Almanac Rugby League: Alan Whiticker (Penrith) and Mark Courtney (Souths) preview the 2021 NRL Grand Final

 

 

In the lead-up to Sunday’s NRL Grand Final between the Penrith Panthers and the South Sydney Rabbitohs, The Footy Almanac editors invited two of the code’s historians to offer their thoughts about their respective team’s chances. (They’ll return next week to review the match.)

 

Alan Whiticker was born and bred in Penrith and when the Panthers joined the NSWRL about 10 years later, they were a natural fit for his footy allegiance. Alan was a teacher in western Sydney for a number of years before branching into publishing where he built a successful career at New Holland. He has numerous rugby league publications to his name as well as a swathe of fiction and non-fiction titles covering music, crime and films. He’s even written a book about South Sydney! His recent titles have included Tommy: the extraordinary career of Tom Raudonikis (with Ian Collis) and The State of Origin Companion. But, underneath it all, he’s a true Panthers fan.

 

When I was a boy growing in Penrith in the 1960s and 1970s, there were more Souths fans than Panthers fans at my local school. Everyone loves a winner, right? Well, Souths were certainly on a roll … Grand Final winners in 1967 and 1968, then the upset loss to Balmain in 1969, before bouncing back to win in 1970 and 1971.

 

Penrith? Well, they finished second last in 1967; then eighth, tenth, tenth and eighth in consecutive years … yes, the Panthers were strugglers but they tried hard and every now and then they would knock off the big teams in a major upset. Giant-killers? Maybe. Premiership contenders? Never.

 

But I could understand all my friends barracking for Souths. They were a champion team full of internationals – Sattler, O’Neill, McCarthy, Piggins, Sait, Coote, Grant, Pittard, Branighan, Simms. It was kind of embarrassing being a Penrith fan but what was a local kid to do? Pick a team out of a hat? Support Manly! I was a born and bred Panthers fan.

 

As a 12-year-old rugby league tragic, I dreamed of the Panthers playing Souths in the Grand Final … a team of no-names beating a team of internationals. It has taken 50 years for that dream to come true, but this is a different era and roles are now reversed. Penrith will start short-priced favourites and Souths are now the underdogs.

 

How did we get here?

 

Under the coaching of Ivan Cleary in 2020, the Panthers dominated last season, winning a club record 17 games in succession to take out the minor premiership and charge into the Grand Final against Melbourne. They then produced easily their worst performance of the year against the Storm, trailling 26-nil early in the second half before fighting back in the final 16 minutes to lose 26-20. It was a harsh reality for the young Panthers but they were sure to learn from that experience.

 

In 2021, Penrith opened the season with twelve straight victories including a heart-stopping 12-10 win over the Storm at Penrith Stadium in Round 3. The Panthers were boosted by the inclusion of former Melbourne centre Paul Momirovski and Cronulla forward Scott Sorenson. Interestingly, young Matt Burton never got his chance in first grade until Momirovski was suspended and went on to be named Dally M Centre of the Year!

 

Included in that run of victories was a 56-12 drubbing of Souths in Dubbo in Round 11. The Rabbitohs were woeful that day, and coming two weeks after the Storm thrashed them 50-0 at Stadium Australia, the proud foundation club appeared to be well behind the pace set by the 2020 grand finalists. Coach Wayne Bennett had a lot of work to do.

 

But the Panthers’ involvement in the 2021 State of Origin series and injuries to playmakers Nathan Cleary and Jerome Luai momentarily derailed the club’s premiership quest. When the competition relocated to Queensland under Covid-19 restrictions that June, Penrith had already surrendered top of the table to arch rivals Melbourne.

 

Penrith struggled to regain form – Melbourne defeated them easily, 37-12, in Round 20 – although they once again proved too strong for Souths, winning 25-12 in Round 23, following the return of Nathan Cleary from injury. Melbourne and Penrith finished tied at the top of the competition ladder on 44 points (the Storm captured the minor premiership on a record 499 differential, after scoring more points than any other club in the past twenty years) with Souths just two points behind them in third place. Manly were a long way back in fourth place (34 points) after losing the opening four matches of the season, showing the chasm between the top sides and the rest of the pack.

 

Incredibly, the Rabbitohs lost only three games in the 2021 season and two of those were conceding 50+ points against Melbourne and Penrith. No team in the history of the game had been beaten by 50 points in a club game and gone on to win the premiership. And that happened to Souths twice this year!

