History was made as the beaten 2020 finalists Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs lined up to contest the first ever NRL Grand Final to be held in Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium.
This was the finale of an Australian rugby league season which had moved lock, stock and barrel to Queensland as part of strict Covid protocols, although Minor Premiers Melbourne Storm were notable by their absence from the match between the teams who finished second and third on the competition ladder after 24 regular rounds.
The Panthers had the best of the early exchanges, and successfully challenged a knock-on ruling from referee Gerard Sutton at the end of their second set.
Souths, on the other hand, were finishing too many sets from their own half and were forced to concede the first and second drop-outs of the game after five minutes and six minutes.
But the Bunnies fought their way back into the game after an audacious ball-steal and by the 10th minute the game was looking more even.
In fact it wasn’t until the 17th minute that Matt Burton opened the scoring for the Panthers, running through a gap in the Souths line after a beauty of pass from Jarome Luai. Nathan Cleary converted from the touchline to give Penrith a 6-0 advantage.
The Rabbitohs struck back through five-eight Cody Walker, beating the Penrith line with a show and go then sprinting free to score by the posts. Adam Reynolds duly converted to level the scores at 6-6 with 21 minutes gone.
The Panthers were the next to score against a visibly tiring Bunnies team, after just 30 minutes, who gave away a penalty at the play-the-ball which was no problem for captain Cleary to kick.
The Rabbitohs managed to hold on until half time without conceding anything more, but the Penrith team were clearly the dominant side going into the break.
Souths looked fresher when play restarted and pressed the Panthers line in an opening set that eventually came to nothing with a pass into touch.
But they soon got a penalty for Penrith shepherding, which Reynolds kicked from 20m out to square the game up at 8-8.
Penrith thought they’d hit back on 46 minutes when Viliame Kikau crossed the line, but the final pass to him from Cleary, out of a tackle, was loose and forward.
They continued to pressurise the Rabbitohs line but 20 minutes into the half, their only reward was another Souths drop-out.
The relentless Panthers pressure eventually told though when winger Stephen Crichton intercepted an unnecessary pass from Souths centre Dane Gagai and sprinted 40m to ground the ball, just when Souths were finally getting into their attacking game.
Cleary kicked the conversion to put the Panthers in control at 14-8, with less than 12 minutes to go.
As the clock ticked down, Souths rediscovered their attack game. And off the back of a penalty for interference at the ruck, Alex Johnston touched down to make it 14-12 with a kick to come.
But Reynolds pushed it wide.
Souths kept up their own pressure in the final five, pushing for the score that would win the title for them. Their final play was to try for a two-point drop goal from outside the 40m mark, but while Reynold’s kick was on target and had the legs, it didn’t have the height to get over the bar.
And that, as they say, was the ball game. Last year’s losing grand finalists Penrith Panthers were duly crowned Premiers.
Score Progression: 0-0, 4-0, 6-0, 6-4, 6-6, 8-6. HT. 8-8, 12-8 14-8, 14-12. FT
Half Time: 8-6.
Full Time: 14-12
Penrith Panthers: Edwards, Crichton (T), Momirovski, Burton (T), To’o; Luai, Cleary (2G, P), Leota, Korosau, Fisher-Harris, Capewell, Martin, Yeo. Interchange: Kikau, May, Sorensen, Lenui.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Taafe, Johnston (T), Gagal, Graham, Paulo; Walker (T), Reynolds (G, P), Cook, Tatola, Koloamatangi, Su’A, Murray. Interchange: Marshall, Host, Burgess, Arrow.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane.