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2021 NRL grand final: The ultimate preview

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Roar Guru
28th September, 2021

After 192 regular season matches, 1152 Dally M Medal votes, 8888 premiership points (and a further 307 points in the finals series), and another season impacted by COVID-19, we have finally, very nearly, reached the end of the road.

Only one match is left to be played in this season and it’ll be to decide the NRL premiers for season 2021.

Around 50,000 fans are expected to pack Suncorp Stadium for the grand final between the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs, with the showpiece match forced out of Sydney for the first time due to a COVID-19 lockdown in the state.

While it is the first NRL grand final to not be played at Stadium Australia, as has been the case since 1999, it will be the second time that an Australian rugby league decider is played in Brisbane, following the 1997 Super League grand final.

On that occasion, nearly 60,000 fans packed the since-downgraded Queensland Sports and Athletics Centre to witness the Brisbane Broncos defeat the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks by 26-8 to win the only Australian Super League title, before the NRL was born in 1998.

Anthony Mundine (left) and Michael Hancock

(Photo by Duane Hart/Getty Images)

A quarter of a century on, rugby league fans in Brisbane will be happy to once again see a grand final played in their home city, though this has come about after Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak made it logistically impossible for the match to be played at the Olympic Stadium.

Unlike in 1997, there is no local team to support, as the premiership is to be contested between the Panthers and Rabbitohs in what will be the first all-Sydney decider since 2014, when the Bunnies defeated the Bulldogs by 30-6 to bury a 43-year premiership drought.

It will be just the second decider in the past half-century that the Pride of the League will contest, and the first in seven years.


From the Bunnies’ preliminary final side last week, only two players – Alex Johnston and captain Adam Reynolds – remain from the 2014 premiership side coached by Michael Maguire and captained by John Sutton.

The fact that this is Reynolds’ final game in the cardinal and myrtle before he moves to the Brisbane Broncos next season, as well as Wayne Bennett’s final game as coach before he hands over to Jason Demetriou, will be the two major incentives for Souths to win on Sunday night.

Quite appropriately enough, what is certain to be Bennett’s final NRL game as a coach will come at a ground where he orchestrated a lot of his success, leading the Broncos between 1988 and 2008, during which he netted the club’s six titles, and again between 2015 and 2018.

Wayne Bennett

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

In the intervention, he also coached the St George Illawarra Dragons between 2009 and 2011, winning a title in 2010, followed by a less successful stint as coach of the Newcastle Knights between 2012 and 2014.

The 71-year-old will attempt to become the first coach in NRL history to win titles with three different clubs, and will be shooting to win his seventh title as coach following six with the Broncos and one with the Dragons.

It will be his tenth grand final, having also overseen a loss with the Canberra Raiders in 1987 and with the Broncos in 2015.

Thus, a win in the decider at his old stomping ground would be the most magical way for him to ride into the NRL coaching sunset after 34 years, dating back to when he was co-coach of the Raiders with Don Furner in 1987.


In their preliminary final last weekend the Bunnies shot out of the blocks against the Sea Eagles, leading 22-0 at halftime before a more competitive second half from the Silvertails resulted in a final scoreline of 38-16.

Keaon Koloamatangi jumps to join his teammates Campbell Graham and Blake Taaffe celebrating with Jaxson Paulo after he scored a try.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

After assuming goal-kicking duties from halfback Reynolds, Blake Taaffe, who slotted into the side in the wake of Latrell Mitchell’s season-ending suspension in Round 24, slotted four goals from seven attempts to stake his claim as the club’s primary goal kicker for season 2022.

Three players scored two tries each, including Alex Johnston, who following Reynolds’ departure at the end of this year, will be the only survivor remaining from the 2014 premiership side by the time next season kicks off.

Standing in the way of the Pride of the League and a record-breaking 22nd premiership are the Penrith Panthers, who after knocking off the Melbourne Storm in their preliminary final last Saturday will look to cap off their season of redemption this Sunday night.

The mountain men produced an extraordinary defensive display to edge out Craig Bellamy’s side by 10-6 and reverse last year’s grand final loss, which will be the main motivator as they attempt to end a premiership drought of 18 years.

Nathan Cleary will be free to take his place in the decider after being cleared of a first-half lifting tackle, while for father Ivan it will be his third grand final as coach, coming a decade after his first (2011 with the New Zealand Warriors).

Ivan Cleary

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)


Sadly, the Panthers will be without loan player Tevita Pangai Jr, who has been ruled out due to sustaining a knee injury in the preliminary final, meaning he has played his last game for the club before he moves to the Bulldogs next season.

It will be Cleary Senior’s fourth decider overall. This also includes his last NRL game as a player when he lined up at fullback in the Warriors’ 30-8 loss to the Sydney Roosters in 2002.

