Panthers win the physical and mental battles to make decider
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Panthers win the physical and mental battles to make decider

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While Penrith were looking down at everyone from the top of the competition ladder, questions were being asked about whether they had peaked too early.

Surely a side that had lost just once, way back in round five, was going to experience a dip in form at some stage?

And yet Ivan Cleary, up against a coach who knows something about timing your run, ensured his men produced a performance every bit as compelling as the 16 which preceded it.

Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook can feel things slipping away.

Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook can feel things slipping away. Credit:Getty

It is fitting that the best team all year will contest the final game. The Panthers needed to hold their nerve to get there. For all of their early dominance, they had to cling to just a four-point lead for the final 13 minutes. South Sydney had no right to get so close.

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“Penrith should be up by 40 with the opportunities they’ve had,” said Andrew Johns in commentary for Nine.

For the Panthers, a relatively inexperienced finals side, this was about holding their nerve. The occasion got the better of both sides on occasions. Sharpshooter Adam Reynolds missed what for him was a regulation shot at goal. The captain’s challenges were exhausted before the first quarter had expired. And both teams dropped what was a slippery Steeden at regular intervals.

When Corey Allan, playing on one leg for most of the night, scored late in proceedings, the mountain men did well to hang on against the most potent attacking team in the game.

The Rabbitohs deserve enormous credit for coming so close. They were beset by injuries and cruel luck, like when Reynolds came agonisingly close to a 40-20. But in the end they paid the price for losing the battle up front.

There was a battle of wits at play as well. The mind games started the moment the Rabbitohs beat the Eels and continued right up until kick-off. Wayne Bennett claimed he hadn’t watched Penrith play all year. That same Wayne Bennett didn’t speak to Phil Gould about the Panthers job; and claimed Jed Cartwright would replace injured centre Campbell Graham.

There was more subterfuge when Bayley Sironen was named at centre, only for Cameron Murray to fill the position. It was only when Sironen limped off with injury that everyone returned to their named positions.

The Panthers seal their grand final berth after a desperate second half.

The Panthers seal their grand final berth after a desperate second half.Credit:Getty

Ivan Cleary wasn’t to be outdone. He pulled a controversial switch of his own, benching form centre Brent Naden for Tyrone May. This gamble paid off.

Every time Nathan Cleary kicked, May was in pursuit. The No.14 got his reward when he collected his side’s second try from doing just that.

The Rabbitohs spine has wreaked havoc on the edges over the past month against outside backs that have rushed up quickly in defence. The Panthers three-quarters instead held their position and slid when Cody Walker tried to outnumber them, using the sideline as an additional defender. The ploy proved a winner, ensuring Cleary’s men were never caught short out wide.

Nor was there any space up the middle of the field. Damien Cook was at his very best the previous week, constantly catching out tired Parramatta markers. Against the Panthers, there were few opportunities to run.

And so if Bennett is to achieve a premiership at Redfern, he has just one more season in which to do it.

The Panthers, meanwhile, need to show why they have been the team to beat from the outset.

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