Grand Final: GRAND FINAL: Panthers v Rabbitohs preview
History beckons in historic decider
Setting up an all Sydney decider after finishing the regular season in second and third respectively, the Sunday evening fixture will see the Panthers and Rabbitohs face off in the first Grand Final played outside of Sydney in a united competition.
Falling short of equalling the greatest comeback in premiership history twelve months ago, the Penrith Panthers will be determined to learn from the mistakes of last year and go one better in the final match of the season.
Holding on in an absorbing 10-6 win over the Storm last Saturday to book a shot at redemption, the Panthers will head into the biggest match of the season with several players in doubt.
Leaving Tevita Pangai Jr out of the 21-man squad after the mid-season recruit left Suncorp Stadium in a knee brace last week, coach Ivan Cleary will give Brian To'o (ankle), Moses Leota (calf) and James Fisher-Harris (knee) up until an hour before kick-off to prove their fitness.
Retaining 13 players - as well as Brent Naden in the extended squad - from the side that went down to the Storm last year, Paul Momirovski, Matt Burton, Scott Sorenson and Spencer Leniu will experience the intensity of a Grand Final for the first time.
Defeating their Grand Final opponents twice throughout the regular season in Dubbo and Brisbane, the Panthers will need to improve after being restricted to a single try in 80 minutes of football during the first week of the play-offs.
Touted as pre-season favourites despite falling short in three successive preliminary finals, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will strive to send captain Adam Reynolds and coach Wayne Bennett out as winners in their final appearances for the club.
Securing a place in the premiership decider with a comprehensive 36-16 victory over the Sea Eagles last Friday, the Rabbitohs have stuck solid with the same 17 players used throughout the entire finals series.
Naming three players remaining from the side's last Grand Final victory in 2014, off-contract veteran Benji Marshall could bow out with a second premiership ring 16 years after his flick pass was immortalised into rugby league folklore.
The Rabbitohs will need to defy history on Sunday evening given the well-established precedent of no team winning a premiership after conceding 50 points at any stage in a season.
Who to watch: Lining up in his first grand final after being included in the extended squad last year, playmaker-turner-centre Matt Burton will be hoping to end his time at Penrith on a premiership high. Enjoying a sensational rise after beginning the year in reserve grade, the 21-year-old up-and-comer from Dubbo has been a focal point of the Panthers attack this season with 16 tries and 13 try-assists to go with more than 100 running metres on average. Set to shift into the halves at Canterbury-Bankstown next season, expect a strong showing from Burton as the mountain men strive to turn heartache into ecstasy.
Becoming one of the modern greats for South Sydney after debuting in first grade at 26 years of age, Cody Walker shapes as the man most likely to deliver the Rabbitohs their 22nd premiership title. Regarded as one of the best attacking players in the game as reflected by his standing as the league leader for try-assists (33) and linebreak assists (44), the Indigenous All Stars captain is similarly adept at scoring tries having crossed for 66 four-pointers in 141 appearances. Coming under criticism previously for his inability to seize the occasion in big matches, look for Walker to leave a lasting legacy with a starring performance in the biggest match of the season.
Favourite: The Panthers will start the match as favourites based on the big game experience of seven Origin representatives and 13 players backing up from last year's decider.
My tip: Coming into the match well-rested and with confidence after knocking off their opponents earlier in the finals series, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will create history with their 22nd first grade title.
Margin: Rabbitohs by 8
Clive Churchill Medallist: Cody Walker
First Try Scorer: Alex Johnston