South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett’s prop swap means Penrith Panthers must explode out of the blocks
If the Panthers are to win the deciding 2021 game, they must ambush the Rabbitohs, just like they did with the Storm.
And the rugby league’s most experienced coach, Wayne Bennett of South Sydney, played with his starting squad, potentially giving Penrith an opportunity. In the last two games, Bennett started with two fellow strikers, Mark Nicholls and Tevita Tatola, rather than damaging Thomas Burgess and Jai Arrow.
He makes the best use of his best props by executing Burgess and Arrow in the 20th minute, putting them down at half time and sending them back for the second half.
The impact of these two exchange players is demonstrated in the following numbers: The average post-contact yards of starting props in the first quarter of their two games are 135 yards, but Burgess and Arrow contribute 146 yards in the Next 20 minutes. The average race counters are 116 for Nicholls and Tatola and 174 for the substitutes. The numbers of meters per race are 8.3 and 9.2. Thus, Burgess and Arrow make a significant contribution when they come in, as evidenced by the first semifinal weekend when Penrith led early but Souths evened the scores at halftime.
However, with Souths’ starting duo being considerably less yards than their bench substitutes, can Penrith blast out of the blocks and ambush the Rabbitohs?
Since the 13th round, the Panthers’ average margin of victory or loss in the first quarter of a game has been minus two points. From round one to round 12 it was 6.5. In eight of those 12 games, they were ahead by eight points or more. Compare that with the Souths who were only eight points behind on three separate occasions: the first round against the Storm, the 11th against the Panthers and the 17th when they faced the Cowboys.
So since Origin, the Panthers have lost the first quarter of a game, while the Souths are rarely late. While Penrith can’t reverse that with an ambush, Bennett’s swapping of his props has given him another advantage as well.
He saved his best forwards from the fierce early exchanges. The Storm, quarter-time in the preliminary final, lost forward Christian Welch to a concussion. Brandon Smith, who had to switch from hooker to lock when Harry Grant came on, was also gone, reducing the Storm bench to two.
Given the expected intensity of this grand final, the number of free exchanges will be critical. The NRL’s crackdown on high tackles will continue in the grand finale, the code’s flagship game. A player indicted for an unfair act effectively offers the opponent two free trades, providing more opportunities for the bigger players.
In 2021, this had a major impact on the testing differential between full-backs and forwards in the NRL. Forwards have scored 335 tries, the highest since 2007 (341).
The Souths forwards scored 22, sixth in the NRL, while Penrith scored 26 (fourth).
Maybe the adage, “Forwards win the grand finals and the full backs decide by how much” will come and play in this grand final, with most of the breaks created by an attack from the left side.
Both teams launch raids on the left-handed side of the pitch from midfield scrums, with teamwork from Souths’ Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker bordering on telepathy.
Both coaches will have counter-strategies to defend against those clever left sweeps, so it all comes down to execution.
Finally, if execution is paramount in the rugby league, applause must go to the administration of the NRL, which has maintained the competition for two years, including obtaining compensation from the Queensland government in the event crowd size reduction. This is normally the type of agreement that only the AFL can enter into.
Over the decades, whenever a crisis hits the game, it’s usually the players who save it, as evidenced by that thrilling 1997 grand final between Manly and Newcastle to end the Super League war. Yet in 2020-21, it was the administration of Peter V’landys and Andrew Abdo that saved the game.
Sports news, results and expert commentary. Subscribe to our Sport newsletter.