NRL Grand Final Six Again: Halves battle central to Panthers win

First tackle: Halves battle marks thrilling clash

There had been a fair bit of talk during the lead up to the Grand Final around who would take out the Churchill Medal. With the medal usually going to a player from the winning team, many thought it would be a contest between South's Cody Walker and Penrith's Nathan Cleary, depending on which team collected the lollies.

There was a moment in the first half where Walker made a big statement in their one-on-one battle. Walker took the ball on the halfway line and looked to be setting up for one of the Rabbitohs notorious left side backline sweeping moves. Instead he focused in on Nathan Cleary defending flat-footed in the backline. He broke through an inside defender, ran straight at Cleary and sat him on his backside with a straight-arm fend that nearly went through the Panthers' captain. He gained momentum off Cleary and cleared through, before weaving past fullback Dylan Edwards to score the Rabbitohs first try of the night.

Then 67 minutes into the game, Walker threw a long pass to the left on halfway, in a similar situation. This time Stephen Crichton was waiting, pounced and ran away to score. Cleary who was near Walker at the time, let him know just how costly that pass was. Walker grabbed him and some pushing and shoving ensued. It ultimately meant the Rabbitohs would lose the Grand Final and Walker any shot at that medal.

But the champion that is Cody Walker wasn't done. On almost their first trip deep into Panthers territory in the second half, Walker set that lethal left side in motion. Alex Johnston diving over in the corner to take the score to 14-12 with Adam Reynolds' sideline conversion just missing.

And so Cleary's Panthers won and he collected the medal from his father, in one of many moving moments on the night.

Second tackle: Unlucky breaks for Souths

Ten minutes into the second half Panthers' bench forward Spencer Leniu made a tackle on Souths half Adam Reynolds as he attempted a kick. It was ruled not to be a charge down, even though the kick rebounded off Leniu's arm. The Rabbitohs challenged the call and the bunker ruled that Leniu was not playing at the ball, and therefore did not reset the tackle count.

It fired the Rabbitohs defence up and they rattled the Panthers over the ensuing ten minutes of play, fending off several sets on their own try line.

Not long after Jaxson Paulo positioned himself under a high balled and was crunched by Viliame Kikau. Kikau's arm knocked the ball out of his grasp, it flew towards the in goal area where Souths fullback Blake Taaffe cleaned up to concede a drop-out. Again the Rabbitohs were gallant in defence and held out several attacking raids.

The problem was, they had almost tackled themselves to a standstill in the first half with all the possession enjoyed by the Panthers. While they were holding onto the 8-8 score, they weren't looking like scoring a try themselves. It was an intercept try, with Stephen Crichton snatching a long Cody Walker try, which broke the deadlock.

With two minutes to go Nathan Cleary tackled Cody Walker and the ball squirted out the back. Once again he was ruled not to have played at the ball and the Panthers were given possession.

All three calls were correct, but showed that the Rabbitohs did not enjoy much luck on the night.

Third tackle: Kikau off the bench again

The seventeen were named for both teams on Tuesday and as has become customary of late for Penrith, coach Ivan Cleary announced that Viliame Kikau would take a seat on the bench, allowing Liam Martin to start in the back row. Cleary obviously feels that the big Fijian edge runner can have a greater impact if he misses the early exchanges.

Kikau made his first appearance as the clock neared the 20th minute, replacing prop Moses Leota. The first tackle he made he was put on report for clipping the head of Jai Arrow. It changed a lost ball call against the Rabbitohs to a Souths' penalty and it proved a very costly error as Cody Walker scored a try in the ensuing set of tackles, to level the scores.

Late in the first half Kikau found himself in a Scott Sattler situation of his own, sprinting across in cover to drag down Rabbitohs winger Jaxson Paulo. Paulo threw the ball inside as he went to ground and the play broke down.

Kikau would have scored the Panthers second try early in the second half, only Cleary's fumbled pass was ruled to have travelled forward. The big forward had a good game, if not outstanding, Cleary's tactic of starting him off the bench proving effective only in that they won the Grand Final doing so.

Third tackle: Nervous Burton shakes the jitters

Pre-game nerves hit most players, and the Grand Final will bring out the butterflies in the best of them. This is the ultimate club game for a player, the pressure is enormous and the realisation is stark that these opportunities can be very limited. Some of the best to ever play the game never made it to the Grand Final, many never won a premiership. It is 80 minutes of intensity like nothing else, and the fear that you could be the player to lose it, is a very real driver of those nerves.

You can often see the early signs of a nervous player in the dressing sheds during the coach's final address. It must be said that young Panthers centre Matt Burton was very twitchy as Ivan Cleary gave his last instructions. He sat tapping his leg up and down at a frantic pace as the kick-off to his first NRL Grand Final grew ever nearer. Fourteen of the Panthers had played in last year's loss, but Burton wasn't one of them.

It didn't take long for the Dubbo-born, Bulldogs-bound, outside back to settle into his work, taking a few big runs to knock those pesky butterflies senseless. In the tenth minute he ran straight into the shoulder of Souths prop Junior Tatola - any remaining butterflies were promptly exterminated. To prove how comfortable he was, he sliced through the Rabbitohs defence in the 18th minute to score the first try of the game.

Fifth and last: Luai's early challenge comes through

Two and a half minutes into the game and we saw the first captain's challenge of the Grand Final, a very early roll of the dice by Penrith's Jarome Luai. Referee Gerard Sutton blew his whistle to call a knock-on in the play the ball as Luai was tackled deep into Rabbitohs territory.

Luai jumped to his feet and immediately called for the challenge. His captains must have been worried, because ruck fumbles are rarely overruled. The bunker took an eternity trying to find the mystery discrepancy, before Luai was handed the ball to play on. The big smile that spread across his face confirming the relief he felt in being right.

Handover: Heartbreak for Reynolds

Adam Reynolds departs the South Sydney Rabbitohs after giving his all to the club over a 10-year career. Unwanted earlier in the year, Reynolds signed a contract with the Brisbane Broncos for next season. He went into the Grand final under a cloud with a groin injury and he was probably short of his absolute best during the game.

Sadly, the fairytale finish was not to be and it didn't help that Reynolds himself missed two kicks that could have levelled the scores towards the end. The first was a sideline conversion which looked to be curling its way towards the posts before straightening up and missing to the right. The second was with only minutes remaining, when he lined up for the rarest of feats, a two-point field goal from outside the 40 metres.

He tried to over kick it and mistimed the shot which landed well short of the goals before bouncing over the dead ball line, to effectively end the game, the Rabbitohs shot at a 22nd title and a proud ten-year stint at the club he grew up wanting to play for.