The 2023 NRL Grand Final is expected to be one for the ages in rugby league history, as the back-to-back premiers Penrith Panthers take on the Brisbane Broncos, who went from missing the finals in ugly fashion last season to a very successful season that has led them to the big dance.
Penrith is looking to win its third premiership in four consecutive Grand Final appearances which would put it in elite company with the 1980s Parramatta Eels, who were the last team to three-peat.
Brisbane on the other hand did a clean-out during the 2021 season, going through a rebuild and managed to add Adam Reynolds, Kurt Capewell, and Reece Walsh in the last 24 months to turn around itself into a winning side.
The Broncos are chasing their first premiership since 2006 and are playing in their first grand final since the all-time Grand Final against the North Queensland Cowboys in 2015.
Here’s what to expect from both sides heading into the Grand Final this Sunday night.
These sides met twice this season, with both taking a match each.
In the first round this season, Brisbane won 13-12, during Penrith’s slow start to begin the 2023 campaign.
Later in the year, they met again, and the Panthers won 15-4 at Suncorp in round 12, although the Broncos were without Adam Reynolds missing through injury.
Last week, the Panthers took care of business against Melbourne Storm, scoring 38-4 in the preliminary final.
Penrith loves to complete its sets at a high percentage and Nathan Cleary, Dylan Edwards, and Isaah Yeo have significant influences on the match.
The defending premiers have their biggest match yet, going up against a team that plays on the complete opposite side of structured football.
The Panthers will have to defend the Broncos’ attack which consists of a versatile side-to-side fullback in Reece Walsh, who operates really well without the ball when Ezra Mam and Adam Reynolds get the ball moving out wide.
Depending on where Walsh is at any point in the game, the Panthers could tweak their defence around the ruck, rushing the forwards Payne Haas, Thomas Flegler, and Patrick Carrigan to make them ball play early and allow their outside defence to rush.
At the same time, the defensive line set shuffles horizontally to cover the outside edge attack Brisbane can quickly get going with.
Mitch Kenny against Melbourne brought the energy defensively, slowing down Harry Grant’s running game and then as the marker, creating extra effort plays as the top marker to rush the first receiver and their first pass.
Offensively, the back three of the Panthers, Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o, and Sunia Turuva will be the engine in their scoring and yardage game, possibly deciding the outcome of the game.
All three have been consistent in these areas, Edwards’ communication to the wingers defensively will need to be constant and ready against an adaptable and instinctive strike power side in the Broncos.
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The Broncos exhibited a masterclass performance, led by Reece Walsh, who dismantled the Warriors in a dominant 42-12 victory.
By the end of the game, they had recorded 11 line breaks and 23 offloads, maintaining an impressive 82 per cent completion rate in their sets. This showcased their prowess with the ball, delivering a clear message about their attacking capabilities. This display was especially crucial as they were gearing up to face a team that had undeniably been the best defensive unit in the league throughout the season.
Brisbane remained confident in its winning formula, naming the same lineup that secured victories in its crucial finals matches against the Warriors and Storm.
Although there was a momentary concern about centre Herbie Farnworth’s hamstring tightness during training, he was confirmed fit to play in the upcoming decider.
Reece Walsh emerged as the Broncos’ game-changer, possessing remarkable speed and a skill set that included precise passing and kicking. His ability to influence the game was evident with eight try contributions in his last three appearances, making him a constant threat.
Few players in the league match Walsh’s game-breaking potential; his speed, instincts, and clever plays demanded constant vigilance from the opposition.
Walsh’s best involvements come from sweeping actions, coming around the ball movement, with a lot of space and time to use his speed and even make quick decisions, having so many options in those set plays, utilising his high footy IQ.
Hooker Billy Walters, once criticised heavily by fans, has transformed into a reliable performer.
His solid defence and sharp attacking skills from the dummy half spot off a quick play of the ball, highlighted by his two-try performance last weekend, showcase his determination for a strong performance in the upcoming game.
Brisbane’s playing style poses a significant challenge to Penrith; with its emphasis on attacking offloads making it a formidable opponent.
The Broncos’ strategy is clear, which is to execute the offload game effectively and attack with their set plays from around the halfway mark up the field, and victory can be achieved playing their contrasting style.
However, if the offloads failed to connect, Penrith’s Nathan Cleary has a better opportunity to take control of the game.
Meanwhile, Adam Reynolds, previously let go by the South Sydney Rabbitohs, justified his worth with the Broncos. His experience brings a calm confidence that has proved invaluable to the young team, elevating their overall gameplay over the past two seasons.
Defensively, the Broncos will need to defend their try-line, as the Panthers love to create pressure games and let time settle into the occasion of the big game, especially in the red zone.
Both sides will play the decider at Accor Stadium on Sunday at 7:30pm on Channel Nine and Nine Now.