What do the lessons of Grand Finals past teach our coaches in 2021?

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You’re only as good as your last Grand Final. Or something like that.

Wayne Bennett and Ivan Cleary can no doubt recall the pain of the moments following the 2015 and 2020 Grand Finals respectively, but by full-time on Sunday night one of them will be relieved to have put the heartache behind them while the other will be forced to relive it once again.

The Panthers’ first-half disaster in last year’s decider would have filled Ivan Cleary’s mind for much of last summer, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn he’s still trying to come to terms with the fact that his team saved their worst 40 minutes for the biggest game of the season.

He’d have gone through the preparation for the game, looking for clues of tightness or nerves in his young outfit, or wondering if there was a mis-step in the onfield sessions in the days prior.

Perhaps Cleary realises that the worst thing he and his team can do is overthink it, wasting mental energy on the past instead of being laser-focussed on what’s in front of them.

Ivan Cleary with Cameron Smith after the 2020 Grand Final. Photo: NRL Photos.

No matter which approach the Panthers adopt, and as calm and as poised as he may be, there’ll be nobody more nervous at Suncorp Stadium in the opening sets of six than the Penrith coach.

If they settle into the game without the early errors of last year, Cleary will be comfortable that he has the game-breakers in his line-up to make amends for an opportunity lost, and the anguish of 2020 will be blown away in the relief and redemption of 2021.

It’s a slightly different scenario for Wayne Bennett.

Given the way the world has been turned on its head over the past 18 months, anything that happened pre-pandemic really does seem like a lifetime ago. Even so, having won his previous seven Grand Finals, and having walked in to the Broncos dressing room at half-time leading against the Cowboys, any mention of 2015 will bring a grimace to the face of coaching’s elder statesman.

Bennett’s Broncos led 14-12 at the break, and while his mantra over five decades of coaching has been uber-successful – play for each other, trust in the team, ball security and good defence – the decision to kick a penalty goal in the 42nd minute, pushing a two point lead into a four point lead, is one call that the supercoach would like over again.

Wayne Bennett with Malcolm Turnbull after the 2020 Grand Final loss. Photo: NRL Photos.

The Broncos never got another sniff of scoring a try, Kyle Feldt scored untouched with the timekeepers about to blow the siren, and a fella called Thurston sent Townsville wild with a golden point field goal that will still haunt anybody in that Broncos camp from six years ago.

In the same situation on Sunday night, does Bennett instruct the Rabbitohs to take the two points against the Panthers and tempt fate again? In a season of record point-scoring, would either coach back his team to defend their way to a title?

If defence wins Premierships, it’s the Panthers who have set that standard for two straight seasons. It’s their time, and by full-time they may well be celebrating like it’s 1991.

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