This match preview thanks to East Blaxland Butchery.
Storylines? You want storylines? Boy, have we got storylines.
What about the battle of the halfbacks – Nathan Cleary on a 2021 winning streak for the ages, Adam Reynolds on a mission to farewell his beloved South Sydney in style.
The clash of the under-rated, but game defining locks – Isaah Yeo and Cameron Murray, both at the back end of stunning seasons.
What about a couple of these wingers? Alex Johnston with a competition-leading 27 tries, Brian To’o with the best post-contact metres in the game, defying his stature.
No Latrell. Now there’s a storyline.
Then there’s the tussle in the coach’s box – some 1,250 games between the master Wayne Bennett and Ivan Cleary, who is still chasing his elusive first Premiership.
Wherever you look, this re-match of last year’s Preliminary Final has classic written all over it.
The bookies may have Penrith as short-priced favourites but this is Finals football and there is no certainties anywhere.
The Panthers have been good in recent weeks but still haven’t found that extra gear or two Cleary is adamant remains in his side. Souths finished the year on 42 competition points – that would get them the Minor Premiership in many seasons. They’re certainly not just making up the numbers.
Penrith have certainly had the Rabbitohs’ measure in recent times, winning both their battles this season – a thrashing in Dubbo and most recently, a 25-12 come-from-behind win at Suncorp Stadium. Souths led that game 12-0 and appeared on top but when Penrith put the foot down, they couldn’t go with them. You can bet your bottom dollar that Bennett has gone over that game constantly this week, working on the running repairs required to turn the result around.
I have no doubt that this game will come down to an outstanding individual performance. It’ll be Cleary or Reynolds grabbing hold of the game by the scruff of the neck and ensuring they control the momentum. Or perhaps Viliame Kikau will produce the rampaging performance that he’s been threatening to deliver over the last month.
Don’t rule out a bit of Damien Cook or Api Koroisau magic to break the game wide open, either.
Both sides will likely focus on their left-side attack – and you can be pretty comfortable in backing Johnston or To’o to find the line on Saturday night.
But in the end, it’ll be defence that wins the contest. One lapse on your line, one missed tackle in the middle, and the chances of winning the contest could quickly diminish.
To that end, the Panthers find themselves in the box seat. They were the best defensive team in the regular season – conceding an average of just 11.9 points per game. That’s a remarkable figure, and it’s no fluke – in fact it’s the same average points per game as last season. Ivan Cleary has built a wall and it could just win him a Premiership.
Defence is my concern as far as the Rabbitohs are concerned.
I’ve always doubted Souths’ championship credentials given they leak way too many points – an average of 18 points per game. They’ll have to improve significantly if they’re to get on top of the Panthers on Saturday night.
And there’s no doubt that Souths’ mission is tougher without Latrell Mitchell. He just has those game-breaking qualities that can make a huge different in Finals matches, and Bennett does not have a ready-made solution to patch the problem.
I’m expecting a roller coaster ride on Saturday night.
It won’t be easy for Penrith, but they should have too much class in the end and their defence will get them home.
Whatever happens, another storyline is waiting – Penrith will either be 80 minutes from a Grand Final, or on a potential collision course with arch rivals Parramatta in the second week of the Finals.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
Penrith and Souths play at QLD Country Bank Stadium on Saturday, September 11 at 7.50pm.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Senior Writer. He has more than 15 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations.