Leary's Pride wins inaugural State Championship
A stunning three-try comeback late in the second half, as well as a hat-trick from winger Javid Bowen, has lifted Northern Pride to a 32-28 victory in the inaugural NRL State Championship.
After being locked up 16-all at half-time, Penrith looked well in control to take out the first ever major decider between the winners of the NSW Cup and Queensland's Intrust Super Cup when Kierran Moseley and Kieran Moss both crossed early in the second half.
But like their Origin side the Pride never gave up, fighting back to score the final three tries and ensure Queensland played a big part on Grand Final Day.
Listed as long as $5.50 outsiders with bookmakers, Pride coach Jason Demetriou said it was not only an opportunity to represent themselves on the game's greatest stage but also the entire Intrust Super Cup competition.
"Some of these boys have never been to Sydney let alone played here [at ANZ Stadium]," said Demetriou. "I had a pretty long career and never played in this stadium so these guys will soak it up, it's a fantastic concept and it gives opportunity and exposure to players who might not get it otherwise.
"Everyone was saying David v Goliath but we didn't see it like that at all. We earned the right to be here and we showed that today.
"I don't get how they come up with [those odds]. Obviously they look at NRL stats but I think it was pretty disrespectful not only to us but to the Intrust Super Cup.
"We came down here to represent the Intrust Super Cup and I think we've done that not only for ourselves but for the whole competition.
"We've got a lot of players on the up who haven't made their debuts in the NRL yet but definitely will over the next couple of years. We knew coming here we'd give them more than a game."
The Pride's first try of the second half was an incredible show of strength by the original "Semi-trailer", former Storm wingman Semi Tadulala, who did well to cross just inside the corner post in the 59th minute.
The second was a fortunate dropped ball from Penrith winger Wes Naiqama that bounced up perfectly for counterpart Javid Bowen for his third of the afternoon.
But the third, which came from a supreme short ball from hooker Jason Roos for second-rower Tyrone McCarthy, completed a stunning Queensland comeback.
Penrith coach Garth Brennan said it was a good experience for his younger players.
"It's a good learning curve for some of these young guys especially, who obviously have dreams of playing in the NRL," he said.
"Two grand finals in a second tier level is probably similar to playing NRL back-to-back. You've got to be up each week and if you're not, then you're going to pay the consequences and that probably happened today.
"But full credit to the Pride, they deserved their victory."
The Pride were the fastest off the blocks, crossing twice inside 12 minutes and almost nabbing a third that could've blown this inaugural encounter out of the water early.
The first was a sixth-minute sun bomb from Pride five-eighth Shaun Nona that had Moss blinded by the Grand Final Day glare. Nona pulled a second trick from his attacking kick bag with a neat grubber for second-rower Blake Leary soon after.
Nona missed the conversion, but the talented playmaker would soon get another chance to dust off the kicking tee. Minutes after late call-up Davin Crampton was pulled up over the line on the right edge, Nona executed another pinpoint dribble for Bowen to pounce on. And while Nona again failed to steer the Steeden through the sticks, it was an early 8-0 lead to the underdogs.
At some stage the experienced Panthers were bound to flex their veteran muscles, and oh how they did.
A conventional fifth-tackle kick in the 17th minute from the Pride that was meant to camp Penrith in their south-east corner ended in a Kevin Naiqama bust down the opposite flank, with the Panthers speedster spinning past two and then finding a supporting Luke Capewell, who turned on the afterburners for an impressive 80-metre try.
The New South Wales representatives then well and truly got themselves into the game with another impressive shortside play that had St George Illawarra-bound winger Eto Nabuli over seven minutes later. A second Wes Naiqama scorcher from the sideline gave his team a 12-8 lead that only looked like growing.
But in a bizarre try against the run of play, Nona's 31st-minute one-on-one steal from Moss on the first play of a quick tap instantly turned the game in the Pride's favour when he put Bowen over for his second.
It was another short-lived stay in front, however, after quick hands from Nathan Smith and Moss put speedman Waqa Blake into space five minutes later.
And in a fitting end to a see-sawing first half, a gift two points to Nona on the siren locked the two teams 16-all at the main break.
Penrith Panthers 28 (Capewell, Nabuli, Blake, Moseley, Moss tries; Naiqama 4 goals) defeated by Northern Pride 32 (Bowen 3, Leary, Tadulala, McCarthy tries; Nona 2, Bowen 2 goals). Half-time: 16-all.