 

When Souths beat Penrith 16-10 in the qualifying semi-final, it was the shock to the system Penrith needed. In Week Two of the finals, the Panthers battled hard to beat Parramatta, 8-6, and then edged out the Storm in the game of the year in the Grand Final qualifier, 10-6.

 

And so Penrith and Souths will play an all-Sydney Grand Final which, for the first time, will not be played in Sydney. Crazy times! There will be many fans hoping for a South Sydney fairytale – coach Wayne Bennett and record point-scorer Adam Reynolds’ final game at the club; Benji Marshall’s final game of his long career (Marshall sets the new record of 16 years between Grand Final appearances).

 

But spare a thought for the humble Penrith fan.

 

While Souths will be aiming for a record 22nd premiership title since 1908, the 2021 Grand Final marks the 30th anniversary of Penrith’s first Grand Final win back in 1991. If the Panthers win on Sunday, it will be their third title in the past 30 years – one for each decade – which has a great synergy to it.

 

Last year, after Penrith’s loss to Melbourne, I wrote:
‘It’s an age-old rugby league cliché that you have to lose a Grand Final to win one but, as a lifelong Panthers fan, you have to have faith. There were shades of the club’s 1990 Grand Final loss against Canberra in last night’s debacle. But Nathan Cleary just needs to remember one thing … having realised how close they actually came to winning that match, the Greg Alexander-led Penrith team came back the next year and beat the Raiders in the 1991 decider. That’s what Penrith have to do in 2021 … fuel that desire to go one better’

 

Good luck to Souths and their hardy band of supporters – even the ones who live in Penrith – but I think the Panthers will win convincingly. Go you good things!

 

To read Alan Whitiker’s preview of the 2020 NRL Grand Final click here.

 

Mark Courtney is the essence of the cardinal and myrtle! A well-known and highly respected figure among Rabbitoh fans, Mark is a large as life character, passionate and opinionated but also fair in his assessment of the game. He is the author of two no-holds-barred books about the South Sydney Rabbitohs, The Book of Feuds: 1908-2007 and Moving the Goalposts. He even scores a mention in the program notes for the 2007  Company B’s stage production Run Rabbit Run!

 

There’s No Such Thing as a Second Team

 

Before I start, a little bit of my AFL Grand Final history.

 

I was blessed to go with a mate to the 2005 Grand Final (my first and only time) to see the Sydney Swans break their 72-year Premiership  drought, the longest in VFL/AFL history. I cheered unashamedly for South (oops, sorry…Sydney) that day, both in solidarity with my mate and also hoping to see a historic Premiership. It was a sensational day.

 

In 2016, that same mate came over to my place to watch the Grand Final on TV. You could invite friends to your house back then. Weird, eh? I had to tell him that, due to my friendship with a guy I worked with who was a lifelong Doggies fan, I would be cheering for the Western Bulldogs. Yes, another drought. I’m not sure my Swans mate knew quite what to make of it, but there you go.

 

Last weekend, because I have another mate who has suffered his whole life as a Demons fan, I cheered for them against the Dogs. Yet another drought broken. I was so happy for him.

 

If you pushed me, really pushed me, I’d probably say I am more aligned to St Kilda than anyone. Drought and all, and a couple of other close mates who have yet to experience the joy of a Premiership in their lifetimes. If it’s Melbourne and St Kilda in the Granny next year, well I’ll be a Sainter for sure.

 

You see, because I haven’t got a lifelong, tribal, gut-wrenching attachment to any one AFL team, I can cheer for whoever I want to. Without feeling bad about it.

 

But here’s the thing.

 

In the NRL, for me there’s no such thing as a ‘second’ team. I want to be quite clear about that.

 

If Souths win the next ten Premierships, I’ll want them to win the ten after that. And then another ten after that.

 

I pretty much hate everybody else, due to a horrifying loss at some time that buggered a season, or some obnoxious fan who gave me the shits one day.

 

Except for a couple.

 

Newcastle, because they supported Souths in great solidarity when we were kicked out of the comp. I’ll never forget the busloads of Newcastle fans who came to the street marches.

 

And Penrith. I really don’t mind Penrith much at all.

 

I’ve been at both Grand Finals the Panthers won. That spine tingling victory over Canberra in 1991, when Royce Simmons scored two tries and promised to buy the whole crowd a beer; and when they beat the Roosters (enough said) in 2003.

