Penrith Panthers edge past South Sydney 14-12 to win NRL grand final

South Sydney seemingly had it coming. They had it coming 16 minutes in when four defenders mustered all they had to halt 97kg of pure Brian To’o muscle mere inches short of their line. So too in the 19th, when their defence was stretched and then snapped by Matt Burton and Nathan Cleary ensured the match’s opening four points became six. And even in the 22nd, after Cody Walker pulled an equalising try out of nothing, the Brisbane air was already whispering that this might well be Penrith’s night.

The 2021 NRL grand final has hardly been a story of certainty. Less than 24 hours ago there was no guarantee it would even be played this week let alone at Suncorp Stadium. Likewise, many would have bet against the Panthers making it this far when they lost to this very opponent in the qualifying finals three weeks ago, before Souths enjoyed a rest and then a big win against Manly. Ivan Cleary’s team, conversely, took the hard route. But after they eked past the Eels, they dismantled the Storm. Once Melbourne had been conquered, anything was possible.

And thus, for the opening 40 minutes of their 14-loss Souths had it coming, not quite matching their counterparts’ intensity and looking the more tired team just for trying. They fumbled the ball uncharacteristically and failed to apply enough pressure each time Clive Churchill medallist Nathan Cleary kicked on the fifth. By the time the half was out the Panthers had 65% possession, a 90% completion rate, 1070m to Souths’ 632 and a Cleary penalty for an 8-6 lead that flattered the Rabbitohs.

Of course, no thing is a sure thing in rugby league when Wayne Bennett is in the opposing dressing room, sprinkling his master coach magic dust for perhaps the final time in one of the game’s great coaching careers. He emerged perspicacious and poker-faced, and watched as his Souths defended stoutly when Penrith got six again 10m out and then finally fashioned some momentum.

But as the sea of bodies – largely unmasked – that was 75% capacity of Suncorp moved in unison around them, Stephen Crichton picked his moment, intercepting an errant Walker pass and galloping untouched the 40m to the line.

Without Jai Arrow, who was lost to a head knock after failing a HIA, Souths kept going. Five minutes from time Cameron Murray found Dane Gagai, and the centre anticipated the run of Alex Johnston, whose dash into the corner made him the first player since 1954 and third of all time to score 30 tries in a season.

Johnston’s was a subplot in an 80 minutes full of them. Pick just about any narrative in this setting and it will resonate. For Rabbitohs captain Adam Reynolds it was bleak. The kid from Redfern will head to the Broncos after narrowly missing the sideline conversion which would have saved his boyhood club the title.

“I can’t put into words how much he’s done for this club,” Murray said of his skipper. “I’m so proud of him, and it’s been an honour to play with him the first few years of my career.”

Once Reynolds had fruitlessly attempted a two-point field goal an expressionless Bennett departed the coach’s box, resigned to his second loss from his 10th grand finals as a coach across five decades with four different clubs.

Penrith’s third title was a breakthrough for Bennett’s Penrith counterpart Cleary in his 370th game as a coach, becoming the only man to win one for the first time after their 250th game.

“I can’t sum up my emotions. This year has been totally different. It’s a two-year thing, three-year thing really,” he said afterwards. “There was at least five who shouldn’t have been playing today. It was a calculated risk on a lot of boys.

“I woke up at 2am this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Thinking three or four of them could have been gone by 10 minutes. It’s purely on courage these boys have won.”

There were tears as he hugged son Nathan, and then more as To’o found his partner in the crowd and proposed.

“Pretty happy that I’ve got a ring and she does as well,” he said, revealing he planned to ask the question regardless of the result. “I just told her she’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me then got down on one knee. I was planning to do it during Origin but due to COVID it didn’t happen, so made the next step to push for a grand final.”