By Nick Wright
No matter the occasion, no matter the stakes, Reece Walsh has found a way to take his game to a whole new level.
It is a trait rugby league pundits first got a glimpse of in the State of Origin arena, and now his preliminary final exploits have put the Penrith Panthers on notice.
Reece Walsh celebrates Saturday night’s preliminary final win with daughter Leila.Credit: Getty
Walsh was in a realm of his own in the Broncos’ 42-12 triumph over the Warriors on Saturday night to book his side a place in their first decider since 2015.
His sheer numbers tell that story.
Finishing with 146 running metres, four try assists, six line break assists, and a line break, the fullback’s speed and ability to change direction so quickly had New Zealand’s defence clutching at thin air.
The Panthers have built their era of dominance – now into four straight grand finals – through a near-impenetrable defensive wall. Rarely do they feel stressed. Infrequently are they fazed.
To thwart them, something different needs to be thrown their way. Something they cannot prepare for.
And according to Brisbane vice-captain Kurt Capewell, the rest of the Broncos squad need to be doing all they can to put Walsh into whatever position he needs to cause chaos if they are to fell the two-time defending champions.
“He’s one of our key players, being in the spine, and we need him to be able to do that,” Capewell said.
“We need him to be able to execute under pressure, and he did that a couple of times tonight.
Reece Walsh was in the thick of everything as the Broncos booked their place in the grand final.Credit: Getty
“We just have to work harder in creating more of those opportunities for him, and making sure we’re giving him the ball in the best spot possible.”
Walsh’s showcase at Suncorp Stadium proved more than just his ability to rise on the big stage. He highlighted just how fast a learner he was in that environment.
As the Broncos led 8-6, the 21-year-old chanced his arm down the left-hand side, looking to put winger Jesse Arthars into the clear with a trademark cut-out ball.
Rival flyer Dallin Watene-Zelezniak read it before the ball had left his hands.
The Kiwi sensation – whose double broke the Warriors’ record for most tries in a campaign (24) – raced away to give his unit the lead, much to the dismay of a parochial home crowd.
But Walsh took just five minutes to again demonstrate his adaptability and refusal to yield.
Brisbane’s next attacking chance also came down the left, with Watene-Zelezniak on alert for another intercept opportunity.
This time, however, Walsh held his ground, throwing a dummy before giving a late short ball for Herbie Farnworth to score – a ploy that completely bamboozled New Zealand’s edge.
Reece Walsh celebrates with Kobe Hetherington after winning Saturday’s preliminary final.Credit: Getty
That trait, that willingness to keep coming even after an error, has largely defined Walsh’s breakout season. Despite leading the NRL for errors with 50 – five more than Knights winger Dominic Young in second – he keeps sniffing for opportunities.
It is a characteristic that Broncos coach Kevin Walters said he had seen only by arguably the game’s greatest fullback, and in the pressure cauldron of a grand final would need to be on show again.
“That’s just something he’s born with I think. I was fortunate enough to work with Billy Slater at the Storm, and he had the same mindset,” Walters said.
“It’s definitely a great skill of his to do what he does, but then also to move on because he wants to make up for the mistake or error that he’s done.
“We’ve all thrown intercepts, and that’s just his character. He’s very strong-minded to be able to do that, because a lot of other players would have fallen by the wayside.”
The Panthers have epitomised unflappability. The grind, the battle, the stock-standard approach – it fails to conquer them.
For the Broncos to at last break a 17-year premiership drought, Penrith need to be thrown a curveball.
Get the inside word on the news, sport, food, people and places Brisbane is talking about. Sign up for our City Talk newsletter here.