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Opinion

Wayne the winner: Talking points as Bunnies blow NRL finals wide open with Penrith upset

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Expert
11th September, 2021
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Expectations were high when South Sydney faced the second-placed Panthers and the Bunnies delivered the goods, turning two regular season beatings into a stirring 16-10 qualifying final victory. Here are the talking points from a result that turns the 2021 NRL finals series into a most interesting place…

That was fun, wasn’t it?
Usually finals football, and particularly top four games, are grinding, tough wars of attrition. After a relatively subdued first half where the highlight was four penalty goals in the first half, the pressure ramped up, Souths wouldn’t loosen their grip and the Panthers became increasingly frustrated.

The Bunnies had the game at their mercy in the last 15 minutes but couldn’t kill it off entirely with some baffling decisions, especially when Alex Johnson kicked straight to Stephen Crichton when a pass would have done. Cody Walker also gave away a horrible penalty to give Penrith another crack with only minutes left but the cardinal and myrtle had enough heart to scramble and neutralise Penrith’s final frantic efforts.

South Sydney’s defence was relentless and their pressure made the Panthers crack. They fully deserved the win.

That wasn’t what Penrith were expecting

After weathering an initial burst from Souths, Penrith looked to have the game on their terms after 20 minutes with a 6-2 lead, but they weren’t able to make the decisive attacks they could the last time these teams met.

Their defence was solid as usual and they didn’t look too ruffled about much the Bunnies were doing, but it took them almost an hour to free themselves up enough to attack with speed and movement. By then they were cooked from the physicality and intensity Souths brought for a full 80 minutes.

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Penrith wasted their captain’s challenge on a speculator, ramped up the niggle as they became more and more frustrated, gave away penalties, rushed their attack in most uncharacteristic ways and made 12 errors to boot. Jarome Luai and Nathan Cleary couldn’t give the direction they usually would. The game definitely wasn’t going the way they expected.

They’re also a mouthy team, Penrith. They chirp and poke and prod their opponents, which works great when you’re flying and in charge but no so much when you’re in a street fight.

At 14-10 Penrith tried to get stuck in and see if they could divert Rabbitohs attention. Souths, to their credit, didn’t take any bait and stayed laser-focused on what they were doing.

Blake Taafe ain’t Latrell Mitchell, but he didn’t have to be

Covering for one of the game’s most dynamic players at fullback in your sixth NRL game when you’re usually a five-eighth is a hell of a challenge.

When Blake Taafe knocked on in the 6th minute, the Panthers promptly scored the game’s first try and there were ominous signs about previous Panther beltings. Taafe would have wanted the ground to open up and swallow him.

But he got back up and played a great game.

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He was solid enough at the back to repel Penrith and made a nice play to put winger Jaxson Paulo over in the corner after halftime for the decisive try. He kicked the ball dead to give Panthers a 7-tackle set with 12 minutes to go, but made a magnificent, towering catch from a Cleary bomb to kill that set dead with Panthers fullback Crichton in his face. That was symbolic of how he grew into the game. Well done, young man.

Wayne won the war
Tonight was Wayne Bennett’s 888th game as a coach and it was a classic Bennett finals ambush. Penrith were made to play the way Souths wanted them to, rather than being freed up to play with control and incision they prefer.

There’s no better coach in the NRL to point his men at a single goal and fill them with the belief they can achieve it.

In Chinese culture, the number ‘8’ is considered to be the most lucky of all the numbers because when you speak it, it sounds similar to the words meaning wealth”, “fortune”, and “prosper”. The more 8s you can get into a number, the luckier you’ll get. How about that.

Bennett had gotten under Ivan Cleary’s skin with comments about the referees before the match, and their verbals continued after, with Bennett coming out on top in the interview room, as well as the field.

The surface in Townsville was diabolical
Stadium surfaces in Queensland have copped heavy traffic while the league has based itself up north, but the surface for this game had already been chopped up by the Roosters v Titans game and clumps of turf were flying everywhere in every tackle.

Early on, some players looked like they were dancing on ice in heels as they tried to judge how firm their footing was. Luckily no one was hurt, but it shouldn’t be something players need in their heads when they’re playing elite sport.

Tom Burgess was just incredible
Burgess was a colossal figure in this game. He came on after 20 minutes when it looked like Penrith were starting to control proceedings and he tore their middle to shreds.

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He churned out 212 metres (including 80 post contact), broke tackles, forced the Panthers’ defensive line constantly on its heels and with help from Tevita Tatola and Mark Nicholls, laid a great platform for Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker to control the game as they liked.

So what’s next?
Souths have lost preliminary finals in 2018, 2019 and 2020 (by a total 18 points) but they’ve never had the benefit of the week off. Last time they had a week off into a preliminary final was 2014, and we all know what happened next.

They’ll enjoy a break in the sun before facing up to either Manly or the Roosters with a grand final spot on the line.

As for Penrith, they basically have fury road ahead of them. Next week is either the Knights or Eels and if they get past them, a rested Melbourne Storm awaits.

There’s no easy run to a premiership, but that is a diabolical challenge. If any team is up to it Penrith are, but man oh man, they’ve made it hard on themselves. There’s a lot of thinking to do for the mountain men.

What did you make of the Rabbitohs’ win, Roarers? What does it mean for the rest of the finals series?

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