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Stuck in neutral: Reasons to support – or boo – the Panthers and Souths in the NRL grand final

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27th September, 2021
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For supporters of Souths and Penrith, this may be the best week of the year. Your team is in the NRL grand final and you’ll spend the next five days dancing on the wind.

Then – if you’re legit – you’ll feel sick to the guts all day Sunday until full time.

But for the rest of the rugby league-loving public, this can be a tricky week to navigate. There are two bandwagons to jump on, but which do you choose?

For some, this is easily negotiated by either of our grand finalists being their second team. Me? I don’t believe in second teams. I’m not saying that like it’s not a thing – I get that some people have them – it’s just not a concept for me.

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Like, I’ve thought long and hard and reached the conclusion that if Newcastle were no longer in the NRL, I would support Manly (it’s their arrogance, I just respect it). But don’t confuse ‘would support if the Knights ceased to exist’ with ‘second team’. I hate Manly – it’s kind of my duty as an NRL fan.

So even though there are obviously plenty of second-team believers (wasn’t that a Monkees song?) the majority of us are still scratching around for a reason to get excited about Sunday’s game beyond the fact grand finals are a good excuse to sink a thousand beers and eat enough meat send a lion comatose.

Well I thought I’d delve into each club and give you a couple of reasons to get behind them.

But, because rugby league is a game of hate – and because I’m a Novocastrian, and thus have a chip on my shoulder and a long memory – I’ll also stump up some causes to boo for one or the other.

So here’s why you should, or shouldn’t, go for…

A Panthers fan shows his frustration

(Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

South Sydney Rabbitohs

The legend of the ‘people’s club’
Souths are the people’s club.

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The luminaries of the Grand Old Club are synonymous with rugby league in Australia, with legends the likes of John Sattler, Ron Coote and the Little Master himself, Clive Churchill, all having worn the famous cardinal and myrtle.

Souths were the competition’s first ever premiers, in 1908, and in 1967 – after 11 straight years of St George winning the grand final – it was the boys from Redfern who broke the Dragons’ stranglehold on the competition.

Their very identity is steeped in working-class legend, with the story going that their players made a crust in the early days by selling rabbits on the hard, fierce streets of Sydney’s south, yelling out “rabbitohs” in what was (I assume) the cutting-edge marketing of the day.

You want any more evidence? How about the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest the Bunnies getting kicked out of the comp in 1999? This moving piece of people power played a massive part in Souths being readmitted for the 2002 comp and eventually becoming the powerhouse they are today.

Are you a person? Why wouldn’t you get behind the people’s club?

South Sydney Rabbitohs fans

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The myth of the ‘people’s club’
Souths love to declare themselves as being the people’s club but, to be fair, they’re really only two people’s club: Russell Crowe and James Packer.

The club is 75 per cent owned by a Hollywood millionaire and a billionaire who made his money the old-fashioned way, by inheriting it.

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While I’ll concede many a club is likewise propped up by rich benefactors, the idea that Souths are made up of battlers from working-class suburbs is also somewhat undermined by the changing face of Sydney.

I mean, the Bunnies’ catchment area, as illustrated on a map on the Randwick Council website, takes in such gritty locales as South Coogee, Maroubra and La Perouse – suburbs defined by coastline and golf courses. The residents aren’t exactly scratching together a living by selling rabbit meat on the streets anymore.

Wayne Bennett becomes the greatest
This will be Wayne Bennett’s tenth grand final at four different clubs.

Bennett has now taken teams to grand finals in every decade since the 1980s – a grand final in five decades! Records are made to be broken, sure, but that one will take some beating!

The old knock that Bennett’s legacy was built on being lucky enough to have had access to all of Queensland’s talent and resources while at the Broncos has been absolutely put to bed, but winning a title at a third club would move it from a mattress to a coffin.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

And the reason he’s had so much success over so long is because he understands that rugby league is ultimately a pretty simple game: run hard, tackle hard, catch the ball.

In an era of data, metrics and sports science, it’s refreshing to see that the old ways aren’t extinct just yet.

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Wayne Bennett is the worst
But isn’t he just an old crank?

Like, the guy’s been the head coach at five different clubs over the last 35 or so years, during which time he’s won seven premierships, coached his state, his country and other countries.

He’s got a pool room that’d be overflowing with trophies, to say nothing of the health of his bank balance.

Yet he still manages to be just about the most miserable man in rugby league. There is no slight too small for Wayne to take issue with, he just loves a good whinge.

Even after his team won in a canter over the weekend and saying at the post-match presser that talking about his former club “doesn’t interest me”, Wayne managed to go on about how the Broncos tried to undermine him before he got the gig at Souths.

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The Broncos have spent two years on the canvas, while you’ve just qualified for yet another grand final, and yet you still want to push this narrative about what a raw deal you copped from those rat bastards at Red Hill?

There’s this theory in the media that Bennett’s just the master manipulator, making the story about himself so the focus isn’t on his players. But maybe, after 30 years of turning the focus on himself, it’s because that’s just what he wants?

And yes, as mentioned above, I’m from Newcastle. I’ve got other issues with Wayne, but I reckon they’ve probably had enough airtime.

Penrith Panthers

A young, local team of mates
After years of watching the grand final being won by ‘recruitment’ clubs, in the Storm and Roosters, wouldn’t it be great to see a team that’s been built from within take out the title?

