NRL Grand Final preview: Kikau returns, key battles & fairytale for Smith?

After one of the strangest seasons due to the coronavirus outbreak, it finally comes down to this as Penrith and Melbourne go head-to-head at Suncorp Stadium in the NRL Grand Final.

They have been the two top teams in the competition all year after finishing first and second respectively. The Panthers have a team full of youthful and exciting talent where the Storm have plenty of experience under their belt and none more so than influential leader Cameron Smith. The question remains now as to whether this will be Smith’s last game in rugby league and if so, can he complete a fairytale ending?

If Penrith want to secure their third title then it may come down to players such as star half-back Nathan Cleary who has gone on to show why he is one of the best in the game in his position with his great passing and exceptional goal kicking seeing him become the Panthers’ own influential figure this year. Also, you put that together with outstanding defensive capabilities and you’ve got a player who is the whole package right now.

There is no question that both teams have fearsome forward packs and will doubt look to them to set the platform through the middle. The Panthers have the likes of Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo and Liam Martin at their disposal who have all been destructive in their own way this year. Meanwhile, Melbourne have plenty of experience running through their own forward line as the Bromwich brothers, Dale Finucane, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Felise Kaufusi all pose significant threats. Also, one can not forget the two men at the number nine spot as Api Koroisau has been one of the buys of the year for Penrith while the great Smith is set to compete in his ninth NRL Grand Final.

The last time these two sides met was back in round six when Penrith held onto a 21-14 win.

Key battle

The fact that both sides possess some of the most elite talent in the league right now, choosing a specific player battle is not easy. However, the stand-off clash between Penrith’s Jarome Luai and Melbourne’s Cameron Munster must be one of the most enticing battles set to be on show. Both players have been attacking catalysts for their sides all year with their ability to unlock their opponent’s defensive lines second to none.

At the start of the season there were questions as to who would partner Nathan Cleary in the halves but Luai has gone onto make the position is own with his creativity and flair providing a great attacking spark all year for Ivan Cleary’s side. Meanwhile, Munster looks goes from strength to strength as each season passes with his exceptional all-round skillset seeing him become an elite talent in the sport over each season and he is still only 26.

Ones to watch

There is no question that Penrith’s forward pack has been nothing short of exceptional this year with players like Kikau, Yeo and Fisher-Harris dominant at times. But one man who could certainly make a huge name for himself here is Liam Martin. The 23-year-old has endured a great breakout year with his work rate and intensity both with the ball in his hand and defensively finding him in the debate for a spot in Brad Fittler’s New South Wales squad for the upcoming State of Origin series.

The league features some of the most polarising full-backs in the game, with James Tedesco, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kalyn Ponga and Tom Trbojevic all considered stars at the number one spot. Now, after only two seasons in the NRL, one player who has etched himself into this conversation this year is the Storm’s Ryan Papenhuyzen. The 22-year-old has been electric all year with his breath-taking speed and skill hard to contain while his connection with Josh Addo-Carr has been nothing short of stellar for Melbourne.

Premierships

Penrith – 1991 and 2003

Melbourne -1999, 2012 and 2017 (2007 and 2009 titles stripped due to salary cap breaches)

Key stats

The Panthers are on the back of 17 straight victories with their last loss coming way back in round five against Parramatta.

Melbourne have only lost three games against Penrith since 2006.

Penrith are the Minor Premiership winners and the two other times they have gone on to claim this accolade (1991 and 2003) they have gone on to lift the Championship the same year.

Team news

Penrith are handed a huge boost by the returning Kikau who takes his place in the second-row with Kurt Capewell set to move to the interchange. After being placed on the bench last week, Brett Naden is selected to start at centre and despite a shoulder issue last week, Api Koroisau is named at hooker.

No issues for Melbourne as they name the same side that took down Canberra last week. Both Dale Finucane (calf) and Cameron Munster (knee) made it through the preliminary finals with no issues and again will be set to feature. Brandon Smith (head knock) has been cleared of any serious problem.

Watch NRL and live stream every NRL game to keep up with how Tom Burgess, John Bateman, Ryan Sutton, Elliott Whitehead, Luke Thompson and George Williams and all the others are getting on Down Under.

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