NRL 2021 finals week one: South Sydney Rabbitohs stun Penrith Panthers – as it happened

By Jonathan Howcroft
South Sydney Rabbitohs
South Sydney Rabbitohs celebrate victory over Penrith Panthers in their NRL qualifying final. Photograph: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images


Well, I’m not sure anyone saw that coming. After a season in which Penrith and Melbourne have proven consistently ahead of the chasing pack, South Sydney stun the Panthers with a display full of determination.

It wasn’t an open, free-scoring contest, and the Bunnies weren’t the expressive side we’ve come to know and love. Instead, they were committed, hard-working, and refused to give in at any point. The pack were heroic, especially Tom Burgess off the bench, punching holes in Penrith’s line. Koloamatangi and Cook tackled everything that moved. And after a shaky start, young Blake Taaffe did everything asked of him at fullback on a night in which Nathan Cleary dug deep into his box of kicking tricks.

In possession, Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker were cool, but this wasn’t a match to rave about handling skills or combinations. It was gritty heads-down bums-up finals footy.

The Panthers were uncharacteristically off key. Not poor, just unable to find answers to the problems Souths posed. They went through the motions for long periods, only rarely looking to expand, and the formula that has worked for them for so long was found wanting. They committed more handling errors and conceded more penalties than the Bunnies, and only looked like premiership fancies when Cleary put his boot through the ball.

Penrith now have a date next week with the Eels or the Knights, after which you would presume it’s a preliminary final clash of the titans against the rested Storm. Souths get to enjoy a week off and prepare for a prelim against either Manly or the Roosters. This is building into a fascinating finals series.

Thanks for joining me tonight. We’ll be back for Parramatta v Newcastle tomorrow, if you’d like to stop by.


Full-time: Penrith Panthers 10-16 South Sydney Rabbitohs

An incredible upset in Townsville. South Sydney defended for their lives and it has earned them a preliminary final. Penrith are now in Melbourne’s half of the draw.

South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs have earned a week off. Photograph: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images


80 mins: To’o does well on tackle two to keep the ball alive, but Souths refuse to give in. Burton almost breaks on tackle three but there’s no support. Then Luai knocks-on at dummy-half! Wow!

79 mins: The Bunnies continue to attack sensibly and with great toughness. Penrith have 90 metres and 90 seconds to save the match.

78 mins: Penrith can load up from halfway - and Kikau is flattened by Su’A, huge hit! The Panthers keep going, down the left To’o is almost through but he’s grabbed by Paulo. This is chaotic! Cleary kicks to the right, the ball comes back Penrith’s way and there’s more broken field play. But now a whistle, and Souths get the ball!

77 mins: Crichton runs out of defence following a terrific Reynolds kick , and he makes only 15m before he’s downed - only for Walker to stupidly rake the ball out of his grasp on the ground and concede a penalty!

76 mins: Penrith are still playing with little inspiration, relying on Cleary’s boot for penetration - but another superb catch, this time from Gagai snuffs out the latest danger.

75 mins: Reynolds and Murray have marshalled their attacks brilliantly all night, but they are starting to get ragged in these late stages and there’s broken field all over the place.

73 mins: Cleary kicks through on tackle three but the ball bounces horribly for the chasing Staines and Souths regather and rumble back downfield. On the last there’s space on the left wing and Johnston has the line in sight and a man inside in support - yet for some reason he tries to kick, Crichton intercepts and Penrith can break. Souths are all over the place and the Panthers have runners all over the place. Kikau gallops miles, there’s support on his inside, but Murray comes from nowhere to interrupt the pass and the ball goes to ground. This is becoming desperate, tired footy.

72 mins: Time is running out for Penrith. Souths continue to enjoy good field position. The conversation will soon turn to field goals.

71 mins: Superb from Reynolds. He chips behind on tackle four, spotting Crichton out of position, and the chasing pack earn a line drop out.

70 mins: That green line has defended superbly all night long, and once again they offer nothing to Penrith. Cleary kicks on the last like he has the ball on a string, and he places a delicate lob for Crichton to steam onto - but Taaffe is there! That is a huge contested mark! Massive moment in the game - and he’s awarded a penalty for his efforts. Huge moment.

69 mins: South Sydney control field position superbly for four tackles, then the ball gets spun to the right and Taaffe has a brain fade, dribbling a kick through that is overhit and gifts Penrith a seven tackle set.

67 mins: This has been a real blue collar match, both packs dominating the workload, both defensive lines pushing up hard and offering no space. The Panthers need some magic from somewhere - and it almost happens! Crichton with the kick reception, darting right from fullback, and as he hits the line he flicks a pass out to Staines with space to run into, but the youngster fumbles the pass and Souths take possession 15m out.

