There are just a few more sleeps to go before the much-awaited NRL (National Rugby League) Grand Final. The championship match marks the culmination of the current league calendar and will see the rising Penrith Panthers square off against the mighty Melbourne Storm. This weekend’s face-off will be the fourth and last of the NRL’s postseason tournament. Through four October weekends, we’ve seen eight teams fight their hearts out but there could only be one ultimate champion. In the prior three weekends, the two-time defending titlists (Sydney Roosters) were bounced from the competition. Meanwhile, the South Sydney Rabbitohs fell at the preliminary final hurdle for the third straight year. The Parramatta Eels made a valiant effort, but a depleted line-up was no match to the Bunnies’ firepower.
Like all other sporting competitions, the Coronavirus pandemic impacted this year’s NRL play. The league managed to play two rounds before the season was suspended. During Round 2, no spectators were allowed in. The suspension of the NRL season was unprecedented in the competition’s history. During the extended pause, CEO Todd Greenberg stepped down after four years at the helm. After two months of uncertainty, the code resumed the action on 27 May. The competition was reduced to 20 rounds while the Grand Final was maintained. Teams will play each other at least once with an extra five fixtures. Points from the first two rounds would be upheld. The State of Origin series (all-star games) will be held in November, subsequent to the NRL season. Anyhow, the Grand Final was slated to be contested on 25 October at ANZ Stadium (Olympic Park). The New Zealand Warriors were the squad most caught up in the lockdown. However, the three Queensland sides were allowed to train and play in their home state. In addition, the remaining matches were vied with only one referee.
Season restart and some storylines
None of the Queensland teams qualified for the finals. The Warriors likewise failed to make the cut. During the early part of the restart, no fans were permitted in the venues. After a few weeks, only a small number of die-hards were allowed in. However, in time for the postseason, more devotees were authorised as long as they adhered to social distancing. The year also saw the retirement of Tigers legend Benji Marshall. Moreover, Mitch Aubusson of the Roosters called it quits. The centre exited having played the most first-grade contests for the club. The return of Sonny Bill was also a talking point in the league. Some insiders criticised his decision to join the champs at the expense of others who needed his services more. There was finally a Sonny Bill sighting in Round 17, when he suited up in a Grand Final rematch against the Canberra Raiders. Even in his limited playing time, his knack at offloading the ball was intriguing.
The Finals series kicked off on October 2, with two qualifying matches and two elimination deciders during that weekend. The current postseason format has been in place since 2012, where the top-four teams enjoy a twice-to-beat advantage, while the top two teams advance to the preliminary finals after a week 1 triumph. The teams with better records host the contests. Furthermore, the bottom two seeds must win or go home at every stage. The Penrith Panthers were crowned minor premiers after blowing the competition away with 37 points (out of forty). As a reward for their excellence, the Panthers matched up against the Roosters. The fixture was close, with the Panthers leading by six late in the second half. Nathan Cleary scored three tries in a span of fifteen minutes before intermission. With the Panthers hanging on to their lead, Cleary hit a field goal with two minutes left, thus securing the win. Being the top seed, the Panthers marched on to the Preliminary Final.
In other matches, the Cronulla Sharks did not hold a candle against the Raiders. They lost their best player, Shaun Johnson, prior to the elimination tilt. They were also playing in Canberra. While they led 14-10 at the half, the Raiders simply outworked and outmuscled them, flipping the script after the break. A similar story unfolded at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, where the Storm played their home games. Melbourne was too good against the Parramatta Eels, with their experience and star power overwhelming the latter. They outscored the Eels, four tries to two, in the payoff period. Meanwhile, The Rabbitohs thrashed the Newcastle Knights, 46-20 in the other elimination final. This was in spite of the Knights’s star, Kalyn Ponga, and his bravura output. The youngster seemed undaunted by the tall task. Interestingly, this matchup was contested at ANZ Stadium. Souths hooker Damien Cook was named Man of the Match after his impressive performance.
The second week of action involved two semi-finals with the victors marching onto the prelims. The first matchup was held on 9 October and featured the Chooks against the Raiders, a rematch of last year’s championship. It was a low-scoring affair with the scoreboard hovering in the teens for most of the second half. Josh Papali rushed to the try line within the initial five minutes. After twenty minutes, the Green Machine was ahead 16-0. Roosters star James Tedesco (Teddy) scored a try before halftime, making the line 16-6. The Roosters attempted a spirited comeback after the break. However, they seemed to falter when the time mattered most. Teddy himself made a few miscues that could’ve saved the Chooks. However, the Roosters wouldn’t come close without his scoring. Unlike last year, they seemed to have lost their composure under duress. Forward passes, rushed throws, missed assignments all contributed to the Roosters’ demise. The Raiders escaped, 22-18.
In the other semi, Parra faced the Bunnies on the following day. On paper, it was a mismatch. The Eels had lost winger (and prolific try-scorer) Maika Sivo to injury. They were likewise without Blake Ferguson, who was also hurt. With the suspension of Michael Jennings, many pundits had already written off the Eels. However, captain Clint Gutherson scored two tries before setting up another in the first half. Parra capitulated after intermission following another Damien Cook show. Souths ran away, 38-24. This set up a date with the waiting Panthers at ANZ Stadium.
Melbourne met Canberra in a tussle featuring the last two grand finalists. The Storm trounced the Raiders in front of 37,112 fans at Suncorp. This one was never close, with three tries by Melbourne in the opening nine minutes. Their defence was stifling, as they only allowed two Raiders tries all match. The final score was 30-10, Storm. Raiders coach Ricky Stewart was crestfallen after the match. In the other prelim, the Panthers outlasted the Bunnies in a close encounter. While Souths struck first, Penrith will have the next three tries. Cleary had a perfect kicking night, going four of four. Adam Reynolds had a shot in the last five minutes. He seemed to have gotten off a 40/20 kick that would have allowed his squad to gain valuable metres at the close. However, replays showed that his foot touched the line, negating the chance. The attendance at ANZ Stadium was 30,116.
The last shogun
When one of the commentators was asked whether Penrith could topple the Storm, he said that he had ‘serious doubts about it.’ The Storm have been a permanent fixture in the finals. In the last few years, they have even won (and lost) some Grand Finals. They have the right mixture of savvy veterans and hungry young guns. They have big-game players who relish these opportunities. For them, it’s just another testament to their greatness. Meanwhile, history would look kind towards the young Panthers. Their past victory laps reveal that securing the minor premiership was huge. This fixture could be either of two things: a changing of the guard or the continuation of shogun rule. On Sunday, who will win the august Clive Churchill medal for best on ground? In spite of the pandemic, border closures, leadership shakeups, and empty stadiums, the NRL will not be deterred. ‘The show must go on.’