2021 NRL finals series: Week three preview

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And then there were four.

The identity of this year’s NRL grand finalists will be known this weekend, with the preliminary finals to decide who faces off for the ultimate prize at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday, October 3.

Fresh off a week’s break each, the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs will start as the favourites to progress to the final match of the season, but they will both face serious challenges from the Penrith Panthers and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, respectively.

All four clubs will be flying the flag for the locked-down states of New South Wales and Victoria, and while one Sydney club is guaranteed to be represented in the grand final next week, the Storm will be keen to continue their quest for consecutive titles.

Last week in Mackay, the Panthers outlasted the Parramatta Eels in the first western Sydney finals derby since 2000, winning by 8-6 following a scoreless second half, while the Sea Eagles put paid to the Roosters’ 2021 campaign with a convincing 42-6 victory.

Both preliminary finals will this weekend be played at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, with the venue to also host the decider for the first time as it is not possible for it to be played at Stadium Australia, as has been the case since 1999, due to the COVID-19 lockdown in Sydney.

The first will see Wayne Bennett look to extend his farewell season at Redfern when the Bunnies face the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, while the other is a rematch of last year’s grand final between the Storm and Panthers.

Here is your preview to the two preliminary finals.

South Sydney Rabbitohs versus Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Friday, September 24, 7:50pm
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Last meeting in a final: Rabbitohs won 34-26 at Stadium Australia, 2019 first semi-final.

This season: Rabbitohs won 26-12 at Lottoland in Round 2.

It is at least seven years since either the Rabbitohs or Sea Eagles appeared in a grand final, and that drought, one way or another, is bound to end this Friday night.

Wayne Bennett’s farewell season in the NRL is another step closer to its fairytale finish, with his Bunnies earning a week off thanks to an upset 16-10 win over the Penrith Panthers in their qualifying final over one week ago.

Tries on either side of halftime, as well as four goals from five attempts from the serviceable boot of Adam Reynolds, saw the Pride of the League reverse two losses to the mountain men from this season, as well as from last year’s preliminary final.

Adam Reynolds

Adam Reynolds is waving goodbye to Redfern. (Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

They are now into the penultimate weekend of the season for the fourth consecutive year, and for the sixth time in the past decade, and so they will be hoping to make it fourth time lucky having fallen at this stage in each of the past three years.

Aside from last year’s prelim, they also fell to the Roosters in the final NRL match played at the since-demolished AlliStadium Australia in 2018, while they also fell to the Canberra Raiders in the nation’s capital in 2019.

Further, they also missed out on a berth in the 2013 decider when they were stopped in their tracks by the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, whom they face at Suncorp Stadium this Friday night.

Bruised and battered following their qualifying final loss to the Melbourne Storm, the Silvertails hit back with a 42-6 demolition of the Sydney Roosters, with Tom Trbojevic scoring two tries and winning his individual battle against NSW Origin fullback James Tedesco.

Not only did they settle a score against the Chooks after they copped a 46-4 hiding back in Round 1, it also proved how good this side can be with Turbo in the side, the fullback having missed the first four matches of the season due to a careless hamstring injury.

While he will prove to be the x-factor come this Friday night, for the Bunnies there is a major incentive to win and it’s not just their desperation to reverse their preliminary final curse – it’s also to send Wayne Bennett and Adam Reynolds off as premiership winners.

For the winner: a berth in the grand final, and the chance to fly the flag for Sydney.

For the loser: season over and a summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Rabbitohs by six points.

Melbourne Storm vs Penrith Panthers
Saturday, September 25, 4:00pm
Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

Last meeting in a final: Storm won 26-20 at Stadium Australia, 2020 grand final.

This season: Panthers won 12-10 at Panthers Stadium in Round 3, Storm won 37-10 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 20.

In order to avoid a clash with the AFL grand final, which this year is being played in a twilight timeslot at Optus Stadium in Perth, the other preliminary final, between the Storm and Panthers, will be held in the late-afternoon timeslot.

It is a rematch of last year’s grand final, in which the Storm burst out of the blocks in the first half before holding off a furious Panthers fightback to win 26-20 and cement themselves as one of the most successful teams of the past decade, along with the Roosters.

This time though, the two teams, who finished 1-2 on the ladder for the second straight year (though it was the Panthers who finished top last year), will have to battle it out for a berth in next week’s decider, rather than for the title.

Craig Bellamy’s side go in the fresher of the two, having dispatched of the Sea Eagles by 40-12 in its qualifying final to earn the weekend off, during which they would’ve seen the Panthers struggle through a brutal semi against the Parramatta Eels in Mackay.

It ended a try apiece but a Nathan Cleary penalty goal on halftime ultimately proved to be the difference, as the mountain men won their way through to the penultimate weekend for the second consecutive year.

This was despite Brian To’o being ruled out of the clash due to an ankle injury, while there is also a minor injury concern around Cleary, though the latter should take his place in the side for the preliminary final.

Isaac Lumelume of the Storm celebrates with teammates after scoring a try during the NRL Qualifying Final between the Melbourne Storm and the Manly Sea Eagles.

Isaac Lumelume of the Storm (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

It is one-apiece between the two sides this season, with the Panthers avenging their grand final loss with a 12-10 win in Round 3, a match in which Viliame Kikau prevented a certain Storm try right at the death, while the Storm returned serve with a 37-10 win in Round 20.

Though the Panthers will be battle-hardened following its semi-final win over the Eels, the Storm’s week off and their starpower are just hard to ignore here, and they should win through to a fifth grand final in six years.

For the winner: a berth in the grand final at Suncorp Stadium.

For the loser: season over and a summer to ponder what could’ve been.

Prediction: Storm by 18 points.

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