Tonight’s Grand Final was one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking I’ve seen in years, despite playing as an incredible arm wrestle for long passages. After almost winning last year, losing to the Bunnies at the start of the finals season, and only winning by the narrowest of margins over the last few weeks, the Panthers came away with an equally close victory here – their second match in as many weeks where it all came down to a single try, for a 14-12 win.
What made this so heartbreaking was the South Sydney performance – and not just because this was Adam Reynolds’ last game in the cardinal and myrtle. Latrell Mitchell’s absence has never been starker – not just in terms of his skill set, but his belief, passion and identification with the South Sydney brand. In his absence, the Bunnies struggled to come up with a single flamboyant play, other than a Cody Walker break in the first half that secured their first try.
Yet that just made the second stanza even more agonising, when Walker and Reynolds came up with plays that may haunt them just as heavily as Ben Hunt’s dropped ball against the Cowboys. Walker may have enjoyed the best individual play, but he set up the individual play that arguably handed the game back to Penrith – an unnecessary cut-out ball the prompted a sublime Stephen Crichton intercept – while Reynolds followed a record-breaking year with the boot by missing the critical conversion, and then a two-point field goal in the last minute.
On the other side of the Steeden, this capped 2021 as a watershed year for Nathan Cleary, who’s come away with a premiership and an Origin win after almost nabbing both last year. In his hands, and given the close margins over the last few weeks, the Panthers felt like genuine underdogs, keeping their defensive line as strong as it has ever been, and managing to channel the atmosphere of Panthers Stadium (and Sydney) despite the Suncorp backdrop.
The Panthers did well with a deep kickoff, clearing up space for Cleary to take his first kick halfway down the park, with Cameron Murray copping a huge hit from James Fisher-Harris in the process. Souths didn’t make it quite as far, with Reynolds booting it just inside his forty, and so Matt Burton was over halfway by tackle three, as the Panthers made the first incursion into the opposition end, where Jarome Luai was pinged for a fumble on the ground, and the mountain men elected to sent it upstairs for their first challenge just two and half minutes in.
This was a pretty significant pause after such a fast start, but the result favoured Penrith, who got one more tackle for Cleary to bomb to the right corner, where Johnston took it on the full. The Panthers summoned a couple of big packs to keep the Bunnies in their own red zone for the first half of the set, before some Damien Cook footwork got them another ten metres. Even so, Reynolds had to hurry the kick, and only booted it just outside the thirty this time, while Penrith continued to win the battle of field position with their first sweep to the right.
They didn’t quite make it to the twenty, but Cleary’s bomb to the right did the job again this time, as Blake Taaffe followed Johnston by collecting it on the full, but fumbled it in the air before securing it, meaning he didn’t have time to get to ground before Paul Momirovski bundled him into touch for the first dropout of the game. Fish took the first carry, and Moses Leota followed in his wake, while Brian To’o collected a bouncing ball on the left, and Fish took another run to finally reach Souths’ red zone, laying space for a left sweep from Burton.
It all came down to yet another Cleary kick to the right – this time a chip – as Dane Gagai leaped up to follow Johnston and Taaffe by collecting it on the full, and actually got both hands to it while losing it into the chase. Yet Gagai saved the day brilliantly, taking it again on the bounce before Leota could get there, turning a near-try into a dropout that Mark Nicholls saved with a strip on Fish on tackle one, just after Tevita Tatola pulled back from the contact.
This ushered in the first really decent South Sydney field position, but Penrith survived, right on their line, while Cleary recouped with the biggest kick for either team so far. Still, Keon Koloamatangi made terrific post-contact meters to bring his men up to the forty midway through the next set, while Reynolds got his first bomb in the Penrith end, sending it right where To’o cleaned up Campbell Graham after he took it clean. Again, the Panthers had to work it back from their own line, as Momirovski took a huge hit and Cleary glimpsed a break.
In the end, Cleary had to float it from his own forty, and Taaffe responded with one of the terrific takes that tends to galvanise his game after spotty opening passage. Reaching out his hands, and then sliding along his knees, he caught it on the full, before To’o mirrored and compressed his play at the back of Reynolds’ next bomb, by simply kneeling to ground to receive the Steeden. We were now faced with a tipping-point, starting with a low tackle from Dane Gagai into Momirovski that saw him head off for an HIA as Benji Marshall left the bench.
