Everything you need to know about the NRL Grand Final

After another turbulent season of highs, lows and the ever-present pandemic, the NRL season draws to a close on Sunday in a grand final showdown between Souths and Penrith.

It is the first all-Sydney grand final since the Rabbitohs were last in the decider in 2014 – and famously won – and only the second such clash in the last decade. But in one of the hundreds of twists brought on by COVID-19, the game won’t be played in locked down Sydney, but instead it will be fought out in Brisbane.

It is the first time the NRL grand final has been held outside of Sydney.

The Rabbitohs are riding a wave of momentum, having won 14 of their last 16 games and earning their way into the grand final via a win over the Panthers in the first week of the playoffs, and victory over Tommy Turbo and Manly in the preliminary final.

The battered Panthers have done it the hard way, having to sneak past Parramatta to stay alive and then facing off against Melbourne in the preliminary final. The 2020 runners-up shocked the Storm to make the decider and return to favouritism, in some people’s minds.

Those two losses for Souths since round 11? Both were to Penrith.

It promises to be a belter. Here are some of the key facts and talking points for you to digest before the action heats up.

Not quite enough? Need a bit more of a deep dive into the formlines of Penrith and Souths, and which areas of the grand final will decide the match? Say no more. We have got you covered.

What are Souths’ strengths and weaknesses?

Cody Walker chips for Alex Johnston in the corner.Credit:Nine

STRENGTHS

Timing and incentive

As opposed to the Panthers who are the walking wounded after three bruising finals matches, all’s well in Wayne’s world this week. Barring Latrell Mitchell (suspension), they are at full strength with Adam Reynolds to overcome a slight groin problem. There’s fuel in the tank having had a week off with an earlier finals win over Penrith and a comfortable success over Manly in the grand final qualifier. And just what emotional lift will South Sydney get out of Bennett’s last game in charge of the Rabbitohs and farewell to Adam Reynolds?

Cody Walker

The coach has put his figurative arm around his star playmaker in the press all year, comparing him to the greats of his coaching past. It’s worked a treat. The five-eighth has gritted his teeth to go with his sublime talent and said his single focus is to win a premiership. He can break the game open single-handedly when in the mood.

WEAKNESSES

Will Adam Reynolds’ groin injury affect his kicking game?Credit:Getty

The middle third

Rabbitohs fans will scoff at the suggestion, but rival clubs privately claim they’re susceptible to a power game straight up the guts. There hasn’t been any sign of it in recent weeks, but watch for the Panthers to crash through the front door and throw down the gauntlet to starting props Junior Tatola and Mark Nicholls.

Penrith will also keep the ball in play as much as possible to tire the Rabbitohs’ older pack.

Will Adam Reynolds be able to kick goals?

It seems crazy to suggest goalkicking could be a problem for the Rabbitohs given they boast one of the best in the NRL era, but Reynolds’ groin strain stopped him from kicking in the grand final qualifier. As admirable as rookie Blake Taaffe was as his replacement, he’s no Adam Reynolds. And he’s no Nathan Cleary. In what most are predicting to be a tight grand final, the boots could be the difference.

What about the Panthers?

Nathan Cleary grubbers through for Stephen Crichton to score.Credit:Nine

STRENGTHS

Nathan Cleary

No one will argue with the decision to award Tom Trbojevic the Dally M medal. However, Cleary has been the standout player of the past two seasons. The halfback has stood up in big games, most notably at State of Origin level, and a commanding performance on Sunday goes a long way in deciding the result.

Cohesion

This is a side that has played a lot of football together. Nathan Cleary, Brent Naden, Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris were part of the premiership-winning NYC side of 2015. Other members of the current team have also played together in the junior ranks. Those bonds, forged on and off the field, are a huge advantage.

WEAKNESSES

Tevita Pangai jnr gets attention for his injured knee last week.Credit:Getty

Injuries

The healthiest team tends to be the one that lifts the trophy and there are plenty of walking wounded for Penrith. Tevita Pangai Junior (knee) has already been ruled out, while Cleary (shoulder), Brian To’o (ankle), Dylan Edwards (foot), James Fisher-Harris (knee) and Moses Leota (calf) limp into the biggest day of the year.

Cleary’s shoulder will undoubtedly be a target for the South Sydney defence, particularly when kicking. The Blues playmaker has already conceded he will have to alter his strategy after conceding he became too fixated on bombing Blake Taaffe earlier in the finals series.

Mental scarring

Do you truly believe you can win a grand final until you’ve actually done it? Penrith was the team to beat last year, yet failed at the final hurdle. Of most concern was their inability to compete in the opening half, when the occasion and a quality Melbourne outfit got the better of them. Last week’s win over the Storm will boost confidence, but it remains to be seen if the youngest team in the competition will better handle league’s biggest day.

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Who are the X-factors?

PENRITH

Panthers enforcer Viliame Kikau will need to step up.Credit:Getty

What is Viliame Kikau worth on the open market? We could soon get our answer, with the blockbusting forward open to offers as of November 1.

Kikau has been below his best in the back half of the year, but has the potential to run riot on Sunday. A member of the Dally M team of the year, Kikau has been used as a strike weapon off the bench for the last six weeks of the season. At his best – whether it be flattening opponents or setting up his teammates – he is unstoppable.

SOUTHS

Wayne Bennett. Yep, the man sitting high up in the stands might have an impact so big it would surpass even that of his players down below. On the morning of the 2010 grand final when he was forced to cancel the Dragons’ traditional team walk because of wet weather, Bennett sat his nervous players in a circle in the team hotel. He made them play a game of Chinese whispers, and suddenly they were at ease.

Wayne Bennett and Benji Marshall have a special bond.Credit:Getty

No coach knows how to get more out of young men than the master, trying to be the first coach to win a title with three different clubs. He’ll pull the right rein when needed.

For all your grand final news, previews, features and analysis, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald have got you covered across the weekend. And tune in from 6.30pm on Sunday for the Herald’s live grand final blog, manned by Tom Decent and Sam Phillips, and with the expert views of Michael Chammas.

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