Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game. This week they look at who will win the Grand Final, which player will take home the Clive Churchill Medal and Jack Wighton's surprise Dally M victory.
Who will win the big one and why?
Darren: The Panthers have clearly been the best team all year, winning their last 17 games in a season where they dropped just one game to the Eels and had a draw with the Knights. The trouble is, the best team all year doesn't necessarily win the Grand Final, there are just so many factors that make this one game so very different to all the rest. There is enormous pressure to perform in a Grand Final, players become overtly conscious that any mistake could see them burdened with the responsibility of a Grand Final loss, something that never goes away. In Penrith's favour is the fearlessness of youth and a group of players who have grown in confidence and trust in each other's abilities. Will that be enough against wily old Storm leader Cameron Smith and his team which lines up for its fourth Grand Final in five years? The Storm are favoured to win their third premiership on Sunday, and they'll be hard to beat, especially if referee Gerard Sutton loses control of the ruck like he did last week. If the Storm are kept back and the Panthers are allowed some quick service from dummy-half, I think Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai can work their magic with the outside backs and take a well-deserved title back to Penrith.
Christian: In what could come as a surprise to some, the Melbourne Storm actually head into the Grand Final as favourites despite the Panthers winning 17 games in a row and taking home the minor premiership in the process. I do agree with this assessment, however, and I'm tipping Melbourne to end what has been a fairytale season for the Panthers. As good as the mountain men have been in 2020, I think the pressure of trying to win both a Grand Final as well as an 18th consecutive victory will be just a step too far. As we all know, as teams win unprecedented amounts of consecutive games, they come just a little closer to a loss, and I think we've seen that in their last two performances. In Week 1 of the finals, Penrith was lucky to escape with a one-point victory over the Roosters and they again struggled to beat South Sydney last week. The Storm, meanwhile, has timed their run to yet another Grand Final perfectly. They haven't received the accolades and media attention of the Panthers this year, but have blown past both the Eels and the Raiders so far during the finals. Incredibly, this will be their fourth Grand Final in five years, and as such, will boast the big game experience that has proven invaluable in the big dance in years gone by. As if they needed any more motivation, the Storm will also be playing for the city of Melbourne given how much they've been through during the pandemic. The game may also shape as a possible Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy farewell, marking the end of an extraordinary era for the club.
Which player do you think will win the Clive Churchill Medal?
Darren: Logic and the odds will tell you that the Clive Churchill Medal will usually go to a player on the winning team, so having tipped the Panthers to win, I have to find the player I think will be most responsible for that victory. Nathan Cleary stands out as the obvious choice, he was unlucky not to win the Dally M, so a better than solid performance on Sunday should see him collecting the medal. Although, in what could be a grinding game, with little room to move around the ruck, I think Isaah Yeo could also have another stand-out game as he did against the Rabbitohs last week. A key try assist, a pile of run metres and bag full of scything tackles and the Panthers lock could be the one honoured at the end of the night. Of course if the Storm win the Grand Final, it will be Cameron Smith's medal, you just know it will.
Christian: If Penrith do in fact go in to win this game, it will be because of the extraordinary performance of halfback Nathan Cleary. Given the incredibly rich vein of form he has been enjoying in 2020, the Panthers will be smart to put the ball in his hands as much as possible. He will be well supported by his halves partner Jarome Luai, who himself has had a breakout season this year, but it is Cleary who will need to take this game by the scruff of the neck and take on the tactical nous of Cameron Smith. I still believe Melbourne has an edge over Penrith going into this game however, and with that in mind, I'm tipping Smith to take home the Clive Churchill Medal for, shockingly, the first time in his illustrious career. Against a club that hasn't seen the Grand Final since 2003, I can see Smith giving the Panthers' back three some serious headaches with his creative kicking game out of dummy-half. His subtle passing game and lethal combination with five-eighth Cameron Munster should get Melbourne over the line and win the hooker the one award that has eluded him for his entire career in what may well be his final game.
Did Jack Wighton deserve the Dally M Medal?
Darren: The Dally M voting system is almost as flawed as the NRL's embargo on the results. The halves always seem to grab the most attention and any team with an even spread of talent immediately rules each of them out of the running. Jack Wighton had a great year, but if brilliant Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson had been there all season to pinch points off him, he may not have won. With four other Panthers in the team of the year, Cleary had no chance. Each week he had to scrap for his points against the likes of Stephen Crichton, Isaah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris and Viliame Kikau as well as Apisai Koroisau and Jarome Luai. I have always believed that the players are the best judges of which player was most influential in each game. Have the players vote on their opponents each week, just pick the best player from the opposition team, if 10 Rabbitohs players say Isaah Yeo was best last week, he gets 10 points, if another four players vote for Cleary he receives four points, etc. Winning an award voted for by your peers is a greater honour than one voted for by a panel of experts.
Christian: Let me preface this by saying Jack Wighton had a fantastic season for the Raiders - but I don't think he was the best player in the competition in 2020. I believe this a blight on the 3-2-1 system, with Wighton winning the honour over Nathan Cleary highlighting the issue more than any other year. Not only does it pose a disadvantage to good players in good teams (whereby players cannibalise each other's points), but it also awards points to undeserving players in games where no one truly shined. Moreover, in previous years, there have also been accusations of certain voters submitting their votes without having watched the game. Wighton looks to have potentially benefitted from one or all of these, as there are a few instances in which the Canberra five-eighth received three Dally M points for very ordinary performances. In Round 19, for instance, Wighton received three points for a performance in which he kicked out on the full, knocked-on off the kick-off and was sin-binned for being a mile offside when the Warriors were attacking the Raiders' goal line. He did send Jarrod Croker over for a try in the first half, ran for 98m and had one offload - hardly enough for a three vote performance, especially given Croker had a try, try assist, four tackle busts and three offloads. Winger Semi Valemei also scored two tries and ran for 177m.