• Penrith players embrace after they win the 2021 NRL Grand Final. (Getty Images AsiaPac)Source: Getty Images AsiaPac
Heroic, heartbreaking, brave, brutal - the NRL Grand Finalists put on an epic show. Don't be surprised if you see them face off in the decider again very soon, writes Dean Widders.
Dean Widders

4 Oct 2021 - 11:35 AM  UPDATED 4 Oct 2021 - 11:35 AM

It was a great game.

Going into it I really felt that Souths were favourites, they had a great preliminary final win against Manly and were the form team of the finals.

The Panthers had taken the long path after three successive slogfests - Souths got them 16-10 in week one before they claimed hard-fought low scoring wins against Parramatta and Melbourne.

On Wednesday nights episode of Over The Black Dot, I predicted Penrith’s strength was Nathan Clearys kicking game and the team's ability to transition from attack into defence through their kick chase and efforts on tackles 1 and 2.

The Panthers play a style where they grind you into the ground at your try line and make you work hard to get the ball upfield. It’s all about field position and possession.

Souths have lethal attacking weapons and are clinical in their plays. They can score tries from anywhere. Their ability to be in sync on their shift plays is the best we have seen in the game. It’s all about depth, width, space and precision timing as they run perfectly executed plays at you. Add to this the ball-playing ability and decision-making genius of Cody Walker and you have a team that if they get the ball in the attacking half they will find points.

Penrith has struggled to score points in the back end of the season. I thought the first try was crucial for both sides.

If the Rabbitohs crossed and built momentum the Panthers would struggle to match it with them, but also if the Panthers scored early they would just shut the game down and strangle the Rabbitohs with their defence.

As a Bunnies fan, my worst nightmare came to life early in the game when a fast-starting Penrith pinned Souths in their half with three forced line dropouts. Their kicking game was on song. The pressure lead to a try on a last tackle shift to the left, where a misread in defence lead to Matt Burton slicing through for the opening try.

The Panthers could relax and breathe. Their grand final demons from last year's horror start against the Storm were gone and they could do what they do best, grind the game and protect their lead.

Souths were struggling - doing a lot of hard work just to stay in the game.

Cody Walker then stepped up and produced one of the great individual grand final tries. His fend on Nathan Cleary and his brilliant 30 metre run to beat defenders was a magic moment and one that the bunnies needed badly. It was game on.

A penalty from Jai Arrow gave Clive Churchill medallist Cleary the chance to put the Panthers ahead 8-6. Again the Panthers were in the position they love, protecting the lead.

Half time came and I was confident super coach Wayne Bennett could calm his team and get them back on track. In Grand Finals, there are always only a few chances to win the game and you have to be ready to take them.

I could just sense this was what the second half was going to be.

Souths came out the better team and got into a groove quickly. An early penalty allowed Adam Reynolds to square the game up at 8-all.

The next 20 minutes was brilliant from both teams.

The kicking game of Panthers halves Cleary and Jarome Luai was pinpoint and had the young Souths backs in Paulo and Taafe under immense pressure, whilst Souths ball movement was starting to fire.

Penrith had some great chances but the Bunnies defended with desperation.

Jai Arrow was a huge loss after a head knock. He was the aggressor in the qualifying final win against the Panthers and losing him when the middles of the bunnies were tired was going to be costly.

A few unlucky calls were going against the Bunnies just when they were building momentum. A charge down where the ball goes into touch and a tackle from Kikau on Paulo forcing the ball out which could have been called a knock-on came at crucial moments to halt the momentum south’s we’re building. Penrith was grinding.

Souths had to chance their arm a bit.

Move the ball wide early to get away from Penrith’s rushing defence.

Cody Walker, in my opinion, the best in the world at playing at the line, creates an overlap on the left. He has two options - centre Dane Gagai short or go long to flying winger Alex Johnston.

He picks long, but so does Panthers winger Stephen Crichton - his intercept will go down as the pivotal moment in sealing Penrith's third premiership.

The Rabbitohs and Cody Walker admirably dug deep and he came up with a try to Johnston in the corner to give them a chance. 

Time for Adam Reynolds to step up.

I had faith in him, we all believed he would kick the goal from the sideline to put the game into extra time. The fairytale was perfect, Adam Reynolds the local junior in his last game for the club kick the goal and Rabbitohs go on to win.

It sounded too perfect to be true and it was - his kick didn't hook enough and stayed just outside the right post.

Reynolds tried again to level the match with a two-point field goal attempt at the death, but it was a long way off and Penrith won the game.

Souths were brave. They defended their hearts out and handled so much pressure and still had the legs to have a crack back when they got their limited chances.

Penrith was amazing in doing what they do best, compete hard and work hard.

The future looks good for both these clubs.

Penrith will be better than ever in the next decade. They are now set up to take advantage of their premiership win with the way they run their club. Their last two premiership wins in 1991 and 2003 promised a lot but were one-hit wonders. But now they are ready. They will go to the next level now they have the confidence of winning behind them.

But so will South Sydney. Their young team is on the rise and the pathways they have in place has some future stars ready to emerge. I expect big things from both clubs in the years to come.

Don’t be surprised if you see them against each other in another grand final again soon.


Cody Walker: The family story behind the NRL star
The Bundjalung and Yuin man has overcome the hardest of hurdles on his march to the Grand Final. His family will be anxiously watching, probably through proud tears, from regional NSW.