Penrith Panthers will tonight take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs in an historic 2021 NRL Grand Final, hosted at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane for the very first time.
While Penrith are looking to avoid their second Grand Final defeat in as many seasons, the Wayne Bennett-coached Rabbitohs are aiming to finish their year on a high in the perfect send-off for captain Adam Reynolds.
In one of the most even deciders of recent times, several True Blues could have a massive influence on the result, just as they have in the Ampol State of Origin arena, when the big dance kicks off on Sunday night.
The game’s premier halfback has had a season to remember in 2021 and remarkably reached the Grand Final yet again, while battling a significant shoulder injury for the past two months which requires surgery within a week after full-time in tonight’s clash.
Nonetheless, Cleary’s kicking ability has proved vital throughout the NRL Finals Series not only for territory in recent low scoring games, but in creating attacking opportunities. Three of the Panthers four tries in this year’s finals have come from Cleary’s boot.
Cleary’s combination with his club and Brydens Lawyers NSW Blues halves partner, Jarome Luai, will certainly go a long way to a potential Premiership win for the Panthers.
If the halfback can manage pressure-building, the territory battle and directing the attack, Luai can provide strike with his unorthodox running ability and creative play on the left edge.
A Man of the Match performance from the 2021 Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year may go hand in hand with a South Sydney Rabbitohs Grand Final victory on Sunday night. That is exactly how important the No.6 is to his side’s NRL Premiership hopes.
On top of Walker’s direct ball-running, his ability to judge the numbers game and create for his outside men with elite pass selection is largely unmatched, producing 33 try assists and an NRL record 44 line break assists in 2021.
Walker will also be in the vicinity when hooker Damien Cook elects to run the ball, looking to cause headaches for Penrith with his support running and acceleration through the defensive line.
While many an opposition side have tried to limit the impact of To’o, stopping him completely is nearing on impossible.
To’o isn’t just one of the best finishers in the competition, but his yardage carries – which have seen him average 246 run metres in 2021 – give the Panthers plenty of momentum coming out of their own end while taking pressure off fatigued middle forwards.
Add to that his connection on the left edge, along with Luai’s instinctiveness, Villiame Kikau’s explosive running and Matt Burton’s playmaking nous, and To’o is one of the Panthers biggest attacking weapon tonight.
Cook’s best form has certainly come to fore in the post-season, especially in the absence of Latrell Mitchell.
Without the tackle-busting, midfield runs from Mitchell as a result of quick distribution, it is now Cook’s running game – his number one asset – that has become more and more prevalent in South Sydney’s finals run, making the likes of Cody Walker and Cameron Murray much more dangerous around the ruck.
In particular, the duo of Cook with Walker over his shoulder could be the combination to cause the most damage if South Sydney are to win the point-scoring battle – look no further than Cook’s left-foot try assist for his five-eighth from broken play in their Preliminary Final victory.
It is wyhat Isaah Yeo does without running the ball that is a crucial aspect to Penrith’s chances of taking home the troph, and it’s even more crucial in allowing an injured Cleary to have his biggest influence from behind the play-the-ball.
In defence the Dally M Lock of the Year shores up the middle of the field and rarely misses tackles, and in attack he consistently asks questions with his ball-playing variation and strong hit-up when required.
In combining with Cleary, however, Yeo will spend the early part of the set handing off to his front-rowers and playing out the back on left or right shifts, all while the halfback looks for weaknesses in the defence and picks the moment for the Panthers to strike.
Murray is the ultimate all-rounder for South Sydney at No.13, who with a strong display could also be a potential Clive Churchill Medal chance and follow the streak of Rabbitohs lock forwards (Ron Coote 1971, Sam Burgess, 2014) to earn Grand Final Man of the Match honours.
While Murray is always hard to beat defensively, as seen by his matchup against David Fifita in the 2021 Ampol State of Origin series, he’s equally hard to stop when he takes on the line with leg speed, late footwork and an ability to find the try-line from close range.
Yet Murray’s biggest influence on the Grand Final will come in the ruck battle as he possesses the quickest play-the-ball of any forward in the game, and it can give Bennett’s men the advantage they need in what could turn out to be a contest for momentum in the early exchanges.