2023 NRL Finals preview: Panthers to meet and beat the Broncos in the grand final

The curtain came down for half of the NRL's teams over the weekend, and there'll be plenty of time to dissect what went wrong (particularly in the cases of Souths, North Queensland, and Parramatta) later - but for now, eight teams remain in contention.

As they were in each of the past two years, Penrith are runaway favourites. Can anyone stop them? Maybe. But first, we have to see who gets the chance.

No time like the present for Brisbane to break Storm hoodoo

Melbourne's dominance in this fixture is remarkable, having won all 14 clashes since 2017 - but this is by a margin the best Broncos team they'll have faced in that period.

Last week's taster was a superb spectacle for neutrals, but it was very much last day of school vibes as some grossly understrength teams tore up Lang Park. For Brisbane, it was about getting some more rest into their starters and for the Storm, it was about getting more footy into the legs of Ryan Papenhuyzen before the most important month on the calendar.

The Storm have been happy to fly under the radar this year and despite having what their fans would consider to be an 'average' season, here they are with a double chance and a great shot at a home preliminary final.

But this is by no means a foregone conclusion. This is a hyper-confident, hyper-talented Broncos team that isn't just winning games, but doing it with flair. Even neutrals who would otherwise find themselves unable to stomach the idea of the Broncos once again being the most-dominant team in the NRL, as they were in the 1990s, are jumping on the bandwagon for the finals. Payne Haas is indisputably the best forward in the game right now, and fullback Reece Walsh is as gamebreaking as they come.

It will be fascinating to see how the Storm re-inject Papenhuyzen, who was never a realistic chance of starting in this game when you consider both his fitness level and the excellent form of Nick Meaney. Still, with Brisbane's habit of pulling away from tired opponents late in games, he might be the antidote that Craig Bellamy needs if it's close on Friday night.

You can ignore last week's game in terms of trying to get a read on this match, but the Storm came out on top earlier this year when both teams met in a chaotic post-Magic Round affair in Melbourne. But that was a sloppy and ill-disciplined Broncos performance that really only came fully off the rails after Patrick Carrigan was sin binned for a hip drop in the second half.

If the Broncos can stay on the task at hand and avoid being dragged into a street fight, they have more than enough talent to win this one.

Tip: Brisbane by 8

The Warriors big test is long overdue

It's been a remarkably good campaign for the Warriors, emerging from the wilderness to reach the top four for the first time since 2007, and to clinch a finals berth for just the second time in the past decade.

Andrew Webster is a slam dunk Coach of the Year winner, having transformed what was a painfully dull and average Warriors squad overnight, into an entertaining, point-scoring machine.

But up next comes the toughest test possible - a trip to Penrith to face the Premiers - and you can hardly say that the Warriors have been battled tested in any way, shape, or form recently.

It isn't a criticism, it's just reality. The Warriors haven't played a top eight side since July, and haven't played a top four side since May. And in the case of the latter, they only played each of Melbourne, Brisbane, and Penrith once (losing all three).

Right down to the soft draw, there's plenty of comparisons to last year's Cronulla squad that can be made pretty convincingly. Both are teams that rely heavily on a couple of key forwards, both got a career year out of their halfback and both have plenty of firepower across the back five.

It's a formula that can take you a long way, but on Saturday we'll get a true measure of how far the Warriors have come.

Tip: Penrith by 16

Another chance for Sharks to silence critics

Much of the pre-game chat for Saturday night's elimination final has been about the venue, rather than the teams involved. I can see both sides; on one hand, it's unfortunate that most Roosters fans will be locked out of the tiny venue.

On the other, Cronulla won the right to host the game and will glean a competitive advantage at Shark Park, particularly when you factor in that if the game were to be moved, the new location would be in Moore Park, where the Roosters play their home games.

As for the football itself, the Sharks have far more at stake than the Roosters. The latter are playing with house money after going on an incredible run to force their way into the top eight in the final round.

Cronulla's bumbling end to 2022 was a sore point for their fans, particularly after copping weeks and weeks of chat from fans and commenters about how it was their schedule that was chiefly responsible for their lofty ladder position, only to be bounced out in straight sets.

