Many scripts, including this one, have been rewritten in the lead-up to next week’s grand final.
The dream storyline that had the two master coaches presiding over the week is shelved. Now it is the story of the beloved grand old wizard against Ivan the Terrible.
Not too many saw this coming. And who would have expected Penrith-Storm to be the close game, and Souths-Manly to be the blowout? The Sage, that’s who. Peter Sterling picked it last week.
The NRL will be loving this match-up. While it is two Sydney teams playing in Brisbane, Souths have fans everywhere, and a lot of people will pay money hoping to see Penrith lose.
It would be a sell-out no matter who is playing. But for many, another Melbourne grand final was getting to be like reruns of Days of Our Lives. This match-up will have much more spice.
People find plenty of reasons to criticise Ivan Cleary and his team. And his press statements during Souths and Penrith’s last clash didn’t endear him to many fans.
If the choice comes down to the popularity of the coach and his team, Souths will command the backing of all the swinging voters. Will that worry Ivan? If he hasn’t learnt from last time or takes it personally, then maybe. But like his enormously talented son Nathan, I expect he is a quick learner, and smart enough to be relishing the lack of love.
For now, he’ll be nursing his battered troops. The Panthers seemed to be looking tired 15 minutes into the contest, and at numerous times throughout. But they kept finding the energy to turn up.
They missed plenty of tackles in the middle of the field, as teams tend to do against the Storm. But they made the tackles that mattered, including several try savers in the first half.
Who stops Justin Olam that close to the line? Normally, only a man with a shotgun. Or two rocks in Kurt Capewell and Stephen Crichton. Both have been outstanding for Penrith late in the season and typified their team’s resilience throughout this match.
With each Penrith mistake or play that fell the way of Melbourne, you felt this is it. The turning point. But it never turned, and Penrith never blinked. They held their nerve for 80 minutes against the best attack in the competition.
It needed the best defensive team of the year to produce the best defence of the year. Maybe of the decade. But is it premiership-winning?
On paper, Wayne Bennett has it all falling into place for his team. After 34 seasons coaching in the NRL, he knows how to have his team peaking at the right time. As opposed to Craig Bellamy, who seemed to have his team peaking all year. And they’re gone.
Bennett has always been a coach who can get the best out of all his players. Is Cody Walker a big game player? Maybe not, but he is under Wayne. Walker’s match on Friday night was outstanding, even after two of his early passes went to ground and threatened to unsettle him.
And what about youngster Blake Taaffe, playing with close to the highest pressure on any player? You wouldn’t know it. Taaffe is playing with a maturity well beyond his years. And his lack of experience seems to be a non-factor.
As Bennett stressed post-match, it is a team game. Everyone looks out for each other and shares the pressure. And he has all his players believing it.
Then, of course, there is Benji Marshall. We know other coaches weren’t prepared to give him a go. But could any of them had him performing like this? It takes a special kind of love to get those 36-year-old legs dancing again. Josh Schuster’s no-look pass? Where do you think he learnt it? Benji produced one in this game as well.
Wayne was cagey about what this week will bring. But he will love it all being about him. Because that is Wayne Bennett. And because he knows it takes the pressure off his team.
He was certainly chuffed after the Manly win, as the big smile at the post-match presser showed. At close to 15 minutes, was this a world record Wayne Bennett press conference?
Souths have been improving every week since their last loss, to Penrith, in Round 23. A loss that now counts for nothing and would have been one of those Bennett would have been happy to have.
This is a different Rabbitohs team and one that holds most of the cards. All the reasons Souths will win are being dished up to them on a plate.
They will have the support of most of the rugby league community – with the fans, but surprisingly not with the bookies. And they hold the psychological advantage over their opponents.
If it looked like the Christian Welsh-Tavita Pangai Junior stoush was shaping as a good one, wait and see what the Souths forwards have in store for Penrith.
And do you think Bennett be warning them against conflict? He’ll be inventing stories to fire them up! Souths have the motivation of sending Adam Reynolds, and Wayne himself, out as winners. And everyone will be kept guessing, including the man himself, but it could be the end of Benji Marshall’s stellar career as well.
Souths will be fresh after resting players in the final round, having a week off, and two finals that didn’t tax them physically.
And they have nine days rest between the last two matches. A lot of the speculation in the first week of the finals was about the benefit of resting players. The real answer to that will come this week.
Souths are certainly fit and ready to go.
Adam Reynolds has a habit of picking up injuries around semi-finals time and has done so again. But this groin injury is one he can play with, and one that improves when he warms up, as evidenced the other night. He’ll be good to go and may even resume goal-kicking duties during the match.
Reynolds is one player Bennett won’t be spending much time with during the week. He knows what he is going to get from his captain Consistency.
What a match-up this looks to be: Reynolds versus Nathan Cleary. On the one side, a player who will make no mistakes. On the other, a player who holds the key to an entire season.
Reynolds is still the best tactical kicker in the game. Possibly the best for many years.
Cleary looked to be overtaking him on that score this year but seems to have lost the magic since the finals began. Other than his pearler for Stephen Crichton in the preliminary final, there has been nothing special off his boot for a while. His kicking, and Penrith’s attack, have been conservative.
At least until now.
The Souths forwards will be expected to dominate. But in reality, the opposing packs are well matched. James Fisher-Harris and Liam Martin offer as much muscle as Tevita Tatola and Tom Burgess. Scott Sorensen is as good off the bench as Jai Arrow, and Isaah Yeo is as smart and hardworking as Cameron Murray. And perhaps a better ballplayer. There’s not much between Api Koroisau and Damien Cook.
Maybe Viliame Kikau can offer some X-factor to counter Benji Marshall. That is if he can find his groove in attack and do some tackling practice during the week.
There is plenty of strike power out wide for Souths, with try-scoring king Alex Johnston being fed by Taaffe, and Dane Gagai, who is still a special player. But the Penrith backs are equally solid, and they have Brian To’o. He might still be carrying a foot injury, but that didn’t stop him bending the Melbourne line at times that may herald him being close to his best.
It will be too much to ask some fans to ease up on their hatred of the Panthers. But like those who dislike the Storm yet give them begrudging respect, how can there not be some admiration for Penrith after this?
I expect nothing will change. And Penrith might just make a weapon out of now being the most hated team.
Souths will come out of the blocks the fastest and with the most energy they have all year. And Penrith will try to weather the onslaught and get into the grind. Their defence may hold and win it again, but you get the feeling that if they can find a little of what has been missing in attack, that may make the difference.
A slanging match between coaches? Not this time. Ivan has said his piece, calling Wayne the best coach of all time.
Cleary will save his talk for his players and have a quiet chat with his son. He might remind him that even the great Johnathan Thurston had a quiet grand final in 2017 but iced the victory when it mattered. Cleary has been quiet by his standards, even against Melbourne.
I have a feeling that something may be about to change.
The way Nathan looked after last year’s grand final loss, you get the impression that if his team is to fall short again, it won’t be on him.