Men for all seasons: Why Penrith and Brisbane are top of the NRL tree

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Most of the significant occasions in the history of a sport are not so much moments as subtle trends that sneak up on us when we have been looking elsewhere.

It’s akin to the greening of the leaves in spring. The gradual changing of colour is imperceptible to us but we know when it’s September and all the trees are green.

And so it is with the Panthers and Broncos – the NRL’s two grand final teams. They have been evolutionary beneficiaries of rule changes the past three years which have brought them to this time and place in the great game.

But it took their record breaking-humiliation of the third and fourth-placed teams in their two finals matches to appreciate their sheer dominance. The Storm were beaten a combined 64-4 by the two grand finalists, while the Warriors were defeated 74-18. Rugby league historians cannot recall similar pre-grand final blowouts.

The NRL’s relentless commitment to excise stoppages from the game and their protection of halfbacks has benefited the Panthers and Broncos more than any team.

Capitalising on the rule changes

The six-again rule replacing penalties, shot clocks on restarts of play, reducing the involvement of the bunker and replacing scrums with play-the-balls following touch-finding kicks have all been introduced to increase ball-in-play time. A non-stop game suits youthful, fit, powerful forwards and Penrith and Brisbane have the best.

The duel between Nathan Cleary and Adam Reynolds will be central to Sunday’s decider.Credit: NRL Photos

The NRL’s automatic penalty against any defenders who so much as touch a kicker when he has one foot a millimetre off the ground favours the halves. This protection allows game managers more time to find targets downfield with their kicks and also set up their supports. And Penrith have the best No.7 in the game in Nathan Cleary, while Brisbane have the most experienced in Adam Reynolds.

It can be argued young skilled forwards and game-managing halfbacks have always been important. However, the rule changes since 2020 have enhanced their value.

A cynic may argue the rule changes were introduced to aid the Panthers and Broncos, rather than the reverse. After all, the NRL need a strong team in Sydney’s west to counter the GWS Giants, subsidised to the tune of $25 million a year by the AFL. Similarly, a winning team in Brisbane is a bulwark against the southern game who now declare that “Queensland is an AFL state.”

However, the NRL’s commitment to non-stop action is consistent with every sport trying to make the game more attractive to the broadcasters who provide the bulk of revenue. The protection of playmakers is also understandable, given the publicity around concussion and parental concern over whether a sport is safe.

Like the changing seasons, revolutionary rules don’t have an impact overnight. While the six-again rule was introduced in 2020 partly to speed up play, it was also designed to eliminate the so-called ‘wrestle’.

The Storm saw it as “get Melbourne,” but they won the 2020 premiership anyway, defeating a young Penrith 26-20 partly because every club was wrestling and also because of the time lag with rule changes.

Coach Ivan Cleary has turned Penrith into a winning machine.Credit: Getty

Options v offloads

Given that Penrith were the first club to exploit the new six-again rule by conceding defensive breaches on the first two tackles in order to contain a team in its own half, coach Ivan Cleary must have a strong fitness regime at the club. It wouldn’t surprise if he has a target sheet for his team, instructing player X to make 40 tackles, player Y to make 100 metres and the like.

Like the great Queensland teams during the Maroons’ golden Origin run, the Panthers stay alive on every play.

The Panthers don’t have settlers, the old-fashioned term for one-out runs to create space for a subsequent clever play. Penrith are clever on every play. Their use of the ball on early tackles always has options, often via lock Isaah Yeo who plays as a third halfback.

The Broncos do have settlers but they don’t die with the ball. Half their pack are astute offloaders, meaning they initiate second-phase play of the type instrumental in Parramatta’s 32-18 defeat of Penrith in round 26. In other words, both teams create time and space opportunities in the early tackles, sometimes leaving three opposing forwards on the ground as they attack 10 men late in the tackle count.

The role of the halves

Given the importance today of the back five returning the ball from kicks, halves who can pressure them into error with difficult-to-catch kicks are invaluable. Cleary now has more time to launch his kicks than in the Origin years when Queensland’s Christian Welch harassed him.

Cleary and Reynolds also have accurate short kicking games for tryscoring opportunities and regaining the ball from set restarts. Both halves are also strong defenders. Cleary is big enough to be a seventh forward, while Reynolds plugs holes in the defensive line.

Broncos coach Kevin Walters never had any doubts he needed a halfback to direct his enthusiastic young pack and it was no gamble to choose a 33-year-old halfback, almost a decade after he steered the Rabbitohs to a premiership. Reynolds is more likely to pull a calf muscle from a kick or a run than be laid flat on his back from a late tackle.

Systems and surprises

The Panthers are a systems club, with half Cleary studying the opposition to the extent he knows how to exploit a team which rushes up in defence, or one which holds back. The Broncos rely on fullback Reece Walsh to join the attack like an accelerating phantom from backfield. Neither team squanders the ball. Penrith did not drop a ball for the first hour against Melbourne, while the Broncos had an 82 per cent completion rate against the Warriors.

Both clubs may have surprises on grand final day. The Panthers have been flirting with run-arounds, while the Broncos have an in-and-away scrum move creating an opportunity for a middle player.

The majority of players at both clubs have been produced internally at a time the talent pool across the NRL is increasingly shallow. This suggests their dominance will continue, leaving the other 15 clubs in their wake.

Penrith have already made history in the NRL era and are therefore poised to make more. Only the Broncos can stop them.

Watch the NRL Grand Final Exclusive Live and Free on Channel 9 and 9Now.

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