NRL Round Table: Can the Rabbitohs stop Manly's Tom Trbojevic?

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

Will the Rabbitohs be able to stop Tom Trbojevic the way the Storm did two weeks ago?

Lucie: It takes a team to take down Tom Trbojevic and the Melbourne Storm did that by sheer dominance. But Craig Bellamy's side are on a whole different level, so while the Rabbitohs can take a leaf out of their book, I don't think they'll have the same results. To stop the Manly fullback, one must understand that he can't be stopped completely, especially with the ball in his hands - but nullifying his influence can be done. The Storm limited his impact by playing a possession game and denying Trbojevic chances to work his magic in attack. The stats speak for themselves - Melbourne had 61 percent of possession in the week one final, a 90 percent completion rate and 89.3 percent tackle efficiency. Although still one of the best players on his team, Trbojevic finished that match with 151 metres from 15 runs (his season average was 216), no line breaks, nor tries, nor try assists. So in short, the Storm barely let Manly and their main man into the game. If the Rabbitohs can dominate like this then sure, they can stop any opposition player including Trbojevic. But Manly also learned their lesson too and flipped the script with a 42-6 win over the Roosters, with the fullback back to his best. With both teams heading into the preliminary final with confidence, I don't think Souths will be able to limit Trbojevic's influence as well as the Storm did. And rest assured, he won't want that to happen again either.

Darren: The question is; was Tom Trbojevic off his game against the Storm two weeks ago or had the Storm found a way to severely reduce his impact? I think it was a little of both. Trbojevic's involvement levels were right down against the Storm, mainly because they limited the amount of quality possession the Sea Eagles had, they generally kicked away from him and when he did have the ball they held a solid purple wall of defence with none of the half gaps that he so readily exploits. Still, Trbojevic was left loitering in the middle of the field a lot, while the ball was swung left and right looking for a way through the Storm defence. The Rabbitohs may not be as difficult to crack. Souths have had two scores of 50+ run up against them this year, which proves they don't have the same defensive resilience that the Storm have. If the Bunnies can't somehow lift their intensity, improve their communication and tackle everything that moves, they could be in for yet another loss one week short of the Grand Final. One thing you learn about champion players is that they don't enjoy underperforming. Trbojevic was back to his best last week against the Roosters and he'll be fired up to carry the Sea Eagles into the Grand Final.

What has happened to the all-conquering Panthers this post-season?

Lucie: There has been talk of the Penrith Panthers looking tired this finals series and I think this rings true. They've lost that bravado from the beginning of the season when they were unstoppable for a dozen matches and blew teams off the park. While being 'the hunted' takes its toll for two consecutive seasons, I think the Panthers have simply mistimed their peak. The Mountain Men have structures and systems in place to ensure they're methodical on field but that extra percentage is missing, like a fire that's starting to flicker out. The effect from having seven players in the State of Origin series has rolled on, while Ivan Cleary opted not to rest his main men in the last round of the regular season. Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Brian To'o have all had stints on the sidelines due to injury, and in particular with the latter being out of their semifinal clash with the Eels, the creative attack the Panthers are known for has also lacked. Granted, the Rabbitohs and Eels took it to them in the first two weeks of finals, but Penrith could be walking into an ambush if they don't improve for the Storm. Unfortunately, I think that tough win over Parramatta would have drained the team based on its sheer physicality - so I'm not convinced how well Penrith can bounce back against a well-rested Melbourne side for a spot in the title decider.

Darren: It has become fairly clear that the Panthers are off their game, and it couldn't have come at a worse time of the year for them. The loss two weeks ago to the Rabbitohs reminded me of Mike Tyson's famous saying; "everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth". The Panthers were cruising and had their sights set on a week off before winning one more game and facing the Storm in the Grand Final. The Rabbitohs punched them in the mouth and rattled all their plans. They were very lucky not to go out in straight sets, with only their scrambling defence and some timely injury breaks saving them from an upset Eels victory. Now they are faced with finding their mojo under the most difficult of circumstances, up against a Storm team that won't give them an inch. They have the players, they have the defensive fortitude, they have the game plan, they just seem to be down on confidence. The cockiness that allowed them to play free-flowing, attacking football without fear of error has faded somewhat. They'll need to rediscover that spark before Saturday, because they simply can't beat the Storm if they stay within their shell. As good as they may defend, they'll need to score 20 plus points to beat Melbourne. If Ivan Cleary has any tricks up his sleeve, now is the time to produce them or their season will surely end a week earlier than last year.

Who will win the Dally M Medal on Sunday night?

Lucie: In a comeback like no other, fullback Tom Trobjevic should have done enough to catch up on the points he missed out on to claim the 2021 Dally M Medal. Across just 15 matches, the Sea Eagles star tallied five hat-tricks, 25 tries and 30 try assists, as well as 30 line breaks and an average of eight tackle busts. It's simply staggering. He sat one point behind Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary on the Dally M charts at the end of round 19 - while teammate Daly Cherry-Evans, James Tedesco and Cody Walker filled out the top-five race. Trbojevic featured five more times in the regular season which could be the deciding factor as Cleary only played four of those. I would not be surprised if the Panthers star finished marginally ahead of Trbojevic, with those final matches all solid outings to collect points. He finished the regular rounds unbeaten from 16 matches, in what was a remarkable season for the 23-year-old halfback. But also, let's not rule out co-winners for the Dally M Medal. Given the close race, another scenario could be Trbojevic and Cleary tie on points and share the prestigious award.

Darren: It seems ridiculous that a player who missed such a large chunk of the season could be set to claim the Dally M Medal, but that's what will likely happen on Sunday night. It says a lot about how dominant Tom Trbojevic has been when on the field for the Sea Eagles. The role of fullback was revolutionized by Billy Slater's ball work, stepped up with James Tedesco's acceleration and support around the ruck and expanded again with the sheer line-cutting pace of Ryan Papenhuyzen. Trbojevic has all of those abilities plus something I haven't seen in a modern fullback - the size and willingness to run flat-out up the middle of the field like a prop forward. We've seen him crash over for tries that any prop would be proud off, launching his frame at the key defenders around the ruck, with no sign of self-preservation and usually being very difficult to stop. He has all the gifts and skills to make the perfect fullback. As discussed earlier the only way to stop him is to limit his opportunities and shut down his room to move, but very few teams have been successful at that this year. If he hadn't strained his hamstring in a preseason "shower" accident, he would have won the Dally M by a country mile.