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Guts, game control and a gift from Cody Walker: Grand Final talking points

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3rd October, 2021
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Penrith are your NRL Premiers, making amends for last year’s narrow defeat to the Storm. Here are your talking points from the 201st NRL game of the year.

What week’s rest?
The Bunnies were lucky Cody Walker pulled out that early magnificent solo try, because they were lumbering in attack and borderline gassed after Penrith put a big early shift into them. You wouldn’t have guessed Souths were the team who’d had an extra week’s rest during the finals.

Whether it was nerves, no experience in the grand final arena or just plain catching their wind, Souths were dominated by the Panthers in the first half. Penrith put plenty of fatigue into the South Sydney bank early and they added the interest as the game went on.

Souths left it too late to get moving
While they made inroads and threatened down Penrith’s right edge all night, Souths were so gassed from defending and fighting so hard for bugger all meterage they didn’t get after the game at speed until there was barely ten minutes left.

It may have been in the back of their minds that they just needed to keep pushing and Penrith would run out of legs, but the Bunnies killed themselves with 11 errors and bad choices.

It was fast, incisive, clean work which got them their points in week one against Penrith but too often tonight there were rushed passes, impatient play, wrong options and disconnected angles run by Gagai, Johnson, Graham and Taaffe which stopped flowing attack dead in its tracks.

I hate pointing at an individual, but Cody Walker had a couple of moments that will haunt him for a long time, the most obvious being the pass Stephen Crichton intercepted to provide the decisive score. So let’s not forget Walker’s phenomenal try to get the Bunnies on the board it if we’re talking about his game.

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Souths had some bright moments with ball in hand. They just didn’t grasp their opportunities. That’s why the Panthers are raising the premiership trophy.

Gerard Sutton was… pretty good
Both teams were allowed to hang around in the ruck, but on the whole referee Sutton was ok. It was especially interesting he didn’t bite when Jarome Luai bunged on an act to pull a penalty for a high tackle in the 52nd minute with Penrith on the attack.

The game was high standard, high intensity for all of the 80 minutes and only a true ref-faulter would say Sutton got in the way of the players being able to decide the outcome.

Having said that… Dane Gagai’s high contact with four minutes left should have been a penalty. All year that kind of contact is a penalty, but it’s unlikely we can grumble about it when the finals series has been refereed exactly the same as it was tonight. V’landysball is out the window when the games actually matter.

Nathan Cleary was a worthy Clive Churchill Medallist
In a game with no real standout performances, it was Nathan Cleary’s management of the game and ability to keep his team on top which saw him go home with two medals.

His kicking game was the difference between the teams. Cleary gave Alex Johnson, Jaxson Paulo and Blake Taaffe in particular a torrid time with towering, floating bombs and short range kicks, sat right on the try line.

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The Souths backline handled things as best they could, but Cleary was responsible for around ten extra sets for Penrith by causing dropouts and errors, crowning his team’s dominance of possession and handing Souths horrible field position all night.

He was assisted by a fanatical kick chase all night, which pinned the Rabbitohs along the sidelines and forced them to start so many sets from inside their own ten metres.

Honourable mentions for games well played can be shared among Matt Burton, who was in everything in his last game for Penrith, Dylan Edwards, who is much better than NRL twitter thinks he is, Tom Burgess, who topped a colossal finals series for South Sydney with another big game and Isaah Yeo, who led from the front for Penrith all night.

Penrith spent 12 months planning this
After going down to the Storm last year, the Panthers have been singularly focused on getting to the grand final and winning it. Their grand final experience last year was the driver to how it went tonight – they played for a nil-all draw in the first 15 minutes, avoiding the disaster that befell them in 2020, then they pushed right into Souths to own the ball and give them no time or space all night.

The second half was just guts and game control. The gift from Cody Walker was accepted without hesitation and you could see in the post-match the Panthers dug deep into the hurt of last year to hold on when things got sketchy.

Scoring the tries sells tickets, stopping them wins premierships
Apologies to the late College Football coaching icon Bear Bryant for paraphrasing, but if the finals series (and possibly the last four years) showed anything, it’s that strong, unyielding defence remains the foundation of a premiership winning rugby league team.

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Penrith had already compiled an incredible defensive season, allowing just 11.9 points to their opponents. They took it up a notch for the finals, conceding 40 points in their four games. Their defence was beaten for a try just six times.

They may have missed 64 tackles in the grand final, but that belies the method of a fast defensive line, a spoiling ruck with multiple players involved, and strategic infringements that let them set themselves to go again. You may not like it, but it’s all in the rules.

Finals footy is bloody hard. Teams fight for every metre and points are at an absolute premium. If your team is able to bend, not break and keep their opponent out, it’s the only way to the top.

It’s also worth noting, Penrith scored just six tries themselves in the finals. They scored 42 points in total as they came up against brutal defences from Melbourne, Parramatta and South Sydney. Like I said earlier, the hectic, crazy scoring of V’landysball disappears when the games matter. And funnily enough, the ratings go up…

Ivan Cleary is a premiership coach
This was Cleary’s 370th game as coach. Until tonight, he was the second longest tenured NRL coach without a premiership. Many people mocked and scratched their heads when the Panthers headhunted Cleary from the Wests Tigers, but obviously they saw something others had not. Penrith were magnificent this year.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

After tonight they’re 16/16 when scoring first and 21/21 when leading at halftime.

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It wasn’t a sexy finals campaign full of the run and flair we’ve seen from the Panthers, but Penrith won’t care. Ivan had them pointed in one direction and this was a well earned title.

Congratulations, Ivan.

Why was there so much black?
Maybe I’m getting on, maybe I’m a curmudgeon. But was there any reason why both teams had so much black in their kits? The Bunnies had black shorts and a black stripe down the side of their jersey almost hiding the famous cardinal and myrtle and making for bloody messy viewing when kicks were being contested and when play went to the in-goal area.

Penrith could have worn pink, white, even chocolate. Souths could have worn white shorts and a different jersey. Why, in the biggest game of the year, did this happen?

We made it
Being able to sit down on the couch and watch this game isn’t something we should have taken for granted. After everything that’s happened in season 2021, it was an immense relief to get to the end of the season and enjoy a belter of a game.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – well played to all involved. From the admin at the top all the way to the club physios and players’ families. Thanks for putting this on. Hopefully 2022 becomes something a bit closer to ‘normal’.

So there it is for NRL 2021, folks. What did you take from the game? Was it a worthy end to the season?

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