At the same time, Penrith got the first penalty when Tatola was pinged for holding down, and made their way right to the South Sydney line, where To’o broke through the defence and almost crashed over on the left. Still, the Rabbitohs survived, and got the first six again to compensate for the first penalty, thanks to a Momirovski offside. Sensing his forwards were fatigued, Cleary came up with a terrific play four tackles into the next set – a chip on the cusp of the red zone, into the goal area, where Taaffe only just cleaned it up for the next dropout.
Cleary’s judgement in kicking before this last incursion into the twenty worked here, as a renewed Leota plunged the Panthers over the ten, where they got six again right on the South Sydney line. Cleary tried to surge through on the left, Api Koroisau attempted a dummy half run, and Burton’s restless searching on the wing finally paid dividends, as Luai opted to run the ball on the last, holding it, showing it, drawing in Graham across the chest of Reyno, and ending with a cut-out for Burton to score untouched, before Cleary added the sideline kick.
The Panthers had to begin the restart right on their line, thanks to a big kick from Reynolds, but they carved up the middle pretty easily, allowing Cleary to boot it just outside the South Sydney forty. He came up with his best bounce of the night, and Bunnies fans at Suncorp held their breath as the Steeden passed through several pairs of hands before To’o was finally contained five out. Worse still, Jai Arrow lost the footy cold, in his first carry of the game, into a combined hit from Luai and Fish, before Billy Kikau came in for late contact with the head.
Arrow followed Gagai to the sheds for an HIA, while the Bunnies had their first penalty off Kikau’s hit. This was pretty good luck, since the loose carry preceded the contact, and they capitalised immediately – or rather the Dally M five-eighth of the year capitalised immediately, since Cody Walker now stepped up with the best individual effort of the game so far. Receiving the footy at the foty, he dummied, broke out of a Kurt Capewell tackle, took on Cleary, danced over a Dylan Edwards ankle tap and outran Liam Martin right on the chalk.
This was the kind of try that changes the whole rhythm of the game, encapsulated in the moment when Walker sized up Cleary, and almost went out of his way to deceive him, as if subliminally realising that this was just the right moment to show the Panthers that the star halfback had an Achilles heel. Reynolds added the extras, Walker had won the battle of the halves, and the Bunnies had levelled the score off their first penalty, and their first real shot of the night, while news came down that Gagai had passed his HIA and would return shortly.
Reynolds now seemed fully fired up for the first time, almost breaking through a Yeo tackle before his acceleration got the better of him on the kick, which he booted hard and far enough for Edwards to take on the full in goal. Nevertheless, Edwards wasn’t able to take the quick tap at the twenty with a couple of his team mates offside, giving the Rabbitohs time to reset and ramp up their defensive line so that Luai was forced to boot it just outside his own forty. Arrow had now passed his HIA as well, as Walker executed his best long-range effort so far.
With twenty-five minutes on the clock, the game had become a sublime arm wrestle. Graham came up with one of the most heroic takes of the game, withstanding an enormous Penrith chase to collect a Cleary kick on the full, and managing to stay in the field of play when it turned into a pack that surged and shoved him onto the chalk. Edwards curved out of touch to take the next one, and only just made it back when his hands met the Steeden, while Scott Sorensen stood for five seconds in the tackle before eventually offloading three tackles later.
These were all great individual clutch plays, but one team needed to consolidate further to take control of the next part of the match, especially since both sides were starting to show signs of fatigue. To’o mirrored Sorensen with an offload to Stephen Crichton midway up the park, Johnston charged in to force a Capewell knock-on, and the Bunnies got a much-needed scrum. Yet this brief opportunity to take their breath actually worked against them, just relaxing Taaffe enough for his fatigue to show when he coughed up the ball on the first play.
South Sydney had gone from a rare scrum to defending their line for another Penrith set in the red zone, while Arrow marked his return to the park with a crowding penalty that set up Cleary to boot through two more. Given the significance of the penalty kick at the end of the first stanza against the Eels two weeks ago, this was a pretty sobering moment for the Bunnies, and seemed to cancel out how efficiently they capitalised off Kikau’s earlier penalty.
