The 2021 NRL season is down to the final four. Only two can proceed to the 2021 Grand Final but the contest for that will be thrilling to watch for rugby league fans across the globe.
Week three of the play-offs and it’s up to the teams that finished in the top four in the regular season. The Preliminary Finals are upon us: South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles, and Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers.
— NRL (@NRL) September 23, 2021
Two mouth-watering clashes, with no second chances, and it is almost impossible to pick a winner. All four coaches were nominated for Coach of the Year at the Dally Ms, and rightly so. Who will make the NRL Grand Final?
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly Sea Eagles
South Sydney have enjoyed a week off after their shock win over Penrith in week one of the finals. The luxury of time off to recover from a hard-fought victory is huge. In addition, it has allowed Wayne Bennett to name the same 17 that beat the Panthers 16-10. Manly coach Des Hasler does not have the same advantage. Despite an emphatic 42-6 win over the Sydney Roosters in Week Two, there are injury issues. Centre Brad Parker has been ruled out after failing a late fitness test. He will be replaced by Moses Suli.
The centres will go a long way to deciding who makes the NRL Grand Final. The absence of Parker is a boost to the Rabbitohs. Plus, Morgan Harper had difficulties in defence against Melbourne Storm. Souths’ will use their strength on the left edge with Dane Gagai and Alex Johnstone. This matchup on Friday could well be attack v attack, between two of the three highest-scoring teams in the NRL.
If the Rabbitohs revert to their stubborn defensive tactics that were a success against Penrith, Manly will look to the magic of Tom Trbojevic to break them down. 27 tries and 28 try assists in 17 appearances suggest he can find success against any defence.
Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers
For most pundits and experts, this was to be the 2021 NRL Grand Final. However, this was before Penrith’s unexpected loss to the Rabbitohs. As a result, the two heavyweights will clash a week earlier than anticipated. It is a repeat of the 2020 Grand Final, which Melbourne won 26-20. This game takes place in different circumstances. The Storm has looked unstoppable all year, sweeping an in-form Manly aside in the first week of the finals.
The week off gained by this win could prove to be all-important.
Penrith is coming into the Prelim off the back of a dog fight with bitter rivals Parramatta Eels. A tight 8-6 victory, going down to the final moments, sapped the physical and emotional energy of the Panthers. Fatigue seems to be a real issue for Penrith. Revenge for the 2020 Grand Final could well be a massive motivator for Ivan Cleary. He will be hoping that Melbourne, having had a week off, will be sloppy and unfocused.
Where the game could be won and lost is once again in the centres and the left edge of the Storm. Justin Olam and a returning Josh Addo-Carr have a great partnership. A Dally M ‘Centre of the Year’ nomination for Olam is well deserved. Addo-Carr has 23 tries in 21 games. Paul Momirovski has had a decent breakout season but will be hard pushed to stop an in-form Olam. Conversely, Penrith winger Brian To’o is in the 21 jumper; not fully fit yet may still push for a late start.
Who will make the 2021 Grand Final?
Winning in Week 1 is going to be a huge factor in these Preliminary Finals. Melbourne and South Sydney have the upper hand and can dictate the way their respective games go. Manly are yet to beat a ‘Top Four’ side this season. If Wayne Bennett is as tactically astute as usual, if Souths can shut down Tom Trbojevic, that goes a long way to stopping the Sea Eagles.
The Storm will be fresh, and the Panthers will not be. Melbourne also have the like of Nicho Hynes, Harry Grant, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona off the interchange bench. Panthers half-back partnership Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai will need to dominate with their kicking and running games respectively.
Overall though, Melbourne look more threatening in attack and more solid in defence and are heavy favourites. As a result, a 2021 Grand Final of Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs looks highly likely.
* at the time of publishing, game one of the play-offs had been completed.
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