Things to watch in the grand final if you only watch one NRL game each year

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Sure, half the country has barely been allowed out of the house in 2021, but I understand.

There are lots of bold hair cuts. The newspapers say the referees do always make mistakes. And yes, that Wayne Bennett is still coaching.

It can be hard to keep up with the NRL from week to week.

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But today’s NRL grand final offers a delicious opportunity to again dip a pinky into the great peanut butter jar that is rugby league.

Here are five things that will help you enjoy the game a little more:

Cleary versus the rookie

Penrith’s halfback, Nathan Cleary, is the most influential player in rugby league today. 

Nathan Cleary prepares to catch a ball with his mouth open
The Panthers’ fate is in the hands of Nathan Cleary.(

Getty: Bradley Kanaris

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While Manly’s Tom (Turbo) Trbojevic may have won the Dally M medal last week, Cleary finished second and shoulders a greater burden than ‘Turbo’ in both play-making and kicking. And he plays for a better side.

Cleary will touch the ball around 70 times tonight, tending to operate on the right-hand side of the field while his halves partner, Jarome Luai, occupies the left.

However, as the Panthers approach Souths’ try line, he’ll take over as a fulcrum in the middle kicking, passing and even running in search of a defensive weakness.

A chart showing Cleary is likely to kick and run closer to the opposition tryline.
Nathan Cleary’s touches against Souths in the first week of the finals.

Nobody has gained more metres with the boot this year, and nobody has a kick as fearsome as Cleary’s.

That’s a problem for Rabbitohs’ rookie fullback Blake Taaffe.

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South Sydney Rabbitohs' Blake Taaffe stands on the sidelines with teammate Latrell Mitchell, who is not in his jersey.
Blake Taaffe (left) has replaced suspended star Latrell Mitchell (right).(

Getty: Bradley Kanaris

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He’s only played seven games, coming in to replace suspended Souths’ star Latrell Mitchell.

Most agree he’s performed well, but even the best in his position are tested by Cleary.

When the sides played three weeks ago, Taaffe recovered well after an early drop.

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But he’s set to face another barrage today.

Controlling the middle

Penrith’s Isaah Yeo and Souths’ Cam Murray are the two best number 13s in the game and they will go head to head again tonight.

Penrith Panthers' Isaah Yeo tries to run through the South Sydney Rabbitohs' defence.
Cam Murray’s (right) Rabbitohs had the edge over Yeo’s (centre) Panthers three weeks ago.(

Getty: Ian Hitchcock

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In the modern game, the role of the lock changes from team to team, but the victor in their contest will be the one who dominates defensively, provides the more incisive running and delivers the players outside them the best service and space.

If Cleary is Penrith’s most important player, Yeo is his enabler. The Panthers’ lock often runs at defenders before passing back to his half, giving him more time and ensuring defenders can’t focus too much on Cleary.

This example from earlier in the season shows success as a lock is not just about running hard and straight.

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Through picking his running angle, reading the defensive line and passing the ball at the right time, Yeo almost made a line break. That forward craft will be on full display this evening.

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Souths’ left attack

No player has been more devastating this season in finding a way through opponents’ defences than Souths’ Cody Walker.

A South Sydney NRL player kisses the taping on his left wrist as he celebrates a try.
Cody Walker will be the Rabbitohs’ main creator tonight.(

AAP: Dan Himbrechts

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He has recorded 33 try assists this season, five more than any other player.

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He’s brilliant at reading defences and making the right pass.

But he also relies on his teammates running into the right spaces to open up space for his backline colleagues.

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Familiar face

Souths’ Benji Marshall is back in the grand final after 16 years away.

Two South Sydney NRL players touch hands as they celebrate a try against Brisbane.
Adam Reynolds (right) is moving to Brisbane next year and Benji Marshall (left) may not play on.(

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AAP: Dan Himbrechts

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He was an exhilarating ball-runner back then and this Tigers try in the 2005 decider is perhaps rugby league’s most famous.

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These days there isn’t as much zip in Benji’s legs, but he still plays an important role for Souths off the bench.

He typically comes on late in the first half and organises the attack through the middle, or provides support for hooker Damien Cook as dummy half.

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He also popped up last week on the right side in attack to set up a try.

A chart showing Marshall was influential on the right side last week against Manly.
Marshall was influential on the right side last week against Manly.(

ABC Sport

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He may be close to retirement, but from time to time Marshall still provides a glimpse of the old Benji.

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Rugby league romantics will be feast on these moments tonight.

But they shouldn’t bank on a lot of them. In three games against the Panthers this year, Marshall has seen only 33 minutes of action.

Brian’s acute ankle

He may be small — officially listed at 182cm but in reality much less — but Brian To’o has a big influence on the Panthers. 

A Polynesian rugby player in a brown jersey scores a try as players in white and yellow look on.
Brian To’o helps earn Panthers hard metres down the middle.(

AAP

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The 23-year-old has an appetite for running the ball out of his end like no other.

And — because he’s so powerful and quick, with a low centre of gravity and balletic footwork — he’s Penrith’s most important ball runner, a responsibility that would typically go to a forward, not a winger like To’o.

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Yet he’s been carrying an ankle injury for the best part of two months and was muted in the Panthers’ loss to Souths three weeks ago.

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He’ll be in pain tonight, but the Panthers need him to push through to become the To’o they know.

The NRL grand final kicks off in Brisbane at 7.30pm AEDT or 6.30pm local time.



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