They have no luxury of a second chance this time around, but as the doomsayers were once again circling in the final weeks of the season, Cronulla got things back on track with important wins against Souths and North Queensland to clinch their finals spot, before blowing the Raiders off the park in the second half last week.

Both Connor Tracey and Will Kennedy have been named in the squad for Cronulla, and as long as one of them is fit to go on Saturday night, the Sharks spine is as settled as it's been all year. Although with both Kayal Iro and Matt Moylan also in the extended squad, the prognosis on either of Craig Fitzgibbon's first two choices at fullback might not be so great.

The Roosters may have only scraped into the finals by the skin of their teeth, but they are far from cannon fodder. This was a team that were picked by plenty to win the title this year and for all of their failings during the first two thirds of the season, they're on a huge winning streak, have their first-choice spine of James Tedesco, Luke Keary, Sam Walker, and Brandon Smith all fit and firing, and will fancy their chances - not to mention the likely return of Joey Manu, unless he's once again withdrawn from the team later in the week.

Cronulla's path to victory earlier this year was typical of them at their best - hold your own in the middle and flay them on the edges - and if they can keep this contest tight for the first hour or so it could end up in similar fashion with them pulling away for their first finals win since 2018.

Tip: Cronulla by 2

Long shots to spoil the party, but don't count Canberra out

Finals footy returns to the Hunter for the first time in a long time, and the mood couldn't be better. The club confirmed earlier today that the game was sold out, and an expectant crowd will be looking for their team to put on a big score against Canberra.

Logic would suggest that given the ferocious home crowd in Newcastle, coupled with the red-hot form of the Knights, that there's only going to be one outcome. But the 2023 Canberra Raiders don't subscribe to logic, common sense, or rationality - they are a confounding sports team, driven only by pure chaos.

Only three times in the NRL era has a team made the finals with a points differential of -100 or worse (and one of the two previous was also the Raiders, 21 years ago), and with Seb Kris sent off last week and now ruled out for this clash, their preparation couldn't have been much worse.

On paper, it looks like one-way traffic. But as bad as the Raiders have been recently, if everything clicks, they're capable of going toe-to-toe with the top sides, as they showed against Brisbane a couple of weeks' ago.

Tip: Newcastle by 20

Penrith's competition to lose - once again

The Panthers aren't AS infallible as they were in each of the past three campaigns, but they still finished first and it's tough to go past them completing the first three-peat of the NRL era.

The winner of Saturday's game at Shark Park is heading interstate regardless of who wins on Friday, and you'd fancy either of the Storm or Broncos to get the job done in week two. I think that will be Melbourne, but they'll come unstuck against Penrith in the preliminary final.

Newcastle have an excellent chance to make a proper run at this thing - barring a huge upset they should comfortably advance to face a Warriors team that they beat the last time they played and as great a story as the Wahs have been, I reckon Newcastle have the firepower across the park to send Andrew Webster's team out in straight sets - if a potential preliminary final against Brisbane comes next and it's anywhere near as good as their last meeting, then we're in for a treat.

That was the game where things started to click for the Knights, and where Kalyn Ponga truly flicked the switch that has seen him be arguably the NRL's best player in the second half of the season. Brisbane did win that one narrowly, though, and would be favoured to do so in a re-match and set up the 1 v 2 grand final that seems likeliest.

The Broncos, even when they were struggling across 2020 and 2021, played the Panthers close on all three occasions that they met - losing by 13, six, and eight across those two ill-fated seasons and would be as stern a test as Penrith have faced all year.

It's been a long, long time since round one when Brisbane sprung an upset at the foot of the mountains and we've got a month of footy before we could get back to that position again, but it's tough to go past the obvious answer when predicting who'll be playing in the grand final.

- Pick the NRL Finals bracket at footytips.com.au

Finals bracket predictions:

Week 1:

Broncos def. Storm

Panthers def. Warriors

Sharks def. Roosters

Knights def. Raiders

Week 2:

Storm def. Sharks

Knights def. Warriors

Week 3:

Panthers def. Storm

Broncos def. Knights

Grand Final:

Panthers def. Broncos