Reynolds booted the restart as far as he could, and so Cleary opted to kick right on the half way line, as Taaffe worked his way back from that egregious error by collecting the footy and withstanding a big Luai tackle. The Panthers had 60% possession by this stage, so it was a small victory that South Sydney had only conceded two points, as the arm wrestle resumed for the last five minutes of the first stanza. Koloamatangi stepped up now, minding the footy after Reynolds couldn’t make his first kick, and then taking Cleary’s next grubber on the chest.
Jaxson Paulo had been pretty quiet so far, but made his first dash up the right here, only to offload back into Luai, who absorbed all this aborted momentum immediately. The Panthers had a full set with one minute on the board, and it was critical that South Sydney hold on now to return from the break with a level playing-field. Leota smashed through the line, the Bunnies scrambled, and Walker saved the day by taking the footy right on the chalk, getting his men a couple of tackles before the siren blew out and they headed to the sheds two down.
The Panthers had been 22-0 at half time against the Storm during last year’s Grand Final, and now they were only two ahead, while the Bunnies got another blow when Arrow began to suffer delayed symptoms from his head clash, meaning he was out of the thirteen when they returned to the park. That said, the game oscillated more vertiginously now, as South Sydney got a series of periodic bursts that put real pressure on the Panthers to maintain their lead.
The Bunnies had the first carry, and got six again on tackle two, off a heavy run from Tom Burgess, then another six again three tackles later, thanks to an equally strong carry from Su’A. Burgess took his third run this sequence to bring it inside the twenty, Reynolds swept it left, and yet Gagai mistimed the tap-on to Johnston, as the footy spilled over the sideline. Still, there was potential in this sweep, and the Bunnies continued to build, starting with a strong effort from Taaffe to keep possession when a Penrith pack lifted him clean off the turf.
Murray then did brilliantly to milk an obstruction penalty from Capewell in the face of a big Edwards charge – just before Burgess wrapped his arm around Dylan’s head – setting up Reynolds to take his first penalty kick since his groin injury to level the scoreline at 8-8. No sooner had this happened though, than Su’A dropped the ball clean while sizing up a Kikau-Luai tackle, as word returned from the sheds that Arrow was out for the night, and the Panthers got their first short-range attack since the break, culminating with a Cleary offload.
Kikau had set up this sequence, and Kikau was in position to continue the second phase play, actually getting the footy down before Cleary’s pass was called forward, thanks in large part to Reynolds, who had held up his opposing halfback just long enough to force the error. Su’a survived Kikau’s next tackle, and the Bunnies followed with their best defensive set down Penrith’s end, before Johnston found space up the left edge, only for Reynolds to waste his Captain’s Challenge by contesting Spencer Liu’s chargedown at the end of his following kick.
This was a lucky result for Penrith, and Cleary built on it by securing their next dropout, but the Bunnies held on here, and were just as staunch during the Panthers’ next assault on their line, when Edwards followed Cleary with a forward pass that thwarted a potential tryscoring sequence – this time a sweep to the right wing. As the final quarter arrived, the score was still locked, while Souths had their most precarious sequence yet – and Taaffe his best save, chasing down a Paulo cough-up and sliding into goal to to hold on as Luai tumbled in on top.
Burton took it over the ten as the game reached the hour mark, and Reynolds forced the error by coming in for a follow-up tackle after Graham slowed down the play. South Sydney had the scrum, and really needed to come up with a special sequence, or a spectacular individual play, to reset the rhythm of this game over these final twenty minutes. So far, they’d largely approached the match as a war of attrition, and yet it had been Walker’s moment of flamboyance that got them on the board. They needed the same vision, as soon as possible.
In other words, this was the point where Souths really started to feel the absence of Latrell Mitchell’s vision, dexterity and sheer belief at fullback. Reynolds’ next pass became an inadvertent cut-out effort, as Gagai was forced to clean it up on the left edge, setting up Capewell for an easy changeover, as the Panthers commenced the attack once again. For the third time in as many weeks, Penrith were faced with a final where it looked like one try would win it, gaining an additional boost when Burton shoved Paulo into touch under the high ball.
