After some 206 days, 196 games and nearly 9,200 points being scored, the 2021 grand final is finally upon us this Sunday.
If you like fairy-tale endings, or if you are a Souths supporter, you will be hoping for a Bunnies victory lap, so that departing coach Wayne Bennett can take out his eighth, and possibly final premiership; Broncos bound Rabbitoh captain and club legend Adam Reynolds can win another premiership in his last game with the club; and 36-year-old super-sub Benji Marshall can bring his incredible 19-year career to an end with another premiership ring.
Unfortunately, not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, and the pink Panthers from Penrith will have other ideas, as they chase their third premiership in their 55-year history.
So, how do the chances of the two teams stack up? Here are the key factors that will determine who will win.
Here are some statistics to consider, for what they’re worth.
Penrith finished second on the ladder, while Souths finished just behind them in third. Going into the grand final, Penrith who have played one more game than Souths, have an average positive points differential of 14.38 points per game, compared to South’s average of 13.38 points. Nothing really to see there.
To date, and including the finals, Souths have played 11 games against top-eight sides, for seven wins and four losses. Penrith, on the other hand, have played 13 games against top-eight sides, for 11 wins and two losses. Penrith look stronger there.
Head-to-head, they’ve played each other three times this year, with Penrith winning 56-12 and 25-12 during the season proper, while Souths defeated Penrith 16-10 in the qualifying final. That’s an overall points advantage to Penrith of 91-40.
Anyway, while these stats make interesting reading, they’re not going to decide the game.
Both teams have excellent spines, with the fullback being the perceived weakness in each. South’s Blake Taaffe has surprised everybody and, for a player with just a handful of first grade games under his belt, already looks a natural at fullback.
Penrith’s Dylan Edwards has had the occasional unhappy moment this year, but really bounced back against the Storm last week in a great display.
The halves pairings for each club are the two best in the NRL. The Rabbitohs’ Adam Reynolds and Penrith’s Nathan Cleary captain their respective sides and are both great game managers, top-class goal kickers and have excellent kicking games in general play.
Five-eighths Cody Walker from Souths and Jarome Luai from Penrith are both extremely dangerous attacking weapons, have good match awareness, and are likely to come up with something the opposition defence weren’t expecting.
Souths’ hooker Damien Cook is at the top of his game and his form has been building nicely. He’ll pose a big threat to the Panthers’ defence if they lose focus like they did at times against the Storm.
In Apisai Koroisau, Penrith have a Damien Cook clone, and he won’t lose much in comparison to his more famous opponent.
It’s hard to separate the spines, but I just lean towards Penrith on the basis that Taaffe is still a rookie, and will be under a lot of pressure in this game.
The outside backs
Souths have far more experience in the three quarters than their Penrith counterparts, averaging more than 80 more first grade games each. This may be a telling factor. A lot of Souths’ attack hinges on their experienced left side outside backs Dane Gagai and Alex Johnston doing the business, while their right side of Campbell Graham and Jaxson Paulo receive far less opportunities with the ball.
Penrith also favour their left edge attack of Brian To’o and Matt Burton, but are also quite partial to lighting up their right side attack of Paul Momirovski and Stephen Crichton, particularly with the high ball.
It may come down to which side can best defend the opposition’s left side attack, and if I had to choose, I’d prefer the defence of Momirovski and Crichton over that of Paulo and Graham. Paulo, in particular, has shown a tendency to make some bad defensive reads at times.
The other factor with the outside backs are the kick returns, and it’s here that the Penrith wingers have the advantage, with the average running metres of Brian To’o alone greater than the combined total of the Souths wingers. Souths will have to shut To’o down if they are to win.
I believe that the Penrith outside backs have more to offer than the Souths quartet.
The forwards and bench
They say that forwards win the big matches, and if that’s the case, we’re in for one heck of a game. Both sides are bristling with internationals and origin players, and have some big and mobile forwards.
The clash between Souths’ big men in Tevita Tatola, Thomas Burgess, Jai Arrow and Mark Nicholls and Penrith weapons in James Fisher-Harris, Spencer Leniu, Moses Leota and Viliame Kikau will be something to see and will probably decide the game.
Both teams also have top-class lock forwards in Souths’ Cameron Murray and Isaah Yeo from Penrith, and they are probably the two form forwards in the competition at the moment.
The loss of Tevita Pangai Jr may just be a blessing in disguise for the Panthers, as he would no doubt be targeted by Souths, and his discipline has been known to be a liability at times.
I honestly can’t split these two forward packs.
When it comes to winning grand finals, no one can match Souths’ Wayne Bennett. He’s been there and done that many times now and knows what it takes to win. There’s no coach a player would rather see at halftime of a crucial game than Wayne Bennett.
Ivan Cleary is no slouch either, and although he hasn’t yet coached a premiership-winning team, he’s taken teams to the grand final twice before, and that experience is invaluable.
Bennett may just prove to be the difference between the two sides.
Grand final experience
They say you need to lose a grand final before you can win one, and if that’s true Penrith, who lost last year, are due for a win. No doubt the pain of losing a grand final focuses your attention somewhat when you next get the opportunity.
The Bunnies’ last grand final appearance was their win in 2014, and Adam Reynolds, Tom Burgess and Alex Johnston all took the field for the Bunnies that day. For the Panthers, the only players from this year’s grand final team who didn’t play for them in last year’s decider are Matt Burton, Paul Momirovski, Scott Sorenson and Spencer Leniu.
If grand final experience counts for anything, Penrith have it in spades.
No team has won the premiership after having 50 points put on them during the season, and Souths had this happen to them twice this year, losing 50-0 to Melbourne in Round 9 and 56-12 to Penrith in Round 11. A bad omen?
Anyway, perhaps 60 is the new 50 under the helter-skelter six-again rule.
There’s some food for thought and points to argue about.
I believe that Penrith can get the job done on Sunday, but it’s going to be a close and brutal game that will probably be decided by an error or two. Let’s hope that injuries don’t play a part in the game, and that the referee and bunker fade into the background of what should be a cracking contest.
Good luck to both teams.