Almanac Rugby League – 2021 NRL Grand Final Review: Panthers triumph!

 


Photo: abc.net.au

 

Respected writers and passionate fans Alan Whiticker (Panthers) and Mark Courtney (Rabbitohs) return to review Sunday night’s absorbing NRL Grand Final won 14-12 by the Panthers.

 

Mark Courtney

It’s Not Only a Game

 

The night of September 19, 1969 is one of my clearest childhood memories. I was just eight years old, lying in bed, trying to go to sleep. Trying in vain because I was just so bloody excited. The next day I was going to sit in the lounge room with my Dad and watch the Grand Final on our black and white TV. And Souths, my newly discovered and all-consuming love, were going to win it.

 

It had been a whirlwind romance, starting two thirds of the way through the season, but I was absolutely smitten. I loved everything about the Rabbitohs. The colours, the history, the way they played. And, I suppose, the fact that they seemed to win all the time. I was sure they were going to win the Premiership. Their nineteenth, and my first.

 

Everyone knows what happened. The Balmain Tigers tackled their way to the biggest upset in Grand Final history. I started crying midway through the second half, simply refusing to believe what was happening, and at the end of the game I stormed off to my room. A bit later my poor father, who wasn’t even a football fan and must have shaken his head in disbelief at the strange affliction that had taken root in his young son’s soul, tried to console me.

 

“Come on mate, it’s only a game,” he said.

 

Really? Is it? If it’s only a game, then why was I so distraught? Because I was just a little boy?

 

Well, no, that’s not why. And I’ll tell you how I know. Because, somehow, I’ve managed to devote a fair chunk of my life to being a bloody Rabbitohs fan. It’s an obsession that I have absolutely no control over.

 

And so it was in 2021. Now 60, I rode the Rabbitoh wave all year, even though for the last three months I’ve done it from the bloody lounge room again.

 

Grand Final week is thrilling if your team’s playing. All week I dreamed of another Premiership. Of sending Adam Reynolds, my favourite player, on his way with the greatest night of his life. We decorated the house. I checked the photos from the 2014 Grand Final and wore exactly the same clothes to watch the game. I did everything I could to influence the result.

 

But Penrith monstered the Rabbitohs from the outset to the final whistle. Souths seemed to be forever battling to get the ball out of their own quarter.

 

And yet, at halftime, the score was only 8-6. One try each. I’m not sure what was said in the dressing room but at our place the mood was positive. Souths only had 40% of possession. That would have to even out in the second half. It always does.

 

As we got underway again, my stomach was somewhere between cramped and nauseous.

 

Souths were awarded two set restarts in their first possession of the second half. Then a penalty, and suddenly it was all squared up.

 

The next twenty minutes felt just like the first half. Cleary pinning Souths near their line with kicks; the Rabbitohs fighting tooth and nail for field position, but never really achieving it. But into the last fifteen minutes the Panthers made a couple of errors. It seemed frustration was starting to appear. By any measure, they should have had the Grand Final well and truly won, but they simply couldn’t find a way through.

 

I sat hunched on the lounge, barely able to watch. It was bloody excruciating. But when Tyrone May spilled the ball ten metres out, I sat up with excitement. For the first time all night, I thought Souths were mentally on top. If they could just get the ball into anything like a good attacking position, I felt they could manufacture the winning try.

 

In the next set, they made more ground than they had for a while. It’s coming, I thought. On the fourth tackle they went left, Reynolds to Walker with Gagai and Johnston flying outside. I felt the excitement rise in my gut.

 

Cody sets and fires the pass.

 

Sliding doors.

 

If he double pumps and goes short, Gagai is through with only Edwards to beat and Johnston next to him. But he goes long. Cut-out pass to the wing.

 

Sliding doors.

 

If Crichton hesitates, the pass hits AJ and he’s away, with Gagai screaming for the ball on the inside. Try under the posts.

 

Sliding doors.

 

The ball hangs, and Crichton is gone. Penrith 14-8.

 

There’s still time. Souths get a penalty. They’ve got field position; they go left again and it’s so easy. Walker to Gagai to AJ. Try in the corner.

