The Canberra Raiders have pulled off a dramatic late escape to avoid another horrendous defeat, scoring late to avert disaster against the Newcastle Knights.
I started the year hoping for a favourite to win and wrote an article as such.
Most of that was on the basis that, at the time, games were being played behind closed doors and fans wouldn’t have the opportunity to see their team live.
As such why not just have the Roosters or Storm get the trophy and have long-suffering fans avoid the heartache of not being able to attend a historic triumph, the Eels, Panthers and Raiders as such examples?
It’s fair to say I didn’t realise the sentiment among the NRL community, as I think most view this year as special, with the competition managing to resume and conclude under some very unusual circumstances. The Warriors made a massive sacrifice in remaining in Australia for months to protect the interests of the game.
All the players have been living in “the bubble” for the year, unable to see family or go about life as they normally would.
The Storm have had to relocate to Queensland, although that seems like not such a bad deal at the moment. Whatever way you spin it, 2020 has been far from what anyone would have expected and every player deserves credit.
With fans now able to attend, a unique end seems only fitting to what has been an incredibly unique season. At this point it can’t get much better than a Raiders and Panthers grand final.
The Panthers last premiership came back in 2003, with the Raiders not having lifted the trophy since 1994.
The Panthers were far from competition favourites heading into this season. They were downright awful at times in 2019, and while they ended the season on a positive note, to tip them as minor premiers would have brave by any standard. It has been a record-breaking season for this bunch of youngsters.
They have just the one loss next to their name, and are on a run of 16 straight wins. In any season that is an achievement. Nathan Cleary tik toking in lockdown seems like long ago, and the Panthers are in reach of grand final glory.
The Raiders, well they were one of the competition heavyweights this year, after narrowly going down to the Roosters in the 2019 grand final. They recruited a halfback in George Williams, who they said could help them go one better this year.
The Raiders haven’t had it all go their way in 2020. There were doubts about their prospects when Josh Hodgson was ruled out for the season, such has been his influence over this team in recent seasons. Instead they have reinvented themselves, and steadily built their premiership charge.
The Panthers take on the Rabbitohs after a week’s rest, wary of just how rampant they have been in recent weeks. It took them until Round 20 to get heads turning, with a commanding 62-8 demolition job on the Roosters.
They proved it was no accident with a 46-20 win over the Knights a week later and have surged into the preliminary final with a comeback win over the Eels.
They Rabbitohs have had no trouble bullying lesser sides and racking up scores when things go their way. But they have stumbled when they come up against sides that stand up to them and nullify their forward pack.
They had just two wins from eight games against top eight sides before Round 20, they have come into some momentum, but they have shown this year they can wilt under the pressure.
There were some big momentum shifts in the game against Parramatta. A glut of possession in the opening 15 minutes or so saw them go up 8-0 before the Eels scored three tries in a blistering patch to lead by ten at the break. The Rabbitohs would work their way back and take the lead, before the Eels were offered a penalty goal to lock things up 20-all. Instead Mitch Moses hit the post and the Rabbitohs would score off the back of it.
The final three tries to the Rabbitohs were off an error to Clint Gutherson in his own in-goal, an intercept and then an effort by Damien Cook with the game over to blow out the scoreline. While the Rabbitohs rode the momentum and did everything right after being behind, they were certainly helped by the Eels inability to mange the end of the game.
The Panthers are fit, well rested and full of confidence. They completed at 95 per cent against the Roosters, a remarkable level of control from a young side in a big game.
While the margin was only 1, that was flattering for the Roosters, when they led by 18 early in the second half it looked as though the Panthers hadn’t anticipated such a situation and as a result failed to go on with it like they could have.
Nathan Cleary had tremendous control in the game against the Roosters. He did all the little things right as a halfback, defending strongly as always, and getting the polish on the back of their sets. He scored three tries through his support play, and desire to win the contest to the ball.
When they got in position for a field goal and a seven-point lead he didn’t miss. In the end that was the difference.
Jarome Luai is finally getting some recognition next to Cleary. Plenty were calling for Matt Burton to be the five-eighth for Penrith this year, and on his performance in the NRL the Panthers could do a lot worse.
But Luai has more than justified his selection. He has nine tries, and 22 assists for the year, trumping his halves partner in both categories.
Truthfully it is hard to find a weakness in the Panthers team. They get more recognition around their attack, but it has been their defence this year that has been the difference.
They have strangled the life out of teams, often holding a match winning lead by halftime. They are conceding an average of less than 12 points per game, you couldn’t ask for any better. While the Rabbitohs have enjoyed a three week purple patch, the Panthers game management and defence will be the difference in this one.
The Raiders take on a team that they have built a bit of a rivalry with of late. They booked a home preliminary final last year when they managed to beat the Storm at AAMI Park, with a try to John Bateman late in the game. They have to go to Suncorp for this one, but after a successful raid on the Roosters at the SCG, I don’t think that will bother them too much,
Ricky Stuart played some odds on the eve of the finals, resting virtually his whole squad against the Sharks. Knowing more than likely they were going for a premiership tilt from the bottom of the eight, it was going to be the only opportunity at a rest for the Green Machine.
They started show against the Sharks in week 1 of the finals, something we may see from the Storm on Friday night after a week off of their own.
The Raiders have built through this finals series. They were immense in the first half an hour or so against the Roosters, and built a match winning lead. But with momentum shifting they would have the Roosters coming to get them in the second half, and were forced to defend their way to victory.
When James Tedesco donated them an error in the in-goal, the ever present Jack Wighton would pounce for the try that would be the difference. The Roosters scored late, but with another error from Tedesco couldn’t find the killer blow.
The Raiders have all their stars playing at their best at the right time. They completed at 90 per cent against the Roosters, again fantastic control from a team in a big game. They withstood pressure, and took their opportunities when they were presented which is what you have to do in finals games.
They know how to play and win away from home.
The Storm have had an odd month or so. They had a very fortuitous draw to end the season, racking up scores on big opposition. They lost against the Dragons in the final round, but had all but a few first graders rested.
In the last four games, they Storm have conceded an average of 24 points, they have still won three of those games, but have outscored teams rather than defend their way to victory.
This isn’t the Melbourne Storm of seasons gone by. The clinical and calculated unit that offers you nothing. They have weaknesses in defence, and play a more expansive style in attack with so many threats across the park.
It has been a while since a team really stood up and challenged them. Sure the Eels led by 12, but when the Storm turned it on in attack, they quickly racked up the points to end the contest.
The Raiders want this win badly, as everyone does at this time of year, but they look more battle hardened. They know they can beat the Storm, they have won three of their last four between the two, including two away matches, playing at Suncorp won’t face them. They are capable of stout defence, and equally so of enterprising attack.
I expect them to start faster than the Storm, but me more resolute than the Eels were in defence and challenge the Storm to come and get them.
We are set for two cracking Preliminary finals this weekend. The Panthers and Storm as the top two and most consistent teams of the year, fresh and playing at home.
Up against two teams who have just managed to time their run better than other teams did, and now have an opportunity at the grand final. The Rabbitohs with their attack now just clicking into gear, and the Raiders who came so close last season to a historic premiership.
Nothing would surprise me, but I think it’ll be some nostalgia and the feel good story of 2020, when the Panthers and Raiders win this weekend to become our grand finalists.