It felt like South Sydney had done nothing but defend their goal line, as Martin started yet another set five metres out, but once again they got a letoff with an unforced Penrith error – this time a Tyrone May knock-on off a standard Cleary pass. Still, the trio of mistakes – Cleary, Edwards, May – meant nothing if the Bunnies couldn’t do something special with their attack here. Su’A tried to galvanise them with an offload to Taaffe, and Crichton came up with the vision Souths lacked, executing his third try in three finals by intercepting a poor Walker pass.
This was the direst moment of the game for the Bunnies. They’d had three unforced errors on their line, and been unable to muster a strong individual play from any of them, while Crichton had responded with an individual effort of his own, since this was no easy intercept – a basketball move that required the Penrith winger to reach the full extent of his body to collect it. Even worse, the error came from Walker, the one Rabbitoh who had made a really decisive one-man play, but had now assisted Crichton to add to the scoreline he’d levelled.
As a result, this passage felt like a full stop on the game, especially when Cleary booted through the extras with only two to go. By confirming that South Sydney didn’t have any real flamboyance in their arsenal, it consigned this to one of the more anticlimactic grand finals, despite the arm wrestle – unless the Bunnies could manage to bounce back now. Benji came onto the park, searching for opportunities as his team mates tried to plough their way through yet another wall of Penrith jerseys, before Reyno condensed his frustration into a plosive kick.
By contrast, Cleary’s next bomb had a Lachlan Lewis-like pause and calm to it, as if he was consciously relaxing himself, and his team mates, to ensure maximum mindfulness over the last ten minutes. Paulo kicked at speed up the right edge, but Cleary still took it clean, and copped a big tackle from Burgess into his right shoulder, before floating his next bomb down to Johnston’s corner. Taaffe made his best metres so far up the middle, Gagai followed with his best dash and tackle bust up the middle as well, and Cook brought them into the thirty.
Cookie’s offload wasn’t his best, but the Bunnies regathered, and got a penalty inside the Penrith red zone off a Burton leg pull. This was the moment when everything had to come together – and it did, on only the second play, when they finally nailed the left sweep they’d been searching for all night. Latrell made this part of the park his own during the second half of 2021, and the Rabbitohs seemed to be invoking him here, as Walker made up for his intercept by bringing the Steeden right into the line and staring up Cleary straight in the face.
That created just enough room for Gagai to continue the sweep out to Johnston, who got it down with Crichton on his back, forcing Reyno to face one of the most important conversions of his career – from the left sideline, to level the score, with four and a half minutes to go. After a South Sydney career as one of the best goalkickers in the game, he missed it now, meaning all Penrith had to do was hang on to win it – and that the cardinal and myrtle desperately needed to make the most of their restart to have any chance of a late comeback.
Walker took the first carry down the other end of the field, and Gagai followed, as if they were trying to absorb the strength of this left sweep into the beginning of the restart. Gagai was wobbly when he got to his feet, and did well to milk the penalty, as the slow-motion showed Kikau dragging him down from behind, and Burton giving him the slightest of taps with his hand on the way down. This has been a penalty all year, but the Rabbitohs had to just keep on playing it here, as Murray cleaned up a bouncing Benji ball after Fish got a hand to it.
South Sydney had the scrum feed, and just under four minutes on the clock, as Murray broke through the line, before Walker had his second heartbreaker of the night, concluding a left sweep by spilling it over sideline just like Gagai just after the break. In slow motion it looked like Cleary might have got a touch to it, or only got a hand to Walker’s arm, but in either case Penrith had the ball back, so only a moment of sudden brilliance could save the Bunnies now.
With a minute and a half on the clock, Souths had one set to send Reynolds out a winner for the second time, while the Panthers only had to defend one more set after mounting the best defence of the season. Both these teams would fragment and disperse from here, so an entire rugby league generation hung in the balance as Reynolds’ two-point field goal attempt went short, and bounced over the back line to boot, giving Penrith a seven-tackle set to clean it up.
The Panthers slowed down the play, didn’t take any risks, and came away with the premiership – an even more impressive achievement given the setback of last year, and the very narrow win margins they experienced over the last few weeks of finals footy. While it wasn’t the most flamboyant game from either side – especially from South Sydney – this was a momentous ending for a Penrith outfit that have been waiting for this win for a long time, and a milestone for a Panthers outfit that haven’t won the premiership in eighteen long years.