You have to lose a grand final, the old adage goes, before you can win one.

Ivan Cleary heartily subscribes to the mantra, while opposing coach Kevin Walters holds an alternate view.

In Penrith’s case, losing one grand final could result in winning three, as they aim to achieve a historic trifecta last performed by the great Parramatta side of the 1980s. Sunday’s clash against Brisbane marks the Panthers’ fourth consecutive grand final, a run Cleary believes wouldn’t have been possible if not for a heartbreaking defeat against Melbourne in the first decider.

The Panthers entered the 2020 decider in form after being runaway minor premiers. However, the Storm blew them off the park to race to a 26-0 lead. The mountain men staged a late fightback to add respectability to the scoreboard, ultimately losing 26-20.

It was a painful lesson, delivered by a Storm side that knew how to handle the big games. Cleary believes it was just what his players needed.

“Four years ago when we first made a grand final, we were very young,” Cleary said when the teams gathered for the NRL fan fest in Circular Quay on Thursday. “We’d come into the game I think with 17 wins on the trot, so we’re feeling pretty good about ourselves.

“We were sort of shocked that day. For us, I think we actually had to lose one to sort of understand what it was all about.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary share the heartbreak of defeat in 2020.

Nathan and Ivan Cleary share the heartbreak of defeat in 2020.Credit: Getty

“I don’t think every team has to go through that, but we did. There’s lots of different factors involved in that.


“We played a team in the Melbourne Storm who were very experienced and they taught us a lesson that day, which was a good lesson as it turned out.

“So we’ve learned a few other things along the way: every year is different, every team is different, every situation is different.

“But there are a few things that we feel like in terms of preparation; just this week, for example, it is different to any other week.

“It’s nice to go through it. It doesn’t mean you’re gonna win, but there are some familiarities that I’d like to think will help us on Sunday.”

Ivan Cleary has heeded the lessons of a lost grand final.

Ivan Cleary has heeded the lessons of a lost grand final.Credit: Wolter Peeters

Adam Reynolds and Kurt Capewell are the only Broncos to have experienced a grand final, giving the Panthers a significant edge. However, Walters believes that is offset by the amount of Brisbane players with State of Origin experience.

“I don’t concur that we’re in the same position as Penrith were three or four years ago,” said Walters, who allayed any injury concerns over his star players.

“Our team has actually got 10 current or former State of Origin players. So we’ve got experience – experience counts. Not so much on grand final day, but general experience in big games. I feel we have that. Our captain [Reynolds] has played in two grand finals, Capes [Kurt Capewell] has been involved in grand finals, we’ve got great experience through State of Origin.

“We’ve got a couple of international players in our team as well. I feel even though we’re a young side, we’re also a very mature side when it comes to rugby league experience.

“And certainly the grand final is a different week to any other, so this is new to us, but everything about the game on Sunday will be the same.”

The grand final teams face off on Thursday.

The grand final teams face off on Thursday.Credit: Wolter Peeters

While Nathan Cleary has a winning rate just a tick under 70 per cent in the NRL, which drops to 50 per cent at Origin level. Asked what he has learnt playing against the Broncos’ Origin brigade, the halfback said: “It’s a different sort of scenario obviously with club football and Origin.

“Queensland have shown how to win the last two years and there’s a lot of those Queensland players through this side.

“Particularly this year, they were outstanding, and I guess it’ll be no different on Sunday. It’s about putting in a team performance and playing our best capabilities. That will be our plan.”

The teams have been involved in two close games already this year, each winning one. Ivan Cleary felt the Broncos were in for a big year after toppling his side in the opening round.

“The Broncos have been a successful club for a long time,” he said. “Yes, they’ve had a little bit of a down period, but that pretty much happens with everyone. It was no surprise.”

Watch the NRL grand final exclusive, live and free on Channel 9 and 9Now.

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