Penalty! Panthers 10-16 Rabbitohs (Reynolds, 65)

Penrith have 15 minutes to score at least a converted try.

64 mins: Both packs are starting to tire, taking their time getting back onside. Penrith’s forwards won’t enjoy a repeat set following a kick charge-down on the last tackle landing back in green hands. Three tackles later and Yeo is on report for a crusher tackle and Reynolds has a straight 30m penalty opportunity.

62 mins: Reynolds and Walker guide their troops downfield adroitly and the grubber ends with a tackle on the line. Penrith are going to have to do this the hard way.

60 mins: The Panthers are starting to fray a little. They’ve had no luck unlocking this redoubtable South Sydney defence, a low percentage captain’s challenge fails, and now a high tackle releases the pressure on the Bunnies coming out of defence and gifts them attacking field position for the fist time in about 15 minutes.

58 mins: Another excellent effort from the South Sydney defensive line, keeping Penrith at bay, but on the last there’s a hand in the tackle that forces the ball away - but for another set of six. After linking up well down the left with Kikau to the fore Penrith decide to head right and Staines has a look. The ball returns back to the centre of the field and a try looks inevitable with the defence scrambling and the ball going through hands at speed. But then To’o is barged into touch! Brilliant commitment from the Bunnies to repel Penrith under immense pressure.

56 mins: The result of the multi-phase CSI investigation into the drop-out contest is a successful captain’s challenge and Penrith have possession 10m out.

55 mins: Good defence from Souths, keeping Penrith at bay close to their line. Crichton dabs a cute grubber through on the last to force a drop out. The restart is contested and causes chaos. The on-field call goes against the Panthers, but there’s a captain’s call to unpick the melee.

53 mins: Souths can feel aggrieved with a penalty call against them for a late tackle against Cleary in his kicking action. There was nothing in that at all and the Panthers go from defending to set-piece attacking 15m out.

52 mins: The Bunnies are happy with a passage of tough midfield grind. Penrith have offered very little out wide so far.

50 mins: No, no Penrith cannot capitalise. Kurt Capewell loses possession in contact after Jai Arrow comes in over the top and the Rabbitohs survive.

48 mins: Tom Burgess continues to earn his keep off the bench, hitting the line harder than any other Bunny. The Panthers haven’t had any field position yet this half... until now. Just like the first half, a hopeful Cleary bomb is shelled, this time by Johnston, and Souths invite pressure on themselves. Two coach killers to infuriate Wayne Bennett. Can Penrith capitalise?

46 mins: Reynolds fails with the difficult conversion attempt from the right touchline.

TRY! Panthers 10-14 Rabbitohs (Paulo, 45)

Four tackles into South Sydney’s second set and they’re awarded a penalty on halfway for a high-tackle. Reynolds sets up perfect attacking field position, Burgess hits the line hard again, the ball spins to the right, but Penrith have cover. Souths reload and head back to the left edge. but only briefly because Reynolds sees space on the right. The ball goes quickly through hands after the No 7 double-pumps and Jaxson Paulo has the overlap to dive over in the corner! Brilliant from Reynolds and the Rabbitohs have the early second-half try.


43 mins: Good opening set from Souths who feed Tom Burgess for two bullocking drives. Kikau responds in kind for the men in black and for the umpteenth time tonight Cleary kicks from range down Taaffe’s throat.

41 mins: The second-half is underway. Who will earn next week off?

Always a pleasure to find an email pop up from BTL stalwart HarryofOz. “Cracking intense first half between my Bunnies and the Panthers,” he begins. “Was worried early on but we’ve fought back well.” Very true. “Been very impressed with young Taaffe’s performance at fullback. Fearless.” Aside from that early fumble he has done everything asked of him. At the time, I thought that knock-on could have set the tone for the Panthers to control territory and possession, but Souths crossed for a hugely important next score, and the game remains in the balance.

Half-time: Panthers 10-10 Rabbitohs

Scores level at half-time. It’s a scrappy affair in Townsville with neither side finding much rhythm.

Penalty! Panthers 10-10 Rabbitohs (Cleary, 40)

Penrith keep the ball alive after the siren, and they ride their luck on the left edge with Burton hurling the ball backwards off the deck - it clips not one, but two, sets of Souths fingertips - the second accidentally offside, allowing Cleary to line up a penalty.


39 mins: Penrith have a set from halfway. Kikau is again to the fore, but it’s when the ball is thrown to the right when things get interesting. Near the touchline Staines kicks back infield, but it’s overhit and Souths escape.

