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Stat Attack: Kicking battle key to grand final chances

For all the other strengths of the Panthers and Rabbitohs, Sunday's grand final will feature arguably the premier kicking teams in the NRL.

Halfbacks Nathan Cleary and Adam Reynolds possess arguably the two best all-round kicking games in the NRL, just ahead of the likes of Daly Cherry-Evans and Mitch Moses, while both Cody Walker and Jarome Luai are excellent support kickers.

NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers on the four main kickers involved in the decider and found Cleary holds a slight edge that could be critical on Sunday.

Rating the kickers

Cleary is the toughest kicker to handle of the four, with his attacking kicks safely defused by opposition backs on only around three of five attempts, with the other three all being defused at a just over 70 per cent success rate.

He has forced a huge 68 failed defusals this year, more than any kicker other than Eels halfback Moses.

When it comes to building pressure Penrith are easily on top; perhaps this is partially a function of how much time they spend camped in opposition territory but Cleary and Luai are first and second in the NRL when it comes to forcing repeat sets with 21 and 19 respectively.

Moses (18), Jake Clifford (17) and DCE (16) are next best with Walker (15) equal sixth-best and Reynolds further behind with just nine drop-outs forced this year.

How the Panthers win the 2021 grand final

In terms of the yardage game Cleary's 545 kick metres gained per match is easily the most in the NRL, almost 150 better than next-best Moses (403m per game) with Reynolds' 316 coming in eighth, so when Penrith do need to come out of their end he gives them a huge leg-up.

It's very rare to see a 40/20 with just 29 kicked all season in 200 games but Reynolds is the joint league leader in this stat, with three for the season.

Cleary's 10 try assists from kicks are the best of any player involved on Sunday, with only Cherry-Evans (16) and Moses (12) setting up more tries from kicks this year.

Cleary is also the busiest kicker in the NRL; his 328 total kicks is an NRL high and they came in six fewer games than DCE took for his second-most tally of 306 kicks.

Cleary changes tack

Penrith's kicking game wasn't at its best in their qualifying finals loss to Souths; Cleary has since admitted rookie Blake Taaffe's early drop encouraged him to target the young fullback more than he should have.

Taaffe's subsequent refusal to make an error nullified Penrith's plan to pressure him and they eventually lost the field position tug-of-war they are usually so good at dominating.

How the Rabbitohs win the 2021 grand final

"That was probably one thing that happened in the first week, Blake had that early drop so I probably went after him a bit too much rather than playing the field position battle," Cleary said.

"I think it's kind of different each game you get in and the flow of the game. We have a bit of a kicking plan when we come into the game but it kind of changes as the game goes on and it's just something you've got to adapt to."

Reynolds' groin a key factor

Cleary is also aware his rival No.7 has one of the most dangerous and accurate boots in the competition.

"Reyno's got one of the best kicking games in the comp," Cleary continued.

"It's such an important thing in big games is kicking games and where you allow other teams to start their sets. It's something we work hard at and it will be no different this weekend."

Fans and commentators alike were stunned when, in South Sydney's preliminary final domination of Manly, the wily halfback handed over general kicking duties to Walker with Taaffe taking over the goal-kicking responsibilities.

Panthers v Rabbitohs - Grand final

It later emerged a minor groin tweak was the reason, but Reynolds is confident the nine-day break heading into the grand final will have him back to full kicking duties.

"I'm all good," he said earlier in the week.

"It's still a long week and plenty of time to get it back to 100%, or as close as possible … I'll get to captain's run and see how it feels but I'm pretty confident I'll be kicking."

Reynolds' underrated ball-playing

Kicking aside, one other statistic that has had a bit of traction of late is the comparative under-performance of Reynolds statistically when it comes to setting up tries.

While Walker leads the NRL for try assists (33) and line-break assists (44), Reynolds has registered just seven TAs and 10 LBAs. Cleary (21) is fifth in the NRL for try-assists and Luai (18) 10th.

However, NRL.com Stats also records another figure – try involvements. These are registered when a player makes a significant contribution to a try scored by their team but is not credited with an assist and does not score the try himself.

Tom Trbojevic is very much a finisher, with 28 tries himself and 28 assists but just two further try involvements all season.

Walker and Cleary are the only two players in the NRL to have recorded double figures in all three components of try-scoring – tries scored, tries assisted and try involvements. When all three are tallied together, Walker (1st) and Reynolds (5th) are both at the pointy end for NRL playmakers.

For Penrith, while Cleary (4th) still figures prominently, Luai (14th) comes back to the pack a little.

Try involvements are largely uncredited but with 35, Reynolds easily leads the NRL when it comes to playing a large hand in a try being scored without scoring or being credited with an assist.

It just goes to show that while Reynolds is rarely flashy, his contribution to his team's attack is critical and greater than what he is probably given credit for. It also points to how well the two South Sydney playmakers work in tandem.