The sense of relief was evident in the long, teary embrace between Penrith coach Ivan Cleary and son Nathan at full-time in Sunday night’s grand final.
The old adage about a team needing to lose a grand final to win one may be a myth, but there has rarely been a case of third time lucky for a side beaten in back-to-back premiership deciders.
“We finally did it,” Nathan declared. “We’ve climbed Everest.”
The Panthers had to do it the hard way and their 14-12 triumph over South Sydney was built on the lessons they learned from last year’s grand final loss to Melbourne.
Against a Storm team brimming with big-match experience, Penrith were grand final innocents and they failed to recover from a relentless opening by their opponents, who led 26-0 after 45 minutes before going on to win 26-20.
He's still my boy: Ivan reflects on his relationship with Nathan
Cleary was determined that the Panthers wouldn’t be caught out again at Suncorp Stadium and this time it was Penrith who stunned Souths with their line speed in defence, willingness to concede six-again re-starts and a kicking game from Nathan that built and maintained pressure.
It was a game plan most would associate with the Storm but Cleary’s men were the NRL’s best defensive team this season and have shown in the finals that they have been prepared to grind out wins.
Nathan forced five goal-line drop-outs and two turn-overs from a knock-on by rookie Rabbitohs fullback Blake Taaffe and winger Jaxson Paulo being bundled into touch after fielding a kick.
Taaffe and Paulo were targeted for the entire 80 minutes and while they barely put a foot wrong the Penrith forwards chasing Cleary’s kicks ensured that the lightweight pair usually played the ball several metres behind where they caught it.
As a result of that swarming defence, the Rabbitohs struggled to get into the Panthers end of the field and five six-again calls coming off their own line were of little benefit to them.
“I think it is justified by how good we have been for two years and the amount of work everyone has put in, but I think it is purely on courage that these boys have won this," Ivan Cleary said.
“It becomes your method or your identity a bit and if it was going to get into a grind tonight we are good at that."
Souths were brave to hang in until the end as they only had 40 per cent of possession in the first half and Brisbane-bound halfback Adam Reynolds had the chance for a fairytale farewell by levelling the scores after Alex Johnston's 75th minute try.
However, the Rabbitohs captain missed the sideline conversion and an attempted two-point field goal dropped short in the final minute.
Queensland Origin forward Jai Arrow only saw 17 minutes of action after failing a HIA, with his loss disrupting Wayne Bennett’s interchange rotation.
Rabbitohs veteran Benji Marshall, who had to spend time at left centre after Dane Gagai was forced from the field for a first half HIA, compared the Panthers’ tactics with those employed by Souths against them in the opening finals weekend.
Nathan Cleary awarded Clive Churchill Medal
“They controlled field position and I felt like they had a lot of the ball,” Marshall said. “It felt like we were just turning up left right and centre stopping their line-breaks.
“I thought we showed a lot of determination and heart but they played the sort of game we wanted to play on us.
“Full credit to them, they have been the outstanding side of the last couple of years and they were the better side today.”
Marshall, 36, remains undecided whether he wants to play again next season, while Bennett’s future is also unclear as assistant Jason Demetriou will now take over the reins at Redfern.
Offers on the table but South Sydney first stop for Bennett
Bennett is considering a consultancy role with Souths but also wants to coach the second Brisbane team expected to be admitted to the NRL in 2023.
The 71-year-old failed to become the first coach to win premierships with three clubs or add to his record of seven grand final triumphs and has now lost successive deciders after Brisbane's 2015 golden point defeat by North Queensland.
For Cleary, the premiership win was a monkey off his back after being on the losing end at the Warriors in the 2011 decider and last year’s defeat at the hands of the Storm.
Cleary had put his reputation at stake by walking out on Wests Tigers three years ago to return to a club he had previously been sacked from in 2015 for the chance to coach Nathan.
At full-time he ran straight for Nathan and the father and son squeezed each tight as they danced around together.
“I couldn’t bear thinking about losing today," Ivan said. "Personally, since I was a fan, a player, an assistant coach, a coach it is probably 45 years without ever winning a grand final so I am going to make this one last.”
Nathan, who was presented with the Clive Churchill Medal as man of the match by his father, said: “We had the heartbreak of last year. It’s just special to do it with him. That embrace was emotional but it’s just the best”.