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Out went the Rabbitohs and the Sharks. Then there were two. A national title between a 35-kilometre strip on the M4. Parramatta and Penrith go toe-to-toe for the first time in rugby league history, a fitting grand final given the past of these two trying outfits.
If you watch rugby league, you’ll know the Eels aren’t blessed with success. Just ask Nathan Hindmarsh; 330 NRL caps, 19 finals appearances, zero premierships. Or Nathan Cayless; 259 games, 21 finals appearances, zero rings. Out West, rugby league is for the battler, where past players would labour eight-to-five in blue collar jobs, only to back up on Saturday for 80 minutes of bloodbath footy.
The Eels haven’t won a premiership since 1986, a 36-year hoodoo. 4-2 was the final score in that game against the Bulldogs. Zero tries, two points splitting the competitions best. In 1986 Parramatta fielded Brett Kenny and Peter Sterling as their halves combination – a cracking mix of Kenny’s free-running ability and Sterling’s playmaking skill with boot and hand.
In 2022, Mitchell Moses and 22-year-old Dylan Brown lead Parramatta into their first big dance since 2008. A hard task given Penrith’s seamless season and smashing finals run.
Only two in the Eels 17 have made the grand final, as Ryan Matterson stands the sole premiership winner.
Now, enough of this prelim context. History won’t govern this result.
If Brad Arthur’s men are to upset the $1.38 favourites, these four must fire. Gutherson, Moses, Brown, Paulo. In true captain fashion, Gutherson is a no.1 that is around the ball in every attacking opportunity. He’s not the Tedesco type, who dances around the ruck through early set carries. Gutherson is a fifth play specialist. He’ll hover around the middle third on the final play and sit behind Junior Paulo during the set, looking for a grubber through by Moses or an offload.
Dylan Brown must take on the defensive line in Penrith’s 10. Late in the game his strength and turn of foot could prove match defining against a tiring Liam Martin.
Ah yes, the elephant in the room. Parramatta beat Penrith on both occasions during the regular season. That’s great, but this time of year those statistics mean nothing. In week two of the finals last year, Penrith held off the Eels to win 8-6. Zero points were scored in the second half.
For many of the blue and gold roster, the occasion itself may be too much to handle. Captain Gutherson overcame two knee reconstructions in a career that began with five games across three years.
A lot of coaches when I first came to Parra probably would’ve dropped me”, the 28-year-old told the NRL in 2018.
Now, the ‘King’ has missed just three of Parramatta’s games during the last three years.
Gutherson sits on a substantial $770,000 per season salary, and his spine member Moses will boost to a $1million wage given grand final success.
If we investigate what a $1million player can bring, Nathan Cleary is the prime example. Yes, his father Ivan is the coach, but you’d be idiotic to call nepotism on his contract.
The 24-year-old gun will most likely move into Australia’s no.7 jersey for the upcoming World Cup. The only thing he hasn’t won is a Dally M, in which he controversially finished second to Manly patient Tom Trbojevic last year, who played 18 games.
Cleary has been dubbed by immortal Andrew Johns as the game’s best player ‘for the next decade’, and has every weapon a half could ask for.
Throughout the entire season, no opposition second rower has run over Cleary’s defence to score. That’s the biggest statistic of them all. His tackling technique is unbreakable. If you have the time, last week’s highlights from the Rabbitohs and Panthers game demonstrates this perfectly. Take a look at Cleary’s one-on-one jam on Souths prop Mark Nicholls, who by way of luck, offloaded the ball into Liam Martin for Cody Walker to score.
Anyway, let’s divert from the facts. If you’re a punter, this is how I expect the game to turn out – and who I think is a smoky to cross the white line.
Brian To’o is back to the left wing in his prime position, beside Luai and Izack Tago. The short-ball threat to Viliame Kikau will prove a tough task for Moses and Penisini. Expect the Eels right edge defence to rush in, with To’o to stroll over in the corner.
Here is where I find the biggest chink in Parramatta’s armour. Bailey Simonsson at left centre. Cleary will plan to exploit this miss-match all night given the height difference between the former Raider and flyer Stephen Crichton. The positional switch also brings line-runner Liam Martin into play, who off his classy no.7, could be gifted a simple one-on-one.
Personally, I believe the Eels have too many errors in them to produce premiership glory. Nathan Cleary now knows how to win a title, he’s the smartest player in the league and can put the ball on string.
Aided by the stream-trains in James Fisher-Harris and Moses Leota, the pace of Penrith’s ruck is unmatched, giving too much time for Cleary to pass, kick or run (his greatest asset).
This would be my bet-slip for the big dance.
Panthers to win
Anytime Tryscorer – Brian To’o
Anytime Tryscorer – Stephen Crichton
Panthers 1st half points over +11.5 (I say this as I believe early nerves will rock the Eels)
4 Legs $5.75
Clive Churchill roughies – James Fisher-Harris/ Isaah Yeo