Holden Cup Grand Final Preview: Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters
Sunday, 1.35pm AEDT (12.35pm Queensland)
Sunday's smorgasbord of rugby league kicks off with the Holden Cup grand final between the Panthers and the Roosters at ANZ Stadium.
Victory would give Penrith its third title in the past four years, while this is the first time the Tricolours have reached the first Sunday in October.
It has been a dream 24 months for Panthers coach Cameron Ciraldo, who has seen his troops back up last year's success with an even more impressive premiership defence.
Penrith suffered a heartbreaking loss in Round 1 but went on to win their next 13 matches to stamp their authority as the team to beat in 2016.
Even without Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai in the halves, they ooze talent across the park and are on track to become the first team since the Warriors in 2010 and 2011 to go back-to-back.
The defending premiers kicked off their finals series with a comfortable 28-6 win over the Sharks before overpowering the Cowboys 32-16 last week.
Five big wins from the opening six rounds had Roosters fans dreaming big in 2016, but a 44-point loss at the hands of the Panthers threatened to stall their charge.
Those concerns were put to bed with some impressive wins during the middle stages of the season, and things looked rosy when Jackson Hastings arrived to give them an injection of NRL experience at the backend of the year.
But with only one win from their final five matches – and with Hastings unavailable for the playoffs – question marks emerged over their ability to match it with the top four in the finals.
A 48-0 win over the Raiders in week one of the finals quickly dispelled those fears, before they took down the fourth-placed Sharks in another sudden-death showdown.
Things looked iffy for the Roosters in their preliminary final against the Dragons when they found themselves 14-0 down at half-time, but an inspired fightback in the second stanza saw them book their spot in the decider with a 26-20 win.
The Panthers have made one slight change from last week's win with Soni Luke named to start, pushing Wayde Egan back to the bench.
Roosters coach Anthony Barnes has named the same 17 that downed the Dragons, with Ben Marschke replacing Lachlan Lam on an extended bench.
Watch out Panthers: In Joseph Manu and Johnny Tuivasa-Sheck the Roosters have perhaps the most dominant right-edge combination in the NYC. The pair were unstoppable against the Dragons last weekend and combined for the match-winner that booked their spot in the grand final. Manu ran for a season-high 188 metres, broke 10 tackles, had two line breaks, five offloads and a try assist, while Tuivasa Sheck ran for a whopping 221 metres, busted four tackles and scored the game-winning try.
Watch out Roosters: The Roosters will head into Sunday's contest with three players boasting NRL experience. Joseph Manu, Nat Butcher and Grant Garvey all earned call-ups to first grade in 2016 and have learnt plenty training with the club's top 25. But while they have enjoyed a taste of NRL, no one from the Roosters has played in a Holden Cup grand final. Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Oliver Clark, Soni Luke, Reed Izzard, Kaide Ellis and Thomson Tuigamala all featured in Penrith's 2015 premiership side and will relish the opportunity to step onto the big stage again this weekend. They will be used to the pressures of grand final week, and with a shot at back-to-back titles on the line, experience could get them over the line.
Key match-up: Soni Luke v Grant Garvey. It's hard to identify someone who has no line breaks, no try assists and no offloads and has only played 251 minutes this season as a key player, but such is Soni Luke's class that he commands respect from all and sundry in the NYC. A serious injury in Round 1 threatened to end his season, but Luke returned in the penultimate week of the regular season and has improved with every game since. A noted big game player, Luke won the Jack Gibson Medal in the 2015 grand final as best on ground having scored a try and made 29 tackles. If the Roosters are to win this weekend then his opposite number will go close to being man of the match. Garvey has been in unbelievable form this season, scoring 18 tries and creating another 22 for his teammates. It's not just his lethal left boot out of dummy-half that has tongues wagging, with Garvey racking up 804 tackles to sit sixth in the NYC.
The history: Played 15; Panthers 9, Roosters 6. It's been all Penrith in recent times with the men from the foot of the mountains winning their past four matches against the Roosters, including 50-4 and 40-22 drubbings this year. The Panthers won their only previous finals meeting against the Tricolours 48-22 in week one of the 2013 season.
Match officials: Referee: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski. Assistant referee: Drew Oultram. Sideline officials: Dave Ryan and Josh McGowan. Review official: Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 1pm AEDT (12pm Queensland). Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 1:30pm AEDT (12.30pm Queensland).
The way we see it: There's nothing like momentum at this stage of the season, and it appears as if the Roosters have timed their run for a maiden premiership to perfection. But will that be enough to overcome two years of dominance that the Panthers have worked so hard to achieve? This is shaping as the tightest Holden Cup grand final in recent memory, and a first trip to golden point since 2011 wouldn't be a shock to anyone. Panthers by 4.