 

And now it’s all on Reyno. You wouldn’t want anyone else to take the kick. And you couldn’t wish for a better finale for him at Souths. Tie it up, and then kick the winning field goal. I’ve already written my script.

 

Even after the kick misses by a whisker, there’s more drama. Cameron Murray slashes through the midfield. Edwards cuts him down and Souths go left again. This time Cody’s pass goes over the sideline. He’s convinced Cleary has touched it. Scrum feed to Souths on the ten-metre line. But Sutton rules against.

 

In Souths final set, on the final tackle, with just a minute to go, Reyno sets for a two-point field goal. Could he? Is this the moment?

 

The ball falls short and dribbles over the dead ball line. The screen is filled with the realisation on Reyno’s face as he drops to his haunches. It’s done.

 

It’s hard to describe how it feels. With no field position all night, with not a single call going their way, my glorious, heroic Rabbitohs have lost the Grand Final on a sliding door intercept. I’m proud. I’m devastated. I’m exhausted. I’m teary.

 

I’m done as well.

 

***

 

I slept poorly, waking twice during the night, each time feeling sick with the realisation that it wasn’t Grand Final Week, or even Grand Final Day. No, it was the day after the Grand Final. The day after we lost the Grand Final.

 

I walked to Coogee in my Grand Final T-shirt and Rabbitoh cap. A lady stopped me and asked: “Did they win?” I just stared at her. The whole area is awash with Souths paraphernalia. It’s been all anyone’s talked about all week. Did they win? It felt like someone had stopped me on 9/12 and asked: “Did the towers fall?”

 

It always shocks me when I realise there are people who not only don’t live and die with their footy teams, but don’t even know what happened? I sometimes wonder whether I would have had a better life if I was one of them. I’d certainly feel better today.

 

Losing a Grand Final is devastating. It was 50 years ago, and it was last night. But it does give pause to consider why anyone would invest so much of themselves in a group of people they don’t even know, playing a game. And where the difference between feeling the best you have all year and the worst you have all year comes down to a sliding door intercept.

 

This mad fandom has always confounded me.

 

Why do we do it? It’s only a game.

 

But it’s not. It’s something deep inside us. I’m not sure how it gets there but once it takes root, it’s there forever.

 

For the people who had the door slide the right way for them last night, I’m genuinely happy. The team they chose to follow, for whatever reason they had whenever they chose to do it, has been the best for two years and they deserve their moment.

 

I just have to live with this sick feeling in my stomach till it goes away. Maybe next year.

 

 

Alan Whiticker

 

The 2021 Grand Final has been done and dusted. The Penrith Panthers have prevailed over South Sydney in one of the tensest Grand Finals played in recent years, 14 points to 12.

 

So, what does a diehard fan feel after waiting 18 years for a Grand Final win? Relief mainly. Grand Final victories do not come around every year – it’s hard enough to even qualify for one let alone win one – and at this rate I maybe have one more left in my lifetime. (I turn 63 at Christmas; I was half that age when the Panthers won their first title in 1991!)

 

Great credit to the Souths team who never gave up the struggle and almost snatched a late draw but few footy fans would deny Penrith their win after losing to the Storm last year. It takes a lot of courage for a team to come back from such a humiliating loss, and let’s face it, that’s what happened in last year’s Grand Final against the Storm (the ‘Orient Express’ of train wrecks, I think I wrote).

 

This year? Redemption.

 

The 2021 Grand Final will be remembered for Nathan Cleary’s kicking game (a worthy Clive Churchill Medal winner), Stephen Chrichton’s intercept try and Adam Reynolds missed sideline conversion. (In another indication the universe was against a Souths’ win, Reynolds’ two-point field-goal attempt just before fulltime was short and then bounced OVER the crossbar). Look behind the headlines and you’ll see that Penrith’s back three (Dylan Edwards, Brian To’o and Chrichton) ran more metres and had more hit-ups than any Souths player. That, and Penrith’s commitment in defence, were integral to their success.

