Fight, spirit, mateship ... this was a different Broncos
Finally, the Broncos have found a heartbeat.
Penrith may have won the war but Brisbane have won a battle for credibility after Kevin Walters' troops took last year's grand finalists to the wire in the Broncos' gut-wrenching 20-12 loss at Suncorp Stadium.
Only two pieces of magic inside the final seven minutes from Penrith maestro Nathan Cleary - one a 42m field goal, the other a 77th-minute try - got the Panthers out of jail to post their 21st straight regular-season win.
But this was the Broncos' best performance in two years. By rights, they were the better team. There was fight, grit, guts, mateship and spirit. They were tipped to lose by 50.
In reality, the Broncos were magnificent, but were left to lament giving up a 12-10 halftime lead as Cleary's Panthers held their nerve to avert one of the biggest boilovers in NRL history.
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Broncos coach Kevin Walters deserves credit. A winner as a player, he is putting the fight back in the Broncos jumper.
Seemingly inspired by a stunning pre-game rev-up from Walters, Brisbane tore into the Panthers. The crowd of 21,224 were so impressed with the Broncos' heart they gave Brisbane players a standing ovation as they headed to halftime with a shock 12-10 lead.
Tevita Pangai Jnr, Corey Oates and Matt Lodge were superb. Recalled from the Intrust Super Cup, Oates was heroic, running for 152m and his 62nd-minute trysaver on Charlie Staines personified Brisbane's courage.
No 'Milf', no worries
The sacking of $1 million playmaker Anthony Milford could prove a seminal moment in the turnaround of the Broncos.
Walters will not tolerate complacency. In the absence of Milford, new halves pairing Brodie Croft and Tom Dearden were hungry and committed. Croft defended well and his inside ball for Ethan Bullemor's try just before halftime was sublime.
Brisbane's pack has a far more formidable look when their twin towers up front, Lodge and Payne Haas, deliver a one-two punch.
Lodge has copped criticism for failing to adjust to the new speed of the game in the six-again era but the 117kg Broncos prop was outstanding, charging into the teeth of the Panthers from the opening seconds.
Finally, the Broncos have a semblance of a forward leader in Lodge.
Tevita the terminator
There has never been any question about Pangai Jr's talent. His biggest problem has been attitude, and consistent application. But when Pangai Jr decides to switch on, the Tongan torpedo lifts Brisbane's energy levels across the board.
Pangai Jr must have consumed three Red Bulls before kick-off because he was like a man possessed in the first 40. If it wasn't his superb dive for the corner to score in the 18th minute for a 6-4 lead, it was his ferocious charges off the line to attack Panthers defenders. Then he pulled off a trysaver, denying a flying Brian To'o just two minutes before Ethan Bullemor speared through to give Brisbane a 12-10 halftime lead.
Pangai Jr is Brisbane's X-factor. When he fires, the Broncos are a threat.
CLEARY MAGIC GETS PANTHERS OUT OF JAIL
By Emma Greenwood
The great teams find a way to get it done.
The Penrith Panthers have maintained their unbeaten start to the NRL season, winning their sixth consecutive win to notch the best start to a season in their history, with Nathan Cleary engineering an escape route in the final minutes of the contest.
The Panthers halfback led his team to a 20-12 victory over the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, notching a two-point field goal and converted try in the final seven minutes to secure a hard-fought win.
With scores tied at 12-12 inside the final 10 minutes and rank outsiders Broncos on track for the biggest upset of the season, Cleary stepped up to slot a two-point field goal before combining with halves partner Jarome Luai to put the match to bed.
The victory was bittersweet for Brisbane, who turned in their best performance of the season to threaten the premiership favourites despite entering the match as rank outsiders.
Ivan Cleary's men had not lost a match heading into the contest but they were challenged by a Brisbane outfit stinging from repeated poor performances and it took some Cleary magic to get them out of jail for their 21st consecutive regular season victory.
Cleary has it on a string
It's what most have come to expect from the man rated by many as the best player in the game but Cleary earnt every accolade on Friday night, directing proceedings like a traffic cop and never losing faith in his men.
"I thought they played really well, they put us into a scrappy game and we had to adjust," Cleary told Channel 9 after the match.
"You've got to win those games."
A 40-20 kick midway through the second half set up a penalty chance for the Panthers, with Cleary steering the chance through the posts to level the scores before his heroics inside the final 10 minutes.
He did not do it all on his own though, with Luai's showing only likely to increase calls for him to earn an Origin debut for the Blues to play alongside Cleary.
Capewell enhances interest
Panthers forward Kurt Capewell will only have enhanced Brisbane officials' interest in him after a powerful performance against his prospective teammates.
The hard-running edge forward scored the Panthers' first try and while the defensive effort from David Mead was flimsy, it only served to reinforce the value the 27-year-old would offer Brisbane.
The experienced Origin representative shapes as the perfect foil for Brisbane's crop of young forwards and while the success of the Panthers is appealing, a return to Queensland could be just as enticing if the Broncos continue to stand up as well as they did on Thursday night.
Cleary: Composure gets the job done
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary has lauded the composure of his young team, saying their poise in the big moments helped them across the line in a thriller against the Brisbane Broncos.
The Panthers maintained their unbeaten start to the season, beating the Broncos 20-12 but the scoreline flattered Penrith, who were locked in a dire battle with the massive underdogs inside the final 10 minutes of the match.
Cleary conceded his side had to reach "deep into our kit bag" to find a way to beat a Brisbane side that turned in its best performance in more than a year.
But with scores tied 12-12 inside the final 10 minutes, Nathan Cleary put the team in front with a two-point field goal before crossing for the match winner in the 78th minute.
"Let's face it, all big games are won at the end of the game, generally speaking and to be able to have that confidence that we could stay in there and make the right decisions at the right time gave us a bit of an edge," Cleary said.
"We've been involved in more of those than probably (Brisbane) have and it gave us a bit of an edge."
Cleary had marked the match as a danger game early in the week, with the Panthers travelling to Queensland for the first time in a year and in danger of dropping their guard against a struggling Broncos side.
"We were a little bit flat, we didn't have our usual zip," he said.
"When they scored before halftime (to take a 12-10 lead to the break), I thought, 'We've got a game on our hands'.
"And they started the second half really well, I was a bit worried then, we looked tired.
"But our defence held when it needed to, that was crucial in the second half and then it was just going to come down to who could manage their opportunities the best and obviously the field goal was a big play."
The result was bittersweet for Brisbane, but coach Kevin Walters was not interested in near misses.
"I'm disappointed more than anything, in that last 15 minutes, if we'd executed a few things better, we win the game, but we didn't," he said.
"There's a lot to take out of it but this club's about winning and that's our third loss in a row.
"There were some better moments from us, particularly in the first half but in the second half we lost our way a little bit and they were a bit too good in the end.
"I just want these guys to do well, I want the club to do well."
Originally published as Fight, spirit, mateship ... this was a different Broncos