The preliminary final weekend of the 2023 NRL finals produced a pair of blowouts but has delivered a potential grand final for the ages.
The grand final we deserve
The best two teams of 2023 – statistically and aesthetically – have qualified for the NRL grand final after a pair of one-sided prelims. Penrith and Brisbane outscored their opponents by a combined 138 points to 18 in four playoffs matches.
The Panthers’ 38-4 beatdown of Melbourne and the Broncos’ thrilling 42-12 defeat of the Warriors represented the biggest combined margin of the two preliminary final era (1995 onwards), beating the 2008 prelim weekend (Melbourne beat Cronulla 28-0 and Manly beat the Warriors 32-6).
Penrith’s victory was the largest ever in a preliminary final.
Remarkably, it’s only the ninth time in the NRL era’s 26 seasons that the top two regular-season finishers have made it through to the grand final – and just the fourth occasion in the past 15 years.
Walsh trips up the Wahs
It’s hard to recall a player destroying their former team at their first attempt – or in such a big game – in the manner Brisbane fullback wunderkind Reece Walsh tore apart the Warriors at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
Walsh played 38 games for the Warriors in 2021-22 before being granted an early release to return home to the Broncos…and he was untouchable in his long-awaited maiden clash with his ex-teammates.
Despite being picked off for an intercept try by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and firing an undetected forward pass that proved pivotal, Walsh was the standout player on the field and produced an incredible six line-break assists and three try assists via his irresistible mix of speed, anticipation and breath-taking skill.
Whether he will find the same space and opportunities to chance his arm against the Panthers in the grand final is another story, but he’s on the second line of Clive Churchill Medal betting at $6.50. Nathan Cleary is the runaway favourite in the market at $3.50, while Adam Reynolds ($8.50), Dylan Edwards ($10) and Payne Haas ($12) round out the top five.
Panthers confirm end of an era
As Penrith eyes off the opportunity to become the first team since Parramatta’s 1981-83 dynasty to win three consecutive premierships, they’ve also seemingly put a nail in the coffin in Melbourne’s long reign as an NRL superpower.
The Storm were outclassed and overpowered for the second time in this finals series by a ruthless, clinical Panthers performance, suffering their third-biggest loss in the past 20 seasons.
Craig Bellamy’s side was again plagued by errors, ill-discipline and a lack of goal-line defensive resolve. The hallmarks of his teams for so long – players slotting into a foolproof system seamlessly around a clutch of key-position superstars – has been glaringly absent during a patchy campaign.
If Bellamy can return the Storm to title-contender status in 2024, rather than slipping further back into the pack, it will rank alongside his greatest achievements.
Forward pass change beckons
In all likelihood, the Broncos would have gone on to win their prelim comfortably if Reece Walsh’s outrageously forward pass in the lead-up to Jordan Riki’s try had been pulled up.
But the Warriors were at least still in the fight, keeping the rampant Broncos scoreless for more than 30 minutes and scoring just one less try than the hosts at the time. The howler sealed their fate.
When the Bunker has such an overwhelming influence on every match, it’s absurd that they can’t rule on one of rugby league’s most basic elements that is also one of the most difficult for the on-field officials to keep tabs on.
Expect a change over the summer.
Statement game of NRL Finals Week 3
The Broncos have been the most exciting team to watch throughout the 2023 season, a team brimming with firepower and adventure seemingly hellbent on filling up highlight reels with their adlib prowess.
They went to Suncorp on Saturday with a clear plan to halt the Warriors’ fairytale: death by second-phase play.
The Broncos produced an extraordinary 23 offloads and the disruption to the visitors’ defence, particularly during a first-half assault that garnered four tries in 16 minutes, busted the game wide open.
Payne Haas, Thomas Flegler and Patrick Carrigan outplayed the Warriors’ middles, allowing Walsh, Adam Reynolds, Ezra Mam and Billy Walters to easily win their individual match-ups against quiet opposite numbers. Herbie Farnworth was superb out wide with two tries and over 200 running metres.
Can the same plan work against Penrith, or will they take a different approach against a far more imposing defensive beast? Either way, there’s little doubt effervescent Brisbane is the only team capable of upsetting the defending champs – and it shapes as a hell of a grand final.
Then there were two
Penrith starts the grand final as a warm favourite as Brisbane gears up to become the longest-priced underdog to win a decider since Newcastle stunned Parramatta in 2001.
NRL PREMIERSHIP ODDS
|TEAM||CURRENT PRICE||LAST WEEK’S PRICE|