A heartbreaking image of shattered Penrith Panthers player Brent Naden has emerged in the wake of the NRL Grand Final.
The 24-year-old is an emotional man. He cried when he made his NRL debut last season and he needed a hug after the Melbourne Storm’s 26-20 win.
Naden had more reason to be upset than most after a questionable – and ruthless – decision to leave him out of the Panthers’ starting team by coach Ivan Cleary.
In the toughest selection call he faced in the finals series, Cleary preferred the defensive prowess of Tyrone May to Naden’s attacking ability in the preliminary final against South Sydney – and was justified as May didn’t put a foot wrong in a 20-16 win.
But despite Naden’s tackle efficiency sitting at a scary low of 68 per cent compared to May’s 89 per cent, there was still an argument for his inclusion for the big dance.
He scored 12 tries in 18 appearances for the Panthers in 2020 where May only scored once in 16 games.
Naden was also something of a good-luck charm as Penrith never lost when he was in the team.
In the build-up to Sunday night’s decider, Robbie Farah said he was “completely shocked” by Cleary’s decision to sit Naden for the entire Rabbitohs contest.
“Tyrone May didn’t put a foot wrong but it’s a different kettle of fish this week coming up against such a powerful opposition centre in Justin Olam,” Farah said. “He’s going to be a handful and Naden’s a bigger body.”
Daily Telegraph journalist Nick Campton was of a similar mind. “I’ve liked Penrith all week but I don’t like the Naden-May switch at all,” he tweeted. “If Naden was good enough all year why isn’t he now?”
There was speculation on game day Naden had been punted from the 17-man squad all together but he was on the bench when the game started.
May was on the field – and within just a few minutes had given away a penalty try to Olam after referees ruled he’d deliberately played at the ball with his boot while the Storm centre was attempting to touch the ball down in the corner.
Cleary’s plans for a sound defensive foundation didn’t exactly pan out as his team trailed 22-0 at halftime.
It only got worse at the start of the second half when Penrith fell behind 26-0 and Cleary finally decided to turn to his castaway.
There were many factors in the Panthers reeling off 20 straight points and almost stealing the game at the death, but the impact of Naden was undeniable.
He gained 76m with just seven carries and provided a spark on the right edge Penrith had been missing.
But there just wasn’t enough time in the game and the man from Wellington in country NSW was left wondering what might have been as he stood wrapped in the arms of a wellwisher post-match.
Sports journalist Ray Gatt was adamant Cleary got it wrong tweeting: “No Naden cost (Penrith). Cleary effed up.”