37 mins: Burgess again with a strong carry, Benji with a show-and-go, and Reynolds kicks high to Crichton to complete a very cool 80m set of six. Penrith try to bust through the middle through Koroisau, but the drive only reaches halfway and yet again everything relies on the incredible kicking skills of Nathan Cleary. His latest knuckle-ball bomb is defused, but not straightforwardly by Taaffe.

Penalty! Panthers 8-10 Rabbitohs (Reynolds, 35)

From that TMO decision the outcome was a line drop-out. Burgess ran the kick back, with intent, and his force into the defensive line earned a penalty that Reynolds squeezes through. Bunnies back ahead.

33 mins: Shocker. Tackle two, Cleary shapes to go right, passes inside to Martin, but the big No 17 shells the pass and Jai Arrow gets up in his grill to rub salt into the wound. The Rabbitohs hit back hard, again with Walker and Gagai down the left edge. Johnston then chips and chases, lays the tackle on Momirovski and rolls him over the try line, the ball spills out, and Walker’s there... but it’s no-try on-field. And the TMO backs up the call, identifying Walker knocking-on in the melee.

31 mins: Yeo makes a clean linebreak in midfield, crossing halfway and turning a solid set into one full of menace. That was tackle four; the resulting kick on the last forces a drop-out.

Penalty! Panthers 8-8 Rabbitohs (Cleary, 29)

Su’A fumbles in midfield after making a half-break. The Panthers load up and Kikau hits the line hard, allowing Penrith to attack with momentum. Souths can’t keep pace and eventually commit an infringement that Cleary gleefully accepts.

TRY! Panthers 6-8 Rabbitohs (Walker, 25)

Great offload on halfway for the Bunnies, then they’re fortunate to retain possession and get a six-again when Kikau strips but the ball returns on the bounce to Murray’s hands. With the field broken Walker gets to work, darting to the left edge. He feeds Gagai, who pinballs around, keeping the ball alive, and finds that man Walker in support inside. The five-eighth powers under the posts, and out of nowhere South Sydney have a very important score.

Reynolds dabs over the extra two.


23 mins: Penrith haven’t offered much go-forward outside that incredible try. Cleary continues to be the focus of sets with his kicking game but after that early blemish Taaffe has been solid. Going the other way, the Rabbitohs have probed, especially in the halves, but they’ve lacked dynamism on the edges. They really miss Mitchell on a night like this.

21 mins: This has been a scruffy start from both teams with regular errors and penalties. The latest is against the Panthers for a crusher tackle just 10m from the Rabbitohs line with the Bunnies struggling to exit.

19 mins: Early in the set Cook tries to invite Tatola to bust a hole through the Souths defensive line, but the timing is not quite right and the ball is spilled. Koroisau darts away and Cook commits a professional foul at the play the ball to slow the counterattack down.

Eisenhuth leaves the field for an HIA.

18 mins: Crichton spills a Reynolds kick 10m out and the Bunnies can launch from A1 field position.

16 mins: After starting so effervescently the Bunnies have faded, but a 1-1 strip from Cook gives them a bump on halfway. they can’t convert field position into anything threatening and the midfield grind resumes.

14 mins: Both sides trade sets in midfield, but there’s a huge difference when Penrith’s end because Cleary is so menacing off the boot. A wobbly garryowen forces Taaffe into a belts and braces mark, allowing the chasing pack to wrap him up and give Souths 100m to travel.

12 mins: Penrith have the bit between their teeth now and Burton, Luai, Cleary, and more make gains and drive deep into Souths territory.

Cook is proppy after getting his left wrist caught under a tackle.

TRY! Panthers 6-2 Rabbitohs (Crichton, 9)

Game-changing knock-on it is. And it is because Nathan Cleary has just demonstrated the most outrageous technique with his boot. A quite miraculous grubber that arced menacingly from left to right, through the posts and across the dead-ball line. That was as good as anything Andrew Johns did in his pomp. Momirovski was the chaser, he was alert to flick the ball back into play without stepping off the island, and Crichton was on hand backing up to touch down. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

Cleary completes the performance with the conversion.


8 mins: Cleary has to kick from just 35m out... but Taaffe absolutely butchers it, concedes the knock-on, and suddenly Penrith have excellent field position. That already feels like a game-changing moment.

5 mins: Souths continue to make gains with ball in hand, their forwards are working really hard early on. And another six-again late in the set! Penrith really are handicapping themselves so far. The Bunnies fail to make major incursions with their bonus set, until Reynolds teams up with Walker to cut left. Walker then snipes from close to the line and he’s hauled down inches from a try. It’s all South Sydney at the moment.

Penalty! Panthers 0-2 Rabbitohs (Reynolds, 3)

Red hot start from the Rabbitohs and they’re on the board early.