 

I even feel a little sorry for Cody Walker, who was easily Souths’ best player on the night. Walker scored one of the best individual tries seen in a Grand Final for some time when he palmed off Nathan Cleary, who was badly caught out, and beat three players to score. But that intercept pass! If Souths fans can dine out on Bob McCarthy’s intercept try against Canterbury for more than fifty years, then Penrith fans will savour Stephen Chrichton’s effort for just as long. (There were eerie similarities between the two, with Souths looking certain to score when the pass was thrown, but the hard truth is, Penrith’s intercept came at a much more crucial time of the match than in the 1967 decider).

 

And so, a season of contradictions comes to a close. In a season in which blow-out scores became the norm, the Panthers won the Grand Final with superior defence. The Panthers have the best defensive record of any team in the NRL competition for the past 15 seasons (since Melbourne in 2007, but that premiership now has an asterisk beside it!) and this was where the Grand Final was won.

 

The Panthers actually changed the way they won games post-Origin this year, bunkering down in defence when their attack stammered late in the season. Both playmakers, Nathan Cleary and Jerome Luai, carried injuries through the finals campaign, with coach Ivan Cleary later confirming that as many of five players (also Moses Leota, Dylan Edwards and James Fisher-Harris) should not have played in the match.

 

I may have predicted that Penrith would win convincingly but I didn’t appreciate how ‘busted’ the Panthers were after a long season and how determined Souths would be on the night. (This was not the same team Penrith smashed in Dubbo 56-12). The Panthers defended as if their lives depended on it, and perhaps they did. Many in the team come from humble backgrounds and winning a premiership with their teammates just means so much to them. They just hung in there together and won.

 

Sydney fans got the Grand Final they wanted only for it to be played in Brisbane. Right up to the day of the match, the final was in danger of being either moved to Townsville or postponed for a week and played back in Sydney. Thankfully, the game went ahead (thank you, NRL and Queensland Government) but both groups of supporters were left in limbo over 1000 kilometres from the action. Penrith, a one-team town which always got behind their team, was predictably quiet in lockdown.

 

All three successful Penrith teams (1991, 2003 and 2021) were led by champion halfbacks (in Nathan Cleary’s case, co-captain with the always reliable Isaiah Yeo). The Penrith club is dominated by local juniors and ‘bush’ players who came through the junior pathways system, just as in 1991 and 2003. All three Grand Finals were won with ‘miracle tries’ being scored (Simmons in 1991, Rooney in 2003 and Chrichton this year). Lastly, the father-son premiership-winning duo of John and Martin Lang is repeated in the form of Ivan and Nathan Cleary.

 

Although Souths didn’t get the chocolates, there were a number of pluses for the club: Wayne Bennett became the first coach to take three different clubs to an NRL Grand Final (Brisbane, St George Illawarra and now Souths); Adam Reynolds broke Eric Simms’ club record for most career points (which I’m sure he’d swap for that conversion from the sideline), and winger Alex Johnson’s try minutes from fulltime set a new club record of 30 tries in a season. And lastly, Benji Marshall at least got to retire on his own terms.

 

That may be cold comfort for Souths players and their army of fans who will be feeling the pain after coming so close to another premiership title. They could do no worse than follow the Panthers’ example and harness all that emotion and turn it into a desire to go one better next year.

 

That’s been Penrith’s journey over the past 12 months and that’s why the Panthers are deserved premiers.

 

 

To read Ian Hauser’s review of the Grand Final click here.

 

The Footy Almanac extends its warm thanks to respected and authoritative writers Alan and Mark for their contributions to celebrate the 2021 Grand Final. If you see their books anywhere, do yourself a favour…

 

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. Ah, the agony and the ecstasy! Great game, great reviews, both of you appreciating the history and culture of your respective clubs and the code as a whole.

  2. Carol Clima says

    I’m gutted just like Mark. Stayed up until after 1am. Feeling sick to my stomach. Couldn’t sleep either going over all the ‘What ifs’. Sick to death of hearing that ‘the best team won’ Panthers had so much possession they should have scored 50pts. We were so persistent, never going to give up. Cody’s pass fair near killed me. Why oh why didn’t he pass to Gagai. Arrrgh. The pain is excruciating. How many sleeps before it all starts again????? Posted left a Panthers poster in my letterbox. Think I’ll burn it & leave her the ashes.

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