This isn’t the grand final many predicted at the start of the year. The Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm have been the two most impressive sides all season.
Melbourne, the runaway point scoring machine against the defensive stinginess of the Panthers.
A replay of the 2020 decider where the Penrith Panthers made the same mistakes as the 2001 Parramatta Eels.
Overawed by the occasion and facing a battle hardened opposition, the Panthers were slow out of the blocks and the Storm took their chances.
Like the Eels, Penrith rallied late to make the game look close by full time, but their first half killed their chances.
Unlike the Eels though, the Panthers have a shot at redemption 12 months later.
South Sydney? Well, their season had supposedly ended when Latrell Mitchell shouldered Joseph Manu in the head.
Without their game breaking fullback, they were supposed to be dead on arrival heading into the finals.
But their play seemed to go up a gear once they got into the finals with youngster Blake Taaffe slotting into fullback.
They lodged their premiership credentials by defeating this same Panthers outfit in week one of the finals, ensuring it wouldn’t be a repeat of 2020.
Coming into the preliminary final rounds it was supposed to be Souths and Melbourne winning, setting up a Wayne Bennett vs Craig Bellamy grand final. The first such grand final since Brisbane’s 2006 triumph against a green Storm side.
But with Penrith defeating Melbourne, the NRL public gets to witness a decider without either of the Storm or Roosters for the first time since 2015.
This is Bennett’s 11th grand final in his career, stretching back to his time in the Brisbane Rugby League in the 1980s. He’s won eight of those titles, going down in 1984 with Souths Logan, 1987 at Canberra as co-coach, and in 2015 during his second stint with the Broncos.
In the opposing coach’s box is Ivan Cleary, entering his third decider, having fallen short with the Warriors in 2002 and Penrith in 2020. Some are eager to compare him to Brian Smith if Cleary’s side loses this year.
That would be a disservice to both Smith and Cleary, and ignorant of the jobs they have both done in transforming sides throughout their careers. Most coaches don’t make a grand final in their careers, even fewer manage it multiple times.
In 2020, Penrith was the Rocky to Melbourne’s Apollo Creed. An unexpected challenger at the start of the year that took the competition on a ride all the way to the grand final.
The Storm may not have entered the grand final, screaming “I want you. I want you. I want you.” at the Panthers, but they were smarter, they handled the pressure, took their chances and were more professional.
Penrith put up a valiant fight. Their comeback had the men in white and purple worried at the end, but it was the Storm that came out on top.
The Panthers’ performance throughout 2020 lent them a celebrity and target on their backs heading into 2021. They weren’t the surprise packets anymore, they were now heavyweights and pegged as one of the premiership favourites.
Sometimes that pressure can get to teams and they crumble under the weight, or it weighs them down and come finals, they can no longer handle it.
That happened to the Raiders following 2019. They finished one spot lower on the table in 2020, forcing them to play three consecutive finals matches and by the time that preliminary final rolled around, they were out of gas.
2020 was Penrith’s “Adrian!” moment. They didn’t quite beat their more fancied, more experienced opponent, but they won plenty of fans along the way.
But reality isn’t a Hollywood script and while many wanted Penrith vs Melbourne II, our Rocky II was the preliminary final.
It wasn’t slick, it wasn’t pretty and both sides bashed each other to pretty much a standstill, but this time it was the Panthers landing the knockout blow.
“Yo, Adrian, we did it!”
However, there’s no belt or title awarded for winning a preliminary final.
The Panthers may have defeated their tormentors from last year, but the battle has only just begun.
I want Balboa. You tell him I’m coming!
So much attention this season has headed to Melbourne and Penrith given their respective positions at the end of the season.
Two of the most dominant sides in the competition’s history are bound to be placed on a pedestal.
But hammering away in relative solitude, bashing dusty, old heavy bags and doing it the hard way has been South Sydney.
No one expected them to get this far, even with Wayne Bennett in command.
In week one of the finals they bullied Penrith into mistakes and won that match on the back of their defence.
In the preliminary final they sliced and diced a Manly side featuring the most in-form player in the competition.
They seem to have hit top gear at the right end of the season, even without Latrell Mitchell, and despite being underdogs, they have a sense of threat about them.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Clubber Lang.
They’ve already beaten the Panthers once this finals series, and it was a brutal affair. Souths have plenty of knockout power and aren’t afraid to use it.
Heading into the preliminary finals, Souths were probably the side Penrith didn’t want to take on.
Melbourne had showed how to neuter Manly, and with Penrith possessing both the best general play kicker in the competition and the best defence, they would have looked to replicate a similar performance.