Thus, the 50-year-old will be hoping it is fifth time lucky on the game’s biggest stage, otherwise he risks becoming the NRL’s version of Ross Lyon, who from four AFL grand finals as coach lost three (twice with St Kilda and once with Fremantle) and drew one (with the Saints in 2010).

The two teams met twice during the regular season, with the Panthers prevailing on both occasions, first a crushing 56-12 victory at Apex Oval in Dubbo and secondly a come-from-behind 25-12 win at Suncorp Stadium in Round 23.

They also met in the second qualifying final in Townsville, with the Bunnies emerging victorious by a scoreline of 16-10. It was that result that saw them advance straight to the preliminary final, while the Panthers had to take the long way around to get here.

It will also be the third time the sides meet in a final, after the mountain men won a preliminary final heart stopper by 20-16 at Stadium Australia last year.

Regardless of who wins, there is bound to be a well-deserved winner, and it will bring so much joy to the millions of Sydneysiders who are currently enduring yet another year wrecked by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jarome Luai of the Panthers passes the ball

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)


Now that you’ve got the background info, it’s time to crunch all the important stats and numbers below.

Penrith Panthers versus South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sunday, October 3, 6:30pm AEST (7:30pm AEDT)
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Penrith Panthers season summary
Finished second (21 wins, three losses, 44 premiership points, +390).
Second qualifying final: lost to the Rabbitohs 10-16 at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville.
Second semi-final: defeated the Eels 8-6 at BB Print Stadium, Mackay.
First preliminary final: defeated the Storm 10-6 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane.

South Sydney Rabbitohs season summary
Finished third (20 wins, four losses, 42 premiership points, +322).
Second qualifying final: defeated the Panthers 16-10 at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville.
Second preliminary final: defeated the Sea Eagles 38-16 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane.

This season
Round 11: Panthers won 56-12 at Apex Oval, Dubbo.
Round 23: Panthers won 25-12 at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

Last meeting in a final: Rabbitohs won 16-10 at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville, second qualifying final, 2021.

The stats that matter
This is the South Sydney Rabbitohs’ 35th grand final, and first since 2014; from 34 previous deciders they have a record of 21-13, last winning in 2014.

This is the Penrith Panthers’ fifth grand final, and second consecutive; from four previous deciders they have a record of 2-2, last winning in 2003.


This is the first grand final to be a rematch of an earlier finals match since 2015, when the Broncos and Cowboys also met in the second qualifying final before clashing in the grand final. Previous double-up finals have also occurred in 2013 (Roosters versus Sea Eagles), 2005 (Wests Tigers versus Cowboys) and 1999 (Storm versus Dragons).

This is the first grand final to be contested between these two sides, and the first since 2014 to feature two Sydney clubs.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

This is the first grand final to not feature either the Sydney Roosters or Melbourne Storm since 2015. It is also just the seventh decider since the NRL’s formation in 1998 not to feature either side (after 1998, 2001, 2005, 2011, 2014, 2015 and now 2021).

This is the 16th consecutive grand final to feature any of Wayne Bennett, Trent Robinson, Craig Bellamy or Des Hasler.

Bennett is aiming to become the first coach to win premierships with three different clubs, having won six with the Brisbane Broncos (1992, 1993, 1997, 1998, 2000 and 2006) and one with the St George Illawarra Dragons (2010). This is his tenth grand final (7-2).

If the Panthers win, then Ivan and Nathan Cleary will become the first father-son combination to win a title together since John and Martin Lang in 2003, coincidentally also with the Panthers. It would also break an 18-year premiership drought.

If the Panthers lose, they will become the first club since the Roosters in 2003-04 to lose consecutive grand finals.

The verdict
There are so many incentives for either club to win this Sunday night.

For the Rabbitohs, it is to send Wayne Bennett and Adam Reynolds out as premiership winners in their final club games as coach and captain, respectively, while for the Panthers it is all about redemption after losing to the Melbourne Storm in last year’s decider.

And while the mountain men may have been the better of the two sides this season as characterised by a 12-0 start to the season as well as two wins over the Bunnies in Rounds 11 and 23, it was Souths who won their qualifying final duel in Townsville.

With no local team to support in the grand final, expect the support of both sides to be just as equal as they fight it out for a premiership, which will be most welcomed by their respective legions of fans currently in lockdown in Sydney.

In the end, the Bunnies’ superior finals form should net them a 22nd premiership and the perfect farewell gift for Bennett and Reynolds.

Match: South Sydney Rabbitohs by six points.

First try: Dylan Edwards (Panthers), Alex Johnston (Rabbitohs).

Clive Churchill Medal: Nathan Cleary (if the Panthers win), Damien Cook (if the Rabbitohs win).