After years of waiting for the cash register to go “ker-ching“, the National Rugby League has finally got what it wanted – an all-Sydney grand final.
The only problem? It’s in Brisbane.
Having moved the whole competition lock and stock to Queensland, the Souths Sydney Rabbitohs and the Penrith Panthers are the last two teams standing. For the first time in the game’s history – barring the Super League grand final of 1997 which nobody wants to mention – Brisbane will play host to the big dance after being handed a $4 million cheque by the Palaszczuk government. For NRL CEO Andrew Abdo, a Grand Final in Brisbane is the only logical solution given the COVID case numbers in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
But cognisant of the fact that the AFL has made strong in-roads in the Sunshine state over the last decade as Queensland’s league outfits – the Broncos, Titans and Cowboys – continue to falter, this Grand Final is strategic, too. Hosting the clash in Queensland is also a strategic move of the NRL attempting to mark its territory ahead of its unveiling of the mystery 17th team for 2023, likely to be in Redcliffe, over the next few weeks.
2021 NRL Grand Final: The Competitors
At the start of this season, everybody expected the NRL Grand Final to be a rematch between the Penrith Panthers and the Melbourne Storm. Penrith finished a close second to the Storm but pipped them in the preliminary final 10-6 after losing to the Rabbitohs – who they now face in this Sunday’s Grand Final – way back in week 1 of the finals.
The narratives for both clubs go something like this…
They’re the emerging force of the competition over the last few years with a bonafide superstar in Nathan Cleary, coached by his dad Ivan and surrounded by the mates he grew up playing with in Western Sydney. Penrith made last year’s Grand Final, losing 26-20 to the Melbourne Storm. But it didn’t really tell the whole story, with Melbourne taking their foot off the gas with 20 minutes to go.
The Panthers had been accused of going missing in the big games, but they’ve avenged the Storm and held them to single figures for the first time in 18 months to advance to this year’s finale. Cleary is the lynchpin, that’s for sure, but his supporting cast is equally as important.
Diminutive Samoan winger Brian To’o is a pocket rocket that eats metres out of the backfield, Isaah Yeo is the lock who balances their attack, and enforcer James Fisher-Harris lays down the law upfront. The Panthers were known for their flamboyant play throughout the regular season, with five-eighth Jarome Luai the man who decided when to unleash the strike weapons of Matt Burton and Viliame Kikau.
They were averaging the best part of 30 points per game, but since the finals series came around they have played with patience and poise. The Panthers’ defence has held up under scrutiny, with only the Rabbitohs able to score more than one try against them in the last month. And if there’s any team who can turn it on when the big day arrives, it’s the Panthers.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
This team is littered with narratives. Captain Adam Reynolds is battling a groin injury as he prepares to play his last game for the club he grew up supporting. Reynolds has also been pushed out due to the Rabbitohs’ reluctance to offer him a contract of sufficient length to stay at Redfern next season.
The Bunnies cited age and injury as reasons for their stance and Reynolds will now head to the Broncos in 2022.
This is likely the last game of NRL for interchange sub Benji Marshall, the man of flicks and tricks that had kids across the country trying to imitate him when he burst onto the scene in 2003. Reynolds’ halves partner, Cody Walker, will also be key.
A contender for the Dally M medal, Walker has stepped up all season and has gone to another level in the absence of Latrell Mitchell. That’s why the coaching of Wayne Bennett – who is now 71 and has been coaching premiership-winning sides since Bob Hawke was Prime Minister – has been so integral. Most teams would struggle with a seven-game rookie called Blake Taaffe at fullback, but Bennett has done it once again.
Bennett’s contract expires with the Bunnies this year and it’s rumoured that the veteran, who won his first premiership at this very ground in 1985 with Souths Magpies in the Brisbane competition, could stay in Queensland to coach the 17th NRL team.
Who will win the Clive Churchill Medal?
Nathan Cleary ($3.50) will be the overwhelming favourite for the prize given how influential he is for the Panthers. Hooker Api Koroisau and five-eighth Jarome Luai (both paying $13.00 with TAB) are also handy picks for those of a Penrith persuasion.
For Souths, the emotional choice is Adam Reynolds ($13.00) but the most likely candidate is Cody Walker ($7.50). Rookie fullback Blake Taaffe ($34.00) could cap a fairytale rise to first grade and take out the top gong, while hooker Damien Cook (also $13.00) could break the game open with just one run. Halves, five-eighths and fullbacks are invariably the heroes in grand finals over the last decade.
Who does history tell us will win the Premiership?
The last time Penrith lost a Grand Final and then qualified for the following season’s decider, they took home the Premiership on the second time of asking. That being said, back in 1991, most of this year’s side wasn’t even born yet. In more recent times, the Panthers have beaten the Rabbitohs in four of their last five meetings. One of those was a 56-12 shellacking in Dubbo, but crucially for the Rabbitohs, they claimed victory the last time these two sides met in Townsville in week one of the finals.
The Bunnies won 16-10 and were able to nullify Penrith’s attacking prowess. The Rabbitohs have not lost a Grand Final since 1969, admittedly, they have only been in three in that period. Prop Tom Burgess, winger Alex Johnston, and Reynolds himself are the only players who remain from their last triumph in 2014, while Penrith’s Api Koroisau turned out for Souths in that same game.
What it means for the coaches
This is a completely free shot for Wayne Bennett. He’s helped Souths improve year on year and had them peaking at the right time after often being the bridesmaids and never the brides. Despite their obvious star power, not many people would have expected Bennett to be able to get this set of Souths players into the Grand Final. He leaves a club that will inevitably go through a period of transition.
With Benji Marshall, Jaydn Su’A, Adam Reynolds, and Dane Gagai all leaving, how Bennett’s current assistant Jason Demetriou steps up to the task next year will be an intriguing storyline in 2022. No team has been beaten by 50 and won the premiership. Souths suffered that fate twice. If Bennett wins this without Latrell Mitchell, it will be his greatest coaching achievement to date.
Undoubtedly, the weight of expectation will be on Ivan Cleary. For all their winning streaks over the last few years, Cleary’s coaching career has been tainted by near-misses. In 2011 he took the Warriors to the final but couldn’t get the job done, and last year, when Penrith got there, they looked rudderless. Only Brian Smith has coached more games and not won a premiership. Cleary will be hoping this is his third time lucky.
The Panthers have a core group of players that will stick together but other parts are beginning to fall away.
Matt Burton and Brent Naden are joining the Bulldogs, Kurt Capewell is linking with Brisbane and Viliame Kikau has been named as a target for the Cowboys, Dragons and rugby union.
When and where can you watch the 2021 NRL Grand Final?
This year’s Grand Final will be live and exclusive on Channel 9 from 7.30 pm (AEDT) this Sunday.
Fox League doesn’t have the rights to the match but will host a pre-game show along with a replay straight after full-time. Tickets were available to club members as a priority, and then fans could get a general admission ticket from the NRL’s website (UPDATE – NOW SOLD OUT).
What will the Grand Final entertainment be?
Kate Miller-Heidke and The Stafford Brothers are among those acts set to perform. Former Cold Chisel star Ian Moss will also feature along with Timmy Trumpet, didgeridoo player William Barton and a 40-piece orchestra.
What are the 2021 NRL Grand Final Premiership odds?
Souths ($2.25) will head into the match as underdogs, with the defence of Penrith ($1.67) likely to mean they will take home the title. But with Bennett, Marshall and Reynolds all bidding the club farewell, it would take a brave person to bet against the Bunnies.
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