 

And I’ve got a ton of great memories from away games at the foot of the mountains.

 

The first time I went there was in 1977 when I was 16. Souths won just three games that putrid year. I ought to know. I went to every bloody match, the first and only time I have achieved that either magnificent or completely insane goal.

 

Anyway, on this day my best mate and I got the red rattler about 11 and got off at Penrith about 1pm. We had no idea where the ground was, so we wandered around aimlessly for a while until we saw a couple of kids in Penrith jumpers and decided to follow them. Which we did for about twenty minutes, all the way to the bloody Penrith bowling alley! After that, we got all brave, asked someone for directions and finally found our way to Penrith Park. We settled on the hill about twenty minutes before kickoff in the warm winter sunshine with a pie and a can of coke, feeling very accomplished on our big adventure.

 

When Souths second-rower Graham West kicked a penalty goal for a 2-0 lead, things felt decidedly good. That was the end of it though. Nine tries later, we trudged back to Penrith station with a 43-2 shellacking dragging uncomfortably on our shoulders. The train back to Central stopped at every station and, after waiting a further 20 minutes for the bus, I arrived home about 8:15.

 

There have been many enjoyable trips out there, though. For some reason, it always seems to be a nice day (or evening), it’s a pleasant drive allowing plenty of time to chat about footy and life, the ground is terrific to watch footy and I’ve never, not even once, had an unpleasant exchange with a Panthers fan. Win or lose, they always seem to be pretty good-natured and don’t mind sharing a joke with the opposition. Good people.

 

But I won’t be feeling anything for them on Sunday.

 

To be honest, I don’t really know how I will feel on Sunday. There’s no getting away from the fact it has felt really strange to cheer the boys on their rampage through the finals from the comfort of the lounge room. And this week it’s just downright cruel to not be able to go to the game. I reckon I’ve been to something like 800 Souths games since I started going just about every week in late 1976 and only one of those 800 was a Grand Final. And now we’ve made it to another one and it’s in bloody Brisbane, and I’m stuck in bloody Sydney. I can’t even have a BBQ with the guys I go with all the time. I could just about turn into a freedom fighter and start punching horses in the mouth! Yeah, nah, perhaps not.

 

What we are doing is making a family day of it, as everyone is, I guess. And that’s a good thing. We’ve decorated the house. I’m working out a full itinerary for the day, because if I don’t have a plan of activities (at least one walk, maybe a swim, watch the 2014 Grand Final, hell, I might even bake a cake) I’ll fair dinkum go mad.

 

Can Souths win? Well, I reckon they just might.

 

To be sure, Penrith are an awesome team who play a very fast and exciting game. Cleary is an outstanding kicker and their forwards are beasts. That’s why I see Mark Nicholls, Junior Tatola and Cam Murray as playing the most important roles for the Rabbitohs. If they can hold the middle against Fisher-Harris, Leota and Yeo then I believe the class that Souths have all over the park can find enough points to win. And what a win it would be.

 

The Bunnies have been written off by pretty much everybody since Melbourne and Penrith belted them by a combined 106-12 in May. And that was with Latrell. It wasn’t good but, as I reminded people at the time, the Grand Final isn’t in May.

 

It’s on Sunday.

 

And there’s no such thing as a second team.

 

To read more by Mark Courtney on The Footy Almanac click here.

 

To return to our Footy Almanac home page click HERE.

 

Our writers are independent contributors. The opinions expressed in their articles are their own. They are not the views, nor do they reflect the views, of Malarkey Publications.

 

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Comments

  1. You may both have long and deep roots with your respective clubs, but I love the mutual respect on display here. It’s an enjoyable contrast to the petty politicking we’re force fed by mainstream media outlets as they attempt to ramp up tensions ahead of the game.

    Good luck to both sides. If they play the expansive game they both have within them, we could be in for one of the memorable GFs.

  2. Daryl Schramm says

    As a rugby Muppet, I enjoyed the read. The 60s and 70s names mean nothing to me but it didn’t matter. I think it was the late 80s when Ch10 (?) had a weekly review show on a Sunday night (?) which became must viewing for this Adelaidean. My NRL exposure is now whatever is discused on Insiders. The odds look similar to Dees v Dogs last week. Also whenever QF matchups reconvene in the GF they are never without interest.

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