Some would say it’s advantage Souths after Wayne Bennett’s side upset Penrith in week one of the Finals. Blueprint for victory sorted, they’ll argue.
But losing that match could well work in Penrith’s favour come 7.30pm Sunday night at Suncorp Stadium.
You can bet your bottom dollar that Ivan Cleary and the Penrith coaching staff have poured over the video of that game endlessly this week.
Identify the problem, find a solution and implement the fix.
In a year in which attack and high scorelines dominated the rugby league landscape, everything is pointing to a low-scoring Grand Final on Sunday night.
Penrith boasted the best defence of the regular season and have conceded just two tries in their last two games, while Souths had the third best defence in the competition and showed in week one of the Finals that they can get in the arm wrestle if that’s what it takes.
Much has been made this week of the emotion surrounding South Sydney’s storylines. About how the club wants to farewell Wayne Bennett and their homegrown hero Adam Reynolds in style.
But while the headlines may not be as loud, the Panthers are farewelling a couple of their own who have formed such a close bond with the playing group that it’ll be just as important for their teammates to send them off in style as it will be for the Rabbitohs with Reynolds and Bennett.
Matt Burton and Kurt Capewell have played a crucial role in this incredible period for the club, while Brent Naden has also been an important part of the journey and will likely watch as 18th man on Sunday night.
So let’s not pretend the Rabbitohs have more to play for.
Regardless, those fairytale farewells and storylines fade into the background once the ball is kicked off in the big one. From that moment, it’s all about the 80 minutes ahead.
And what an 80 minutes it will be.
The danger man for Souths is, without question, Cody Walker. With Latrell Mitchell gone and Reynolds not 100 per cent fit, it will fall on Walker to find the moments of magic to get Souths home. If the Rabbitohs win, I have almost no doubt he’ll take home the Clive Churchill Medal.
Walker boasts a competition-best 33 try assists this season, and 44 linebreak assists. If the Panthers can shut down Walker, they have their path to victory.
Nathan Cleary’s kicking game will again be the key here. While Cleary was likely rattled in week one of the Finals as the ‘blocker’ controversy erupted, you should have no doubt he’ll target Blake Taaffe all night. The youngster has held his own since coming in for Mitchell, but he’s certainly vulnerable on this huge stage on Sunday night.
I’m also expecting things to click better for Penrith in attack on Sunday.
The side threatened to score another two or three tries against the Storm last Saturday but just couldn’t get the finishing touches right.
There is no better time to get those things right than now – and surely it is that fine tuning that has been the main part of the game plan and preparation this week. After two brutal games, field sessions would have been reasonably light on.
The Panthers will be without Tevita Pangai Junior but the return of Moses Leota is a major boost – he’s been one of the competition’s most under-rated forwards of the last two years and will be fresh.
If Penrith start well, I have no doubt they’ll be able to defend a lead yet again. If the Rabbitohs manage to grab the first couple of tries, it could well be problematic – but this Panthers side has also shown a 12-0 deficit can be easily overcome, having done it a couple of times this season already.
Anything can happen on Grand Final Day, but I have a feeling Penrith may just be able to run away with this in the end. The attacking spark is threatening to return, while their defence is at its peak.
We could well be celebrating long before the full-time whistle.
Tip: Panthers by 13.
Penrith and Souths play at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday, October 3 at 7.30pm.
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.