After years of waiting for the cash register toching“, the National Rugby League has finally got what they wanted: a grand final that was entirely in Sydney.
The only problem? It’s in Brisbane.
After moving the entire match slot and stock to Queensland, the Souths Sydney Rabbitohs and the Penrith Panthers are the last two teams left. For the first time in the game’s history – with the exception of the 1997 Super League grand final that no one wants to name – Brisbane will play host to the big dance after Palaszczuk’s government receives a check for $4 million. 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 knowing that the AFL has taken a strong foothold in the state of Sunshine over the past decade, while Queensland’s league outfits – the Broncos, Titans and Cowboys – continue to falter, this Grand Final is also strategic. Hosting the clash in Queensland is also a strategic move by the NRL as it seeks to mark its territory ahead of the unveiling of the mysterious 17th team for 2023, likely in Redcliffe, in the coming weeks.
NRL Grand Final 2021: the participants
At the start of this season, everyone expected the NRL Grand Final to be a rematch between the Penrith Panthers and the Melbourne Storm. Penrith finished in close second to the Storm, but defeated them 10-6 in the preliminary final after losing to the Rabbitohs – who they now face in Sunday’s grand final – way back in week 1 of the final.
The stories for both clubs go something like this…
They have been the rising force of the league in recent years with a bonafide superstar in Nathan Cleary, coached by his father Ivan and surrounded by the friends he grew up with while playing in Western Sydney. Penrith made the Grand Final last year, losing 26-20 to the Melbourne Storm. But it didn’t quite tell the whole story, with Melbourne having 20 minutes to go at the foot of the gas.
The Panthers were accused of missing out on the big games, but they avenged the Storm and held them to single digits for the first time in 18 months to advance to this year’s final. Cleary is the linchpin, that’s for sure, but his supporting cast is just as important.
Little Samoan winger Brian To’o is a pocket rocket that eats yards from the backfield, Isaah Yeo is the lock that balances their attack, and enforcer James Fisher-Harris lays the law in advance. The Panthers were known for their flamboyant play throughout the regular season, with five-eighth Jarome Luai the man deciding when to deploy Matt Burton and Viliame Kikau’s assault weapons.
They averaged the best part of 30 points per game, but since the final series came they have played with patience and balance. The Panthers’ defense has come under scrutiny and only the Rabbitohs have been able to score more than one try against them in the past month. And if there’s one team that can turn it on when the big day comes, it’s the Panthers.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
This team is littered with stories. 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 sent off due to the Rabbitohs’ reluctance to offer him a contract of sufficient length to stay with Redfern next season.
The Bunnies cited age and injuries as reasons for their stance and Reynolds will now go to the Broncos in 2022.
This is probably NRL’s last game for exchange sub Benji Marshall, the man of flicks and tricks who had kids all over the country trying to impersonate him when he came on the scene in 2003. Reynolds’ half partner, Cody Walker, will also be his key.
A contender for the Dally M Medal, Walker has stepped up all season and has taken to another level in the absence of Latrell Mitchell. That’s why the coaching of Wayne Bennett – who is now 71 and has coached premiership winning teams since Bob Hawke was Prime Minister – has been so integral. Most teams would struggle with a seven-game rookie named Blake Taaffe as a fullback, but Bennett has done it again.
Bennett’s contract with the Bunnies expires this year and rumor has it that the veteran, who won his first premiership on this 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 favorite for the award given the influence he has on the Panthers. Hooker Api Koroisau and five-eighth Jarome Luai (both pay $13.00 with TAB) are also useful choices for those with Penrith beliefs.
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 cover a fairytale climb to first grade and knock out the top gong while whore Damien Cook (also $13.00) could open the game with just one run. Halves, five-eighths and fullbacks have invariably been the heroes in grand finals for the past ten years.
The Clive Churchill Medal has only been won twice in the last 10 years by an attacker. Isaah Yeo ($13.00) by Penrith and Cameron Murray ($11.00) of the Rabbitohs will offer a decent value.
Who does history tell us that the Premiership will win?
The last time Penrith lost a major final and then qualified for the next season’s decider, they took home the Premiership after the second call. That said, in 1991, most of this year’s lace hadn’t even been born yet. In more recent times, the Panthers have defeated the Rabbitohs in four of their last five encounters. One was a 56-12 shellacking in Dubbo, but crucially for the Rabbitohs, they claimed victory the last time these two sides met in Townsville on week one of the final.
The Bunnies won 16-10 and were able to wipe out Penrith’s attacking power. The Rabbitohs haven’t lost a Grand Final since 1969, admitting they’ve only been three in that span. Prop Tom Burgess, winger Alex Johnston and Reynolds himself are the only players left from their last win in 2014, while Penrith’s Api Koroisau came out for Souths in that same game.
What it means for the coaches
This is a completely free shot for Wayne Bennett. He has helped Souths improve year after year and made sure they peak at the right time after often being the bridesmaids and never the brides. Despite their obvious star power, not many expected Bennett to be able to get this set of Souths players to the grand final. He is leaving a club that is inevitably going through a transition period.
With Benji Marshall, Jaydn Su’A, Adam Reynolds and Dane Gagai all leaving, the intriguing storyline of Bennett’s current assistant Jason Demetriou in 2022 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 rest on Ivan Cleary. For all their winning streaks over the 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 matches and not won a premiership. Cleary hopes this is his third time lucky.
The Panthers have a core group of players that stick together, but other parts start to fall away.
Matt Burton and Brent Naden join the Bulldogs, Kurt Capewell is linked 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 NRL Grand Final 2021?
This year’s grand finale is live and exclusively on Channel 9 this Sunday from 7.30pm (AEDT).
Fox League does not own the rights to the game, but will host a pre-game show along with a rerun right after full-time. Priority tickets were available to club members, after which fans could obtain a general admission ticket via the NRL website (UPDATE – NOW SOLD OUT).
What will be the entertainment of the grand finale?
Kate Miller-Heidke and The Stafford Brothers are among the acts that will perform. Former Cold Chisel star Ian Moss will also perform, along with Timmy Trumpet, didgeridoo player William Barton and a 40-piece orchestra.
What are the 2021 NRL Grand Final Premiership odds?
South ($2.25) enters the game as underdog, with Penrith defending ($1.67) probably mean they take the title home. But with Bennett, Marshall and Reynolds all parting ways from the club, it would take a brave person to bet against the Bunnies.
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