Blake Taaffe in the Qualifying Final Photo: South Sydney Rabbitohs - Twitter

In what may be the most unusual lead up to an NRL Grand Final ever, with COVID-19 diminishing the crowd and threatening to postpone the event, we have finally arrived at this seasons crowning day.

In what may be the most unusual lead up to an NRL Grand Final ever, with COVID-19 diminishing the crowd and threatening to postpone the event, we have finally arrived at this seasons crowning day.

The Penrith Panthers will take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs in this year’s decider in what will the teams’ fourth matchup of the season. The Panthers currently lead the series 2-1 but the Rabbitohs will look to even the count when it matters most.

The Inner Sanctum has taken a look at the previous three matchups between the two sides this year and where the game will be won or lost tonight.

Round 11 – Rabbitohs 12 def by Panthers 56, Apex Oval, Dubbo

The Panthers dominated from the outset in this matchup that saw the Panthers collect their 11th straight win of the season, while the Rabbitohs conceded 50 points for the second time in three weeks.

Penrith dominated all the major stat categories with 59 per cent of possession, 89 per cent completion rate, 17,53 run metres, nine line-breaks and 37 tackle-breaks. While piling on nine tries including a Matt Burton hat trick, and a Nathan Cleary double.

Cleary also dominated in the kicking game, racking up 456 of the teams 506 kicking metres compared to the Rabbitohs collective 283 kicking metres. Cleary put the Rabbitohs on the back foot and made sure his team was always in an attacking position.

For the Rabbitohs it was not only the kicking game that let them down, the team conceded 12 penalties and failed to slow the Panthers down conceding 1,753 run metres, 563 more than the Rabbitohs accumulated.

Panthers celebrating their round 11 victory. Photo: NRL – Website

Round 23 – Panthers 25 def Rabbitohs 12, Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

While the Rabbitohs failed to secure the win, they reeled the Panthers in the stats they were dominated in, in their first meeting.

South Sydney was flying out the gates early with Dane Gagai and Latrell Mitchell scoring tries in the ninth and 21st minutes respectively. It seemed like momentum was on their side until a kick from Paul Momirovski to Cleary earned the Panthers their first try.

Much like Round 11, the Rabbitohs penalty count was through the roof, giving away a whopping 11 penalties, well up from their average of four for the rest of the season.

The error count did them no favours either with Cleary repeatedly targeting Josh Mansour with the kicks, who struggled to manage the number seven’s bombs resulting in multiple knock ons.

Penrith dominated possession, completing as many sets as South Sydney had total. While the Rabbitohs only managed to complete 28 of their 38 sets, struggling in the second half especially.

Damian Cook starred for the Rabbitohs, leading the tackle count with 58, with only teammates Cameron Murray and Jai Arrow having 40 tackles or more for the match.

Tevita Pangai Jr made his Penrith debut in round 23. Photo: NRL – Website

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Qualifying Final – Panthers 10 def by Rabbitohs 16, Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville

Ordinarily, the battle of words between two coaches wouldn’t factor into a result, but during the week Wayne Bennett got the upper hand over Panthers head coach Ivan Cleary when discussing the blocks on the kick chase and instead of focusing on the Latrell Mitchell replacement Blake Taaffe, all anyone could focus on was whether Bennett’s claims had truth to them.

It took pressure off the inexperienced fullback who was immediately tested by Cleary’s bombs and while he made an error on the first kick, he was able to settle and manage the kicks that the halfback had to switch up who he was targeting.

It was the first time the Rabbitohs were able to manage Cleary’s kicks this season and with the kick chase suddenly heavily scrutinised for both illegal blocks and late hits, neither side appeared to be willing to risk the penalty that would inevitably get called.

South Sydney opened the scoring with an early penalty goal, but first, try went to Stephen Crichton following a grubber kick from Cleary that scrambled South Sydney in goal.

However, the first opportunity the Rabbitohs were able to penetrate on the left-hand side Cody Walker was able to get the ball down to even up the scoring.

Unlike previous matchups between the two sides, the Rabbitohs lead all attacking statistics except for the kick return metres, which the Panthers lead 243-206, and line-breaks which was tied with four to each side.

Cody Walker runs in to score South Sydney’s first try of the Elimination Final Photo: South Sydney Rabbitohs – Twitter

Grand Final – Where is the match won?

The obvious answer is Nathan Cleary’s kicks and whether South Sydney will be able to contain them. It was proven in the qualifying final that if the kicks could be managed by the back three the Souths were in with a chance.

It’s still unclear who will take up kicking duties for the Rabbitohs but even if Cody Walker does the bulk of the load, expect some craftsmanship from Adam Reynolds to come into play in the second half to put added pressure on the Panthers’ back three.

Both sides are experienced in their own ways, South Sydney is the more experienced side by way of games and finals experience reaching the preliminary final every year since 2018. However, most of Penrith’s side has Grand Final experience from the 2020 loss to Melbourne Storm, while only four Rabbitohs have won a Grand Final, the trio of Reynolds, Johnston and Burgess in 2014 and Benji Marshall in 2005.

Both sides are more than capable at scoring from either edge but the Rabbitohs could tear the game apart if they repeatedly breakthrough on the left edge, with Johnston, Walker and Gagai all capable try-scorers. Meanwhile, it will be up to Brian To’o and Matt Burton to put on a show on Penrith’s right edge, if South Sydney can contain Crichton.

Where Penrith has been particularly vulnerable this season defensively is under the goalposts, conceding more tries there, than any other area, that presents an opportunity for not only Campbell Graham and Jaxson Paulo but the South Sydney forwards who will bash and crash through to put the ball down.

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