The Penrith Panthers have marched into their third consecutive Grand Final with a 32-12 win over the Rabbitohs at Accor Stadium on Saturday night.
With Viliame Kikau and Dylan Edwards playing starring roles the defending premiers ran away with the game in the second half as Rabbitohs winger Taane Milne was marched for a high tackle on Spencer Leniu.
The Panthers have set up a first ever Grand Final against arch-rivals Parramatta and have the opportunity to become the first team since the Roosters in 2018-19 to win back-to-back titles.
The Rabbitohs grabbed the early ascendancy on the back of a Lachlan Ilias grubber which forced a line dropout but a sweeping right side raid came up empty when Latrell Mitchell's long pass was called forward.
Come the 11th minute and the Panthers got across the line through Izack Tago but the play was called back for Jarome Luai interfering with Ilias as he tried to collect the bouncing ball from a towering Nathan Cleary bomb.
Some brilliant play out of dummy half by Damien Cook put Mark Nicholls into a hole a minute later, the prop offloading a pass which rebounded off Liam Martin into the in-goal and Cody Walker pounced for the game's opening try.
Walker on the spot for the Rabbitohs
The Rabbitohs had their second of the night in the 19th minute when late call-up Richard Kennar crossed in the left corner after slick lead-up from Walker, Mitchell and Isaiah Tass.
The Panthers were then denied a second time when Luai was ruled to have run behind James Fisher-Harris and obstructed the Bunnies defence and sending a long pass out for winger Charlie Staines to cross.
Kikau then became the third Panther to get across the stripe in the 26th minute but he was also called back when replays showed Tago had knocked the ball forward into the back-rower's hands in an offside position.
With three minutes remaining in the half the premiers finally had their first try through Api Koroisau, who had started the game on the bench but added plenty of spark when he was injected into the game.
The Rabbitohs had a chance to set up for a field goal to take their lead out to seven points inside the final minute but chose to run the ball, a mistake by Campbell Graham landing in the arms of Brian To'o who sprinted 80 metres to score and the Panthers were level at 12-12.
Five minutes into the second term the Panthers had the lead when Cleary put in a grubber from close range and Spencer Leniu trailed through to score his sixth try of the season. Cleary's conversion made it 18-12.
Milne sent off
A magnificent run by Edwards on a kick return in the 55th minute got the Panthers rolling and Luai finished the movement in style with a deft grubber kick for Tago to follow through and score.
The game was finished as a contest with 16 minutes to go when Taane Milne was marched for a swinging arm on Leniu and Cleary landed the penalty goal to make it 26-12.
From there the Panthers were able to cruise home, Cleary icing the win with a solo try in the closing minutes when he kicked for himself and followed through to touch down.
Match: Panthers v Rabbitohs
Finals Week 3 -
Venue: Accor Stadium, Sydney
- Panthers forward Viliame Kikau was placed on report in the 18th minute for a shoulder charge on Campbell Graham.
- Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards was at his elusive best in the opening 40 minutes with 127 running metres and seven tackle breaks. He finished the night with 287 metres and 14 tackle breaks.
- Souths skipper Cameron Murray did everything in his power to get his team home with 21 runs for 160 metres and 53 tackles.
- Viliame Kikau's charge down on a Lachlan Ilias in the 44th minute was his fourth of the season, the most of any player.
- Rabbitohs interchange forward Michael Chee Kam played the 100th game of his NRL career.
Kikau targets Milne
- Brian To'o's runaway try was part of a monster metre-eating night for the Panthers winger with 293 metres.
- Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai was placed on report in the 51st minute for a high tackle.
- The Panthers have won nine of their past 10 games against the Rabbitohs.
- Latrell Mitchell finishes the season on a streak of 21 consecutive goals.
- Rabbitohs winger Taane Milne was sent off in the 64th minute for a high shot on Spencer Leniu, who left the field for a HIA.
- Taane Milne became the first player sent from the field in a final since North Sydney's Gary Larson in 1994.
Cleary kicks, Leniu collects
Plays of the Game
Brian To'o turned the game on its head in the 40th minute when he swooped on a dropped ball and pinned his ears back on an 80-metre surge to the tryline, leaving Cody Walker in his wake and sprinting away to grab his 11th try of the season. The Panthers' pocket rocket seemed certain to be rounded up by Walker and then Damien Cook, who also came across in cover, but he powered his way to the line to help the Panthers draw level at the break.
To'o intercepts and bumps his way to the line
Richard Kennar got the call-up during the week to replace the game's most prolific tryscorer Alex Johnston and he announced himself in style midway through the opening half when he grabbed his fourth try in just his second game of the season. With Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell letting the ball sing on the left edge out to Isaiah Tass it was the centre who delivered a perfectly timed pass to Kennar to plunge over in the corner. With Mitchell's conversion the Rabbitohs had opened up a handy 12-0 lead.
The Rabbitohs are on a roll
What They Said
"It feels awesome. To be able to reach a grand final is a huge achievement. It’s been a long hard season. So many things go into it, so many ups and downs, so many different phases throughout the year. Just so grateful to be with this group. We need to embrace and enjoy it. These guys are elite players. We’ve had a lot of experience in Origin games and Semi-Finals now. We’ve got good players, good connections and belief." - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary
Panthers: Finals Week 3
“I’m struggling to reflect on the season at the moment. I felt like that game has probably been the story of the year. We ran out of troops in the end. We struggled to get a punch in that second half to get field position. To get these guys in a prelim you need to be fit and healthy and have your best 17 available. But to beat this team you’ve got to be able to stay at it for 80 minutes, you’ve got to be as relentless as they are and we came up short in that area. The competitor in me wants to hate Penrith, I really do, but the coach in me is so respectful of what they do and it's a credit to Ivan [Cleary] and their club and what they do and what they've been able to produce for the last three years." - Rabbitohs coach Jason Demetriou
Rabbitohs: Finals Week 3
The Panthers have advanced to their third successive grand final where they take on western Sydney rivals Paramatta for the first time ever in a decider. The Rabbitohs came up just short of a return to the Grand Final but can look back on a highly successful season in Jason Demetriou's first year at the helm.