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After over 200 games, nearly 1600 tries, a load of thrills, even more agony and an entire competition-wide relocation to another state, the NRL Grand Final is upon us.
And with an up-and-down Finals series now in their rear-view mirror (well, at least for one side), it's the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs who have come out the other side and will lock horns on the Suncorp Stadium turf for a shot at lifting the coveted Provan-Summons trophy.
For the Panthers, they'll be hoping their sore hangover from last year's finale heartbreak will be long gone, while the Bunnies will undoubtedly want to give departing captain Adam Reynolds the perfect send off.
It's shaping up to be one of the most hotly contested Grand Finals in recent years and we can't bloody wait!
Here's everything you need to know about the biggest game of the season!
GRAND FINAL: PENRITH PANTHERS vs SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS (odds correct as of 30/09/21)
H2H: Panthers ($1.67) vs Rabbitohs ($2.25)
Line: Panthers (-3.5 @ $1.90) vs Rabbitohs (+3.5 @ $1.90)
Date: Sunday, 3 October
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
For all your latest TAB odds on the Panthers vs Rabbitohs, CLICK HERE.
Last five meetings:
Qualifying Final, 2021 - SOU 16-10 PEN
Round 23, 2021 - PEN 25-12 SOU
Round 11, 2021 - PEN 56-12 SOU
Preliminary Final, 2020 - PEN 20-16 SOU
Round 7, 2020 - PEN 20-12 SOU
Best bets (odds correct as of 30/08/21):
First try scorer:
Brian To'o (PEN) - $8
Stephen Crichton (PEN) - $8
Matt Burton (PEN) - $13
Alex Johnston (SOU) - $9
Jaxon Paulo (SOU) - $10
Dane Gagai (SOU) - $16
Anytime try scorer:
Brian To'o (PEN) - $1.95
Stephen Crichton (PEN) - $1.95
Matt Burton (PEN) - $2.70
Alex Johnston (SOU) - $2.15
Jaxon Paulo (SOU) - $2.25
Dane Gagai (SOU) - $3.20
It all comes down to this. 80 minutes of footy separates these two sides from ultimate glory. The Penrith Panthers, who lost to the South Sydney Rabbitohs in Week 1 of the Finals, will be out to exact revenge in the most emphatic of fashions - with a dominant premiership victory to prove they really are the real deal. But while Penrith remain favourites coming off the back of a monster upset win over the Melbourne Storm, it's arguably the Bunnies who come into the finale with the best - and most consistent - form. For both sets of die-hard fans, they'll be hoping to sit back and savour every moment of the game peacefully. But if we're being frank, it'll be far from 'relaxing'. Nails will be bitten, drinks will probably be spilled and your odd uncle watching alongside you in the living room will be screaming at the television even more than he usually does. But for the neutrals, wow, what a contest we have on our hands. Either way, the climax to one of the strangest NRL seasons we've ever seen is shaping up to be box office entertainment and the end result could honestly go either way.
Last weekend against the Manly Sea Eagles, South Sydney head coach Wayne Bennett entered with a game plan and his team executed it to perfection. Genius? Settle down. Intelligently thought through? Most definitely. The tactic was this: the Bunnies were no longer the hunted, you see, but instead morphed into savage hunters themselves. From the minute the first whistle was blown by the referee, the Rabbitohs hit Manly hard with aggressive, gritty defence. The sheer tenacity of Souths' forward pack, complimented by the pinpoint kicking ability of the halves, meant Manly were struggling to breathe in possession. Mark Nicholls, Tevita Tatola, Keaon Koloamatangi, Jaydn Su'A, Cameron Murray and - of course - the boys coming off the bench were all instrumental in the 36-16 thrashing. Their non-stop defensive onslaught forced a lot of errors from the Sea Eagles, but most importantly nullified the side's biggest attacking threat: Tom Trbojevic. The 2021 Dally M Medallist couldn't get a foothold in the game which ultimately had a ripple effect on his Sea Eagles teammates as they desperately tried to make something happen in Turbo's absence. The body-on-the-line defence meant the Bunnies had plenty more time to make magic happen with the ball-in-hand. Enter Cody Walker.
Against Manly, the dynamic five-eighth's experience shone through. From handling the bulk of the kicking duties to cutting through the line with his dangerous runs and inch-perfect passing, Walker was simply too good for the Sea Eagles. Yes, his two tries were the icing on the cake, but it was his overall performance which the Bunnies faithful would like to see him carry into the Grand Final. And, of course, we can't forget about Adam Reynolds. The star halves pairing will be playing their final game together in green and gold before the skipper departs for Brisbane. The Bunnies won't need any more hyping up already, but Reynolds will surely want to end his nine-year stint in South Sydney on a high. So far, they've managed comfortably without suspended fullback Latrell Mitchell in their arsenal too, but the Panthers are a different kettle of fish.
As for the Panthers, well, where do we start? When it comes to Penrith, sometimes you just don't know which team is going to show up on the day. One week they're walking all over opponents with their silky style of play and the following weekend they're coughing up possession left, right and centre. That said, when they're at their free-flowing best, they're a joy to watch. On paper, they probably possess a better team than Souths if truth be told, but their inconsistencies mean they're often caught napping at times - even by smaller teams. Against the Storm, that definitely wasn't the case though. Going ahead early in the game thanks to an immaculate Nathan Cleary kick from dummy half, the Panthers still had plenty to do to see out the game. Penrith, whose defensive capabilities have often been questioned by some of the game's greats, withheld the Storms' attacking bombardment with resolute defence. We lost count of the amount of times the ball was held up in the in-goal thanks to a piece of last-ditch, do-or-die defence from a Panthers player. Their ability to grind out results with sheer tenacity and desperation when the going gets tough was almost reminiscent of the iconic 2003 side - the last Panthers team to win a Premiership. If anyone ever doubted Penrith's heart, then I suggest you re-watch their 10-6 victory over the Storm from last Saturday. Against the Bunnies, they'll need much of the same.
In a huge boost for the team, star halfback Nathan Cleary was given the green light to play after he was put on report in the preliminary final. The talismanic 23-year-old has been consistently brilliant for his side this season, bringing the best out of lightning-quick backs and bulldozing big boys by frequently putting the ball on a silver platter for them. In a pretty big dent in the side's premiership hopes, though, the Panthers will have to take to the field without mid-season recruit Tevita Pangai Jnr. The enforcer suffered a knee injury against Melbourne which puts him out of action completely. But rest assured Panthers supporters, you've still got plenty of firepower up your sleeve. With the likes of Moses Leota, Apisai Koroisau, James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau, Kurt Capewell and Isaah Yeo all rearing to go following last weekend's brilliant showing, they stand in good stead of giving Souths' star-studded forwards run for their money come Sunday evening. The Panthers have been here before. They're all too familiar with the raw emotions that come with losing a Grand Final. Now, 12 months on, they have a shot at writing a fairytale redemption story - and if they're successful, it'll feel sweeter than ever.