2 mins: Luai kicks away possession on the third tackle and the Bunnies make decent ground in response, and are then awarded a six-again on the last tackle! The Rabbitohs attack dangerously to the right, then Cook takes over in midfield. Tatola is prominent, then Murray drives towards the posts. He’s hauled down and the ball comes loose - penalty against Capewell for a strip.


Penrith, in all black, return the kick-off towards the Rabbitohs, decked out tonight in the white-trimmed version of their famous green and red uniform.

A warm hazy day in North Queensland is giving way to a mild, dry evening. There is a brisk easterly breeze but it didn’t cause any issues for the Roosters or Titans earlier on.

Roosters 25-24 Titans

Blimey! The Titans had the length of the field to go with one set remaining. On tackle three they burst free down the left and almost got within range but Sam Walker backed up his field goal with a match-saving tackle. The Titans then sent the ball from left to right and had a glimmer of an overlap but with the line in sight the desperate offload missed its mark and the Chooks survived.

Easts through to a semi-final date with Manly.

James Tedesco
James Tedesco’s Sydney Roosters keep their season alive. Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

Sam Walker has dropped a goal for the Roosters. Easts lead by a point with two-and-half minutes to go.

In case you missed what happened last night on the Sunshine Coast, Melbourne Storm started strongly, finished strongly, and in between - you can guess the rest.

The qualifying final follows the elimination knock-out between the Roosters and Titans. That one has been a real see-saw affair and is currently 24-24 with four minutes remaining and both sides playing for field goals.

South Sydney Rabbitohs

The Rabbitohs are well-rested for the finals and have no further concerns beyond the long-term absences of Josh Mansour and Latrell Mitchell. There’s experience throughout the side and in Benji Marshall a potential wildcard on the interchange.

Rabbitohs: 1. Blake Taaffe 2. Alex Johnston 3. Dane Gagai 4. Campbell Graham 5. Jaxson Paulo 6. Cody Walker 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Mark Nicholls 9. Damien Cook 10. Tevita Tatola 11. Keaon Koloamatangi 12. Jaydn Su’A 13. Cameron Murray
Interchange: 14. Benji Marshall 15. Jacob Host 16. Thomas Burgess 17. Jai Arrow

Benji Marshall
Benji Marshall might be 36 but he has still shown his class in 2021. Photograph: Albert Perez/Getty Images

Penrith Panthers

The Panthers are short of full strength with Dylan Edwards, Scott Sorensen, Moses Leota, and Tyrone May all unavailable. As a consequence, Stephen Crichton shifts to fullback and Charlie Staines comes in on the wing.

Panthers: 2. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Matt Burton 20. Charlie Staines 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 18. Matthew Eisenhuth 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 17. Liam Martin 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo
Interchange: 11. Viliame Kikau 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Spencer Leniu 16. Tevita Pangai Junior

Charlie Staines
20-year-old Charlie Staines is a late call-up for the Panthers. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP


Hello everybody and welcome to live coverage of Penrith Panthers v South Sydney Rabbitohs in the second NRL qualifying final. Kick-off at Townsville’s Queensland Country Bank Stadium is 7.50pm.

2021 has long been heading towards a Storm v Panthers grand final showdown with the two standout sides from last season continuing their incredible form. And Melbourne continued to hold up their end of the bargain in the first qualifying final last night, dismantling the in-form Sea Eagles. Can Penrith put another contender in their place?

In most seasons the Rabbitohs’ 32 points-per-game average and only four defeats would mark them out as premiership fancies, but they remain outsiders because of the quality ahead of them on the ladder. The Bunnies’ four defeats? Two to Melbourne and two to Penrith, with the Storm and Panthers each racking up 50+ points in midseason victories. Souths’ hopes were further hit in round 24 when Latrell Mitchell’s campaign was curtailed by suspension.

They can still call on one of the most exciting backlines in the competition, and in Wayne Bennett they have the wiliest old fox in the coaches’ box, but do they have the intensity over 80 minutes to unsettle the Panthers?

Ivan Cleary’s black machine have been bulldozing opponents for two years now, losing just four regular season matches since the start of 2020. They’re tough up front, clinical behind, and in Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai they have a telepathic halves combination that knows exactly the right rein to pull.

After seeing Melbourne’s clinic yesterday, and still smarting from last year’s grand final defeat, the Panthers will be out to prove a point and begin their finals campaign with a bang.

I’ll be back with more shortly, but if you would like to join in, you can reach me by email or Twitter (@JPHowcroft).

Who will move one step closer to the NRL premiership trophy tonight? Photograph: Darren England/AAP

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