweighed by the threat of a dreaded brain freeze as you gulped it down. I'm not even sure whether brain freeze would be covered by the HIA protocols.

Perhaps they were there to be tipped over the heads of overheated players? I didn't see any players lining up with their slushy cups and spoon straws. Maybe it was more for the trainers and media?


Upton proves her worth once again

There have been just six NRLW grand finals decided and Tamika Upton has played in and won four of them. After winning titles with the Brisbane Broncos in 2019 and 2020, Upton has overcome some injury concerns to lead the Knights to back-to-back premierships.

How influential has she been for the Knights? On top of picking up the Dally M medal this year, she won her second consecutive Karyn Murphy medal for being the best player in the grand final. With the Knights trailing well into the second half, Upton took the game by the horns and scored two individual tries to turn the game. She'll next pull on the Jillaroos fullback jersey, clearly one of the game's premier players.