Rugby league, like much of the world, endured a strange and difficult 2021. The pandemic, outside the game’s control, saw the game moved to Queensland and the first grand final take place outside Sydney. Mid-season rule changes and short-lived crackdowns sent the game spinning like a flipped car careening down a cliff. A great grand final can cure all ills though and that is exactly what the game got though with a classic finale that saw Penrith crowned premiers in a 14-12 victory over a gallant South Sydney.
Rugby league’s enduring strength is that the game itself is so brilliant, compelling and brutal that it can overcome the drama, hysteria and incompetence that so often surrounds it. There was no better example of that than Sunday night’s decider that ranks right up there with the finest of the NRL era.
Great grand finals are remembered for their defining moments. Cody Walker’s heroic run where he sliced through the Panthers defence with a sharp burst and a vicious fend on his way to a try had him earmarked as a hero. Walker’s intercept pass that saw Penrith winger Stephen Crichton race away to score deep into the second half was the turning point, an all-or-nothing play that was destined to lead to points at one end or the other. Adam Reynolds’ missed sidelined conversion with six minutes remaining, South Sydney’s hopes and dreams sitting on the boot of the club’s greatest ever pointscorer in his final game in the cardinal and myrtle.
For Penrith though success was not built on a highlight play but on a rigid discipline and deep patience. Clive Churchill medal winner Nathan Cleary was relentlessly brilliant with his kicking game, suffocating South Sydney with precision and smarts. The Panthers were not going to beat themselves and they were not going to give South Sydney opportunities.
In a year that appeared to represent a seismic shift in what rugby league looked like thanks to some ill-considered rule changes and a mid-season evangelical blitz on high tackles that saw both points and dismissals in the form of the send off and the sin bin reach modern record heights, nothing did in fact change in the end.
The rule changes were duly wound back during the finals – as everyone expected they would be – with the six-again rule that was feverishly enforced early in the season mostly ignored. Player welfare concerns about any contact with the head were seemingly no longer important once the finals could be sniffed.
If there is one certainty in rugby league though it is that, at its core, the game returns to its true self on the biggest stages. The posturing ends. Referees swallow their whistles. Hard lines become soft. Defence reigns supreme. The gladiatorial nature of the game comes to the fore.
It has long been accepted that more often than not, grand final success is built on defence. The Panthers were the top defensive side all season, conceding 12 points or fewer in 19 of their 28 games. They conceded just 24 points in their last three finals games.
The change in officiating no doubt suited Penrith and it is a credit to coach Ivan Cleary that the Panthers managed to use the new rules to their advantage better than any other team. While late-tackle set restarts were almost non-existent in the finals, referees were more than happy to blow them on the first tackle and Penrith were more than happy to concede them. It is a loophole that the Panthers took full advantage of, at almost no cost, allowing them to start a defensive stand with a set defensive line. The referees were helpless. They could no longer blow a penalty. It was tremendous coaching that proved critical in the grand final.
For Cleary Snr, the premiership victory was, of course, a dream fulfilled, the culmination of a life of sweat and stress and work and hope. He will also have taken much satisfaction after his return to the club three seasons ago came amidst much controversy. Those associated with the Wests Tigers will never forgive him for his departure. And his return to the Panthers seemed to come with a caveat that the architect of this Penrith run – and the man who sacked Cleary in the first place – Phil Gould would have to leave. Such circumstances come at a personal cost so when they result in success, it does make them all worthwhile.
Gould, despite his messy departure from Penrith, is another who will take great satisfaction from the win. He not only laid the foundations for this Penrith premiership but demonstrated that clubs can build premierships from the inside. The premiership will be somewhat bittersweet for Gould, but he can be incredibly proud that the Panthers won a title on his design that very much returned the team to the Penrith way.
There was something refreshing about this premiership. The Panthers won with their own. They did it playing a brand of rugby league that prized perfection. They were well coached. They executed. They played team-first. No premiership is ever forgotten but some are elevated, holding a more special place in the hearts of both fans and the game. This is one of those premierships.