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For & Against: Panthers will make amends for 2020

As the old saying goes, you have to lose a grand final to win one, so having experienced the agony of defeat in 2020 the young Panthers have all the motivation they need to go one better.

Having had 11 months to stew on their 26-20 loss to the Storm in the 2020 decider, Ivan Cleary's men have no intention of becoming the first team to lose back-to-back grand finals since the Roosters in 2003-04.

Standing in their way is a Rabbitohs side chasing a first premiership since 2014 and looking to send club legend Adam Reynolds, master coach Wayne Bennett and possibly the evergreen Benji Marshall out with a winner's ring.

For the Broncos-bound Reynolds and the mercurial Marshall, it would be their second premiership while for Bennett it would be No.8, equalling the all-time record of Arthur 'Pony' Halloway, whose success spanned three decades and two clubs.

Halloway captain-coached Balmain to four titles in five years between 1916-20 before a hat-trick of premierships with Easts from 1935-37 and another with the Tricolours in 1945 at the age of 60.

Bennett's tactical battle with Panthers mentor Ivan Cleary is just one subplot to an intriguing and historic grand final at the home of Queensland rugby league Suncorp Stadium.

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For & Against - The Panthers will make amends for 2020

For - senior journalist Paul Zalunardo

It is incongruous with the situation they were in 14 days ago but Penrith are now well placed to win the club’s third premiership. 

The Panthers' confidence levels will be at an all-time high when they run onto Suncorp Stadium knowing they’ve stared down that mighty team from Melbourne at the business end of the season. 

If you can beat that club in September, you can beat anyone. 

After the loss to the Rabbitohs in week one of the finals the boo-birds were out in force and few outside of the hard-core fans and those directly involved with the team could see them reaching the decider. 

But after winning two of the most torrid matches seen in recent years the resilience levels will be at an all-time high.  Most probably even higher than they were in the 2020 finals when they were riding a 19-game winning streak. 

The difference between then and now is that they’ve just taken down the premier club of the 2000s with everything on the line. 

If middle forwards James Fisher-Harris and Tevita Pangai jnr are forced out with knee injuries the balance will tip back in favour of South Sydney but working off the presumption Penrith will be at full strength they appear ready to strike. 

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Penrith have conceded just four tries in three 2021 finals fixtures. In their wins over the Eels and Storm they conceded one try in each match and both came as a result of somewhat fortuitous bounces off kicks. 

Another cause for optimism. 

While the form of the likes of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai was expected, the strong showing from fullback Dylan Edwards in the win over the Storm was there for all to see. 

The defensive skills of Penrith centres Paul Momirovski and Matt Burton are crucial to Penrith’s chances. 

Both have been great so far during the finals, but no team tests an opposition backline quite like this South Sydney outfit. 

Burton will be a key man for Penrith on both sides of the ball. As well as being the logical replacement should injury cut short the afternoon of either Luai or Cleary, he is a great threat with ball in hand when operating on an edge. 

Sunday’s decider looms as a tightly-fought affair, but if the Panthers are able to replicate the superb scrambling defence that has won them their last two matches, grand final glory is looming large. 

Against - senior journalist Martin Lenehan

Just as Melbourne Cup maestro Bart Cummings was renowned for having his horses tuned to the minute for the first Tuesday in November, so too the great Wayne Bennett knows what it takes to have his team peaking for grand final day.

Cummings put the polish on an astounding 12 Cup winners during his Hall of Fame career while Bennnett has been to nine grand finals for eight premierships.

The Rabbitohs hit a couple of significant hurdles back in May when they were hammered by the Panthers and Storm but Bennett worked his magic to put the campaign back on the rails and the 2014 champs have gone 14-1 since they were dusted up in Dubbo by their grand final opponents.

Their two play-off performances have been top drawer and the Supercoach has his men high on confidence and low on self-doubt. This is a playing group that truly believes they can deliver the foundation club its 22nd premiership and send favourite son Adam Reynolds out in style in his 232nd and final game for the club.

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Reynolds has done a brilliant job all season of deflecting the spotlight but you can bet your life that his 16 mates who take the field beside him on Sunday are hell-bent on ensuring their skipper's swan song is a memorable one.

Bennett also departs Redfern after Sunday's big dance, having steered the Rabbitohs to preliminary finals and 2019 and 2020 and now into the decider.

At 71, Bennett is as sharp and switched on as ever, ironing out his side's defensive deficiencies in the second half of the season and fine-tuning their lethal left-side attack to the point that Alex Johnston is scoring tries for fun and rookie fullback Blake Taaffe is chiming into the line and tipping the ball on with the class and composure of a man five years his senior.

In the pack, where the foundation for victory must be laid, Thomas Burgess, Jai Arrow, Mark Nicholls, Keaon Koloamatangi and Jaydn Su'A have produced career-best seasons while Cameron Murray's game has gone to another level.

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Murray was immense in the preliminary final, making 195 metres from 24 runs, breaking five tackles and making 35 to put the clamps on Manly's middle men.

Burgess and Arrow got through a power of work, combining for 29 runs and 240 metres as the Bunnies' bench continued to provide huge impact and a lift in intensity when the starters needed a breather.

With Reynolds and Cody Walker calling the shots and Damien Cook a constant threat out of dummy half the Rabbitohs have plenty of avenues to the tryline, but in the final analysis it's the reinforced red and green wall that will carry them to the victory.

The trust is there that the man next to them will do his job and no one will miss their assignment. The desperate three-man gang tackle to force Tom Trbojevic to spill the ball over the line on Friday night was the perfect example of their commitment.

It's those sorts of plays that decide big games, and come Sunday night in Brisbane it's that desire to defend their line that will ensure Reynolds is doing a lap of honour of the ground he'll call home next year, with Bennett meandering along beside him basking in the glory of his eighth title.


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.


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