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And then there were two: Talking points from NRL preliminary final weekend

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Expert
26th September, 2021
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Penrith and South Sydney are your 2021 NRL grand finalists!

Souths took a leisurely stroll past Manly, while Penrith played one of the best defensive games you’ll ever see to jam an iron bar into the spokes of the previously freewheeling Melbourne Storm. Here are your talking points from preliminary finals weekend.

What a game we got on Saturday
The pre-emptive grand final match up that was not to be. Penrith were busted, weary from two smashmouth grinds and ripe for a trademark Melbourne kill. I know I had the Storm by a mile, and many others too. How differently things turned out.

The Storm’s early injuries and a Bulldogs-like approach to ball security didn’t help their cause but the game was lost in their heads because of Penrith’s defence. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Storm team so rattled to the point of panic. Nothing they tried worked.

Their confidence was shot as the Panthers defensive wall absorbed wave after wave offering not even a silver of light. As coach Craig Bellamy said, both teams got what they deserved. Penrith were remarkable.

For those wondering, the game rated its face off. Combining free-to-air and Fox League figures, around 1.67 million watch the game. That includes 193,000 in Melbourne. In fact, 49,000 more people watched the game in Melbourne than did in Brisbane.

The decision to switch times was the right one.

Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm is tackled

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Yet again we have to talk about player welfare
Friday night we had Sean Keppie almost stumbling into a play the ball after being concussed attempting a tackle, while on Saturday Christian Welch was allowed to play on after a head knock before being taken from the field.

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Penrith’s Jarome Luai took a shot from Cameron Munster and went off for an HIA, coming back after halftime yet admitting post-match he had been dizzy and ‘blacked out’. Nathan Cleary took a big hit late and looked to be in real stumble trouble, but he didn’t even see a trainer.

I understand the club perspective – they don’t want players to miss, they need them and there’s a grand final on offer. They’re not going to take a key player off unless they’re forced to. So maybe it’s time decisions like this were taken out of the club’s hands with independent doctors and stronger rules allowing referees to stop play or send players from the field if they’re obviously compromised.

I’d accept whatever they came up with to make sure players are looked out for, but I know that’s not the common view, even among the players themselves.

Could the reserve rule do with a tweak?
Sean Keppie, Christian Welch’s and Brandon Smith’s failed HIAs left their sides short on the bench early in season defining games, but there were fit players sitting right there who weren’t allowed to come on.

Tevita Funa was Manly’s reserve player, Tom Eisenhuth Melbourne’s. Surely they should be able to replace the first player to fail an HIA to give their team some balance and a full interchange. If more players fail HIAs then so be it, but at least the first player out should be able to be replaced.

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As the rule stands, reserve players cannot participate unless their teams lose three players to concussions, or one to foul play.

I didn’t like the substitute rule when it was implemented because to me it was yet again the NRL just seeming to act on a problem instead of actually doing anything about it. The chances of the reserve player being activated under the current rules were always miniscule. I hope it’s looked at in the offseason.

Cam Murray was a colossus
Friday night might have been a pretty straightforward belting but the Souths backrower’s night is well worth a mention.

Murray made 35 tackles without miss, broke five tackles and made three offloads which contributed to the Rabbitohs keeping Manly’s defence off balance. He also ran for 195 metres and took 24 runs, a massive workload. That 195 included 70 after contact, the most of any player on the field.

Murray’s defence was even more important as he covered an injured Adam Reynolds. He’s having a fantastic season and Penrith will be doing their homework on how they can avoid him on Sunday.

Cam Murray

Cameron Murray of the Rabbitohs celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the NRL Semi Final match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Manly Sea Eagles at ANZ Stadium on September 20, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Halves injuries will dominate grand final week speculation
Souths halfback Adam Reynolds tweaked a groin before Friday’s win over Manly, not bad enough to miss the game but bad enough not to or kick too much in general play and to hand the goal kicking duties to Blake Taafe. He’ll most likely play.

His fellow halfback Nathan Cleary is banged up too, with shoulder problems and the aforementioned big hit leaving an impact. Forward Tevita Pangai Junior has a knee problem, Brian To’o is nursing his ankle through the finals and premier front rower James Fisher-Harris has a bung knee and Moses Leota has a bad calf. I imagine Luai will be ok’d to play, regardless of his apparent HIA dodging.

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And so begins a week of rumours, whispers and wall-to-wall coverage of muscles, tendons and heads. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wayne
I love him. What a coach. What a manager and motivator of men. This is his tenth grand final, that’s six more than Penrith have made as a club. I can’t wait to see how he riles up Ivan Cleary and the rugby league media in general this week.

So we have our grand final combatants after a big weekend. What did you make of the two preliminary finals?

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