The NRL grand final is here! It may not be the clash we were expecting, but the Penrith Panthers will attempt to avenge last year’s loss, and a Week 1 finals loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who play their first decider since 2014.
The Panthers will be drawing on last year’s experience, when they lost the grand final to the Melbourne Storm. It was a win over the Storm last week which has seen them through to the decider in what was a physical war of attrition. Physical has not been a word used to describe many games this season, owing to the rule changes and faster style of play, but that’s exactly what Penrith have done three weeks in a row.
Their loss to the Rabbitohs in Week 1, followed up by wins over the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs in the following weeks have been just that – low-scoring and physical. It’s a style of game which suits the Panthers though, although fatigue could be an issue this weekend. They have the NRL’s best defensive record and, while they finished the season conceding just under 12 points per game, at the midway point of the season, that was a figure in single digits.
The rigours of Origin cost them the incredible number, however, they have rediscovered that defensive touch in the last few weeks, conceding just four tries in three finals games. Holding Melbourne to six points last week despite having just 46 per cent of the ball was a result of outstanding defensive structures and Nathan Cleary’s kicking game. He kicked for 672 metres, constantly forcing Melbourne to work it out of their own end. Quantity of possession is one thing, but quality of it is another, and the pressure put on by the kicking game and defence forced Melbourne into plenty of sloppy handling errors.
They will need to be on a similar level this weekend if they are to slow down the Rabbitohs, who have an unbelievably dangerous attack. The left edge has scored a higher percentage of tries than any other edge, left or right, in the competition. Alex Johnston is a master finisher, but Cody Walker has a record number of assists, Dane Gagai is an Origin centre, and the space and time Cameron Murray and Damien Cook allow them to play with is unmatched.
The Rabbitohs will undoubtedly attempt to make this a shootout. As much as defence wins premierships, and they went toe to toe with the Panthers in a physical encounter in the first week of the finals, it’s not their style. If they can turn this into a high-scoring game, then they have the edge all over the park.
Wayne Bennett’s side scored 99 more points in the regular season than Penrith, engaging the line more than any other team as they made the most of fatigue and the new rules. They are also incredibly unselfish, laying on more try assists than any other side, which will no doubt leave Penrith scrambling.
It really is up in the air what sort of game we get, however, momentum is a powerful beast. The Panthers have it, and in a physical battle, South Sydney’s players won’t be match-hardened, with most of the top guns rested in Round 25, before having the week off, and a less than physical encounter last week. That is a recipe for disaster if this game is middle third focused.
As much as the Rabbitohs have a story to write and script to follow for Adam Reynolds, Benji Marshall and coach Wayne Bennett, it’s hard to see them matching the physicality of the men from the foot of the mountains.