Souths’ win in week one has certainly thrown the cat amongst the pigeons.
They know they can beat Penrith, and they’re also the underdogs. That can make a side dangerous, and they certainly have more than a puncher’s chance.
The Rabbitohs have been close to this position the past three seasons, making the preliminary final in 2018, 2019 and 2020. High pressure games are not new to them and it certainly isn’t new to their coach.
So it’s perhaps not hyperbole to say the greatest difference may not be on the field, but perhaps off the field.
You’ve got to change everything
In Rocky II, Mickey and Rocky sit down to watch film of the first fight, with Mick pointing out different issues in the technique of his fighter.
“Your style is too easy to figure out. Left-handed fighters, they’re the worst, they lead with their face mostly, trying to land with that big left. The right’s no damn good.”
That was Mickey’s blunt appraisal of Rocky’s right eye getting damaged by Apollo.
You can draw an easy parallel between that line and the fact Souths’ favoured attacking side is their left edge, but they open up a little too easily on occasions down their right in defence.
But you know Wayne Bennett has been sitting down watching film of Penrith, watching the way they’ve played the past few weeks, and looking for weaknesses.
“To pull this miracle off, you’ve got to change everything,” Mickey says before trying to convince Rocky to switch from his usual Southpaw stance to a conventional stance.
Bennett’s unlikely to change Souths’ game plan completely. Alex Johnston has scored 29 tries this season down that left edge. But it’s likely there will be some tweaks, especially if Adam Reynolds is still unable to kick.
Cody Walker was an admirable fill in, but Manly also gave him a lot of time to kick. He also doesn’t have the range of kicking that Reynolds can call on, whether it be his long kicks, floating bombs, or cross field chips.
Think of what Clubber Lang would have been like if he was a more intelligent fighter, than relying on just pure knockout power.
Bennett schooled Ivan Cleary before their week one finals clash. He took the pressure off his side, distracted the media and had Cleary trying to clumsily respond.
Whether that had an impact on the outcome of the match, we won’t know, but it probably didn’t help Cleary to have part of his mind thinking about that. Perhaps more so that Bennett had targeted Nathan regarding blockers protecting him.
Ivan should be looking to ignore his opposite because Bennett is a master of taking the pressure off his side and heaping it on the opposition.
Bellamy rarely gives any time to commenting on his opponent, so it’s not like Cleary had to deal with that last year. Penrith probably also benefited from all the discussion around the future of Cameron Smith in 2020.
Bennett may not be as blunt as Lang turning up to Rocky’s statue unveiling and propositioning Adrian, but he is just as effective at getting into his opponent’s head.
Penrith are far less likely to move away from what’s worked for them the past two seasons. Alongside the Storm they have adapted best to the new rules.
But there may be the odd tweak in how they get out of their own end. They rely on getting the ball wide early to make metres and open up the field to run shape.
Souths rushed up early on them earlier in the finals series, ushering Isaah Yeo back to the middle of the field. And if he isn’t passing, the Panthers are in trouble.
Their kicking game alongside kick chases nailed Brian To’o into the corner, and continuously kicking to him meant the Panthers couldn’t use him on tackle two or three to keep the set rolling.
They limited To’o to fewer than 200 metres, while also targeting James Fisher-Harris and keeping him under 100 metres.
Cleary’s kicking game once again was a massive part of their win over the Storm and he will be targeting Blake Taaffe.
However, he’s going to have to be smarter than last time, given Taaffe shook off an early drop to be perfect for the rest of the game.
That’s a thing of beauty
We’re all set for an entertaining grand final. A dry Suncorp stadium, a packed house (COVID permitting) and two popular sides.
The only thing that could make this better is if it were played in Sydney where the two sides’ loyal fanbases reside.
Both teams were emotional following their respective preliminary final wins. The tears for Souths with Benji Marshall heading to his first grand final since his triumph with the Wests Tigers in 2005.
There was plenty of jumping on top of each other at Penrith as they looked to extricate the demons of last year.
But like Rocky before his first fight with Lang, it’s important neither side gets caught up with those wins. The preliminary final doesn’t strap the championship belt around your waist.
The Panthers are unlikely to be nervous like they were last year, with nearly every member of their side now having played in a grand final.
Souths may not have a stack of grand final experience, but Reynolds has been there alongside Alex Johnston, Marshall and Tom Burgess, not to mention Bennett’s credentials.
It’s been a long year, especially in New South Wales which has been in lockdown since June.
Like Mickey looking at the statue of Rocky, let’s hope we’re talking about what a beautiful grand final we get to watch on Sunday night.