Penrith are the ultimate argument that you can create a great team from the talent at your disposal, with the vast majority of their side having come up through the Panthers system or, at least, having only ever played for this club.

And it shows, because not only are they getting fantastic value from their players – if you tried to recruit their best 17 at their market value, you’d probably blow the salary cap for a full squad of 30 – you can see the connection these players have.

They won their way through to the decider last weekend on the back of one of the most resolute defensive displays you’ll ever see and – as I pointed out on the weekend – this wasn’t because they were completely error-free, but because they refused to let each other down. Missed tackles were covered by desperate cover defence that showed a commitment and desire that’s built on mateship.

Stephen Crichton celebrates a try.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And then there’s the way they celebrate! The sheer joy on their faces when they score tries and win games is impossible to fake and it’s a wonderful advertisement for the game of rugby league.

If the NRL wants a simple and effective means of getting more kids to play the game, just put together a highlights reel of the Panthers after Brian To’o has dived over in the corner or Jarome Luai has bamboozled the defence to skip across the line.

Their skills are mad, but their celebrations are infectious. Who doesn’t want to see a bit more of that on Sunday?

A young, local team of jerks
When you’re playing sport, your jubilation tends to come as a result of someone else’s misery – and few teams rub it in like these boys.

The best example of this was Stephen Crichton pulling Raiders forward Joseph Tapine into the Panthers’ post-try celebrations during a game in April. Crichton was slapped with a fine for contrary conduct over the incident.

Incidentally, he again pleaded guilty to this charge after the weekend’s game against the Storm, the young flyer having thrown Justin Olam’s boot over the sideline in another needless display of dickheadery.

Luai is regarded as the ringleader when there are accusations of Penrith being arrogant, having inherited the title of the game’s best sledger, while a photo of the five-eighth taunting Felise Kaufusi on the ground was used as Maroon fuel in Origin this year (not that it worked).

 

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Even their good guys are getting in on the act, with cleanskin skipper (well, apart from that TikTok incident) Nathan Cleary apparently deciding to walk a conversion attempt well in from the sideline on the weekend.

Of course, Cleary’s kicks have long been suspected as part of Penrith’s game manipulation, with Bennett raising the fact that the team illegally blocks their halfback when he’s about to put his boot to the pigskin – an issue that the NRL apparently decided wasn’t worth pursuing based on the wall that was set for him before his final kick of the game last weekend.

Don’t you love it when a plan comes together?
The Panthers have been building towards this for ten years now.

Talk of a five-year plan on the back of the club recruiting Phil Gould as their general manager in 2011 are all but impossible to track down – like, you’ll find plenty of references to this plan but I’m yet to actually see a single instance where the quote has come from Gould himself.

Regardless, things began to change at the foot of the mountains when Gould got there for his stint in head office, rather than on the paddock.

He pulled them out of financial disaster, trimmed the dead wood and instigated a plan to see the club develop its own talent.

Phil 'Gus' Gould

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

It’s one of those scenarios where a premiership too early may have actually been a trojan horse, as they may have decided that they had reached their destination and rested on their laurels.

Now, however, you get the feeling the Panthers are a bit like Steve Smith when he gets a century – they want to carry on with it and make it a double or triple ton.

But they do still need to raise the bat for that first milestone. And the only way they can say they have done so is by winning a premiership.

Ten years in the making, a team of Penrith juniors look set to return the Mountain Men to rugby league’s peak – and, just for giggles, they’d be doing it over a team they flogged at Apex Park earlier this year.

There’s a certain beauty in that.

Don’t you hate it when Gus’ plan comes together?
So here’s the other thing about me not being able to track down a quote from ‘Gus’ about having a five-year plan – it doesn’t mean he never said it.

Gould is omnipresent. Despite having a full-time job as Panthers GM, he continued with this media commitments, commentating games for Channel Nine, appearing as a pundit on plenty of the station’s other shows, doing a weekly podcast and writing a column for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Despite all this, he still has either the gaul or complete lack of self-awareness to criticise ‘the media’ any time a narrative he doesn’t like gets press coverage – like he’s not the loudest, most elephantine part of it.

True story, following Latrell Mitchell’s ban for his high shot on Joey Manu in Round 25 – which was obviously covered to the nth degree because it was a massive story – Gus started his podcast that week saying, “There’s obviously plenty of mileage in the Latrell Mitchell stuff because they keep milking it every day, but that’s the media in rugby league.”

Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs reacts after being sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle on Joseph Manu

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

He then spent 36 minutes talking about the incident. That’s not a joke or exaggeration, he complained about the media milking an incident, then spent thirty-six minutes talking about it himself.

Now, you really shouldn’t complain about clowns if you’re the one who keeps going to the circus, so I’ll try not to harp on much longer.

My point is simply that Gould is always talking somewhere – on live sporting broadcasts, on random TV shows, on podcasts – so the fact it’s not written down doesn’t discount the possibility he said something about five-year plan at some point.

Anyway, five years may have long passed, and Gould may have left the Panthers almost two-and-a-half years ago – and, in fact, have worked at two other clubs since.

But if the Panthers get up do you honestly believe he’ll say, “This had nothing to do with me”?

It’ll have been Gould’s plan all along. Which is more than reason enough to cheer for the Bunnies.

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