2021 NRL GF: Team Comparison Using The SI Player Ratings

The 2021 NRL Grand Final is here!

We've already looked into the Stats that Matter heading into this one. The yardage game will be crucial in a match being played by two of the best defensive teams in the competition with both more than capable of piling up points behind a dominant middle.

Now it's time to break down the position battles between the Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs with help from the Stats Insider Player Rating system.

How are the players rated?

Using Stats Insider's NRL Player Rating system, players have been allocated a rating for each match they played in the 2021 season. These ratings are then scaled and presented as a rating out of 10 for every player in every match. 

We’ve then gone and calculated a players average rating across each match they played in the 2021 season so we can assess the key head-to-head battles leading into the Grand Final.

It's important to remember that just because one player has a higher average rating than another for the 2021 season, that isn't to say the rating system necessarily regards them as the ‘better' player (one season of data can be a relatively small sample size). Only that they've performed consistently well throughout 2021 and that performance has been recognised and rewarded by our Player Rating System.

RELATED: Stats Insider's 2021 NRL Team Of The Season

Fullbacks

Dylan Edwards (7.6) 

Blake Taaffe (7.3)

Dylan Edwards and Blake Taaffe take a similar approach to their football.

Both are eager to take the free metres on offer on kick returns. Rather than take a few slow steps to wind up and pick a little bloke out in the line, they accept their own small stature and put their foot down. 

The two #1's spend a lot of their time in the middle of the field when their team is in possession. Edwards, in particular, is one of the most active fullbacks around the ball to average 9.5 supports per game (5th overall). While neither Edwards or Taaffe spend a lot of time out wide in attack, both are capable of throwing the final pass when their number is called on a shift in good ball.

Edwards has a lot more experience and is arguably more trustworthy but Taaffe hasn't given any indication that the occasion could be too much for him. Notably, Latrell Mitchell would rate an 8.4 had he been available for this one. 

Wingers

Brian To'o (8.6) & Stephen Crichton (7.5) 

Alex Johnston (8.0) & Jaxson Paulo (7.1)

The #2's and #5's are very different and will have a massive impact on how this game plays out.

Brian To'o is the best yardage player in the competition to lead the NRL with 246.2 running metres per game. The Panthers winger averages more running metres than Jaxson Paulo (105m) and Alex Johnston (112m) combined. Stephen Crichton also trumps them both with his 145 running metres per game as a winger.

The Panthers are set up exceptionally well to win this position battle if the game becomes an 80-minute arm-wrestle. However, if the Rabbitohs can earn regular visits into the Panthers 20-metre line, Johnston feels at home. He leads the competition with 29 tries scored and is an elite finisher on the end of South Sydney's NRL-best left edge attack.

Paulo is still relatively inexperienced but does hold a considerable height advantage over To'o. The diminutive Panthers winger has answered every question that has been asked of him under the high-ball over the last two seasons but does face a tough challenge in containing Paulo on Sunday. Again, Paulo is relying on his middle forwards to put him in positions to contest To'o in the air.

The Panthers have an advantage on the wing on paper, but the Rabbitohs pair are ready to pounce on opportunities if their side spends a lot of time attacking the goal line.

Centres

Matt Burton (7.8) & Paul Momirovski (7.3) 

Dane Gagai (7.8) & Campbell Graham (7.2)

Dally M Centre of the Year Matt Burton and Stats Insider Team of the Season centre Dane Gagai both occupy the left edge of their respective clubs and will play a big part in the result on Sunday. 

Burton has been simply incredible. His footwork and instincts when the ball comes his way are veteran-like and he allows the Panthers to vary the way they attack down the left edge with his skills as a five-eighth. 

Meanwhile, Gagai is more destructive in his damage. He runs for 132 metres per game and has broken 87 tackles this season. He has broken at least one tackle in all 22 matches he has played in 2021.

Paul Momirovski doesn't stand out as a top tier centre but does have an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time to score. Burton and Justin Olam are the only two centres to register more try assists than Momirovski's seven this season too. 

A lot of Campbell Graham's best work doesn't show in the numbers. He has become one of the best defensive centres in the competition with his blend of mobility and size perfect for getting out or in front of attacking players and winning the contact. Strong in yardage, Graham adds 112 running metres per game around his defensive efforts.

The Player Ratings suggests the advantage lies with Penrith in the centres but we need to consider Graham's defensive presence. With Graham and Momirovski tasked with keeping a lid on two dangerous left edge attacks, the big Souths centre is the pick. 

Advantage: Rabbitohs.

Halves

Jarome Luai (7.8) & Nathan Cleary (9.3) 

Cody Walker (8.6) & Adam Reynolds (7.8)

Nathan Cleary is the best halfback in the world and you'll be hard pressed to find a better five-eighth than Cody Walker running around in rugby league at the moment.

The pair action so much of what are both top tier attacks. Although, they are very different.

Cleary touches the ball over 70 times per game. He passes his big bodies into positions on the field he wishes to attack from. To throw some doubt in the defensive line, the 23-year-old makes sure to take the line on himself for a career-high 111 running metres per game. He has scored 10 tries and handed out 21 try assists. When the points aren't coming, Cleary's 543 kicking metres are the most in the competition while no player has rolled more grubbers in for a forced dropout than his 21.

Meanwhile, Walker touches the ball just 38.8 times per game. He creates the points on the back of a strong middle. The 31-year-old has scored 15 tries while his 33 try assists are equal with Johnathan Thurston's premiership-winning effort in 2015. There is no more dangerous area of a football field in 2021 than Walker's left edge where the Rabbitohs have scored 77 of their 141 tries this season(55%).

Give either too many chances close to the line and they will make you pay one way or another.

The question marks in the halves come around Cleary and Walkers' partners.

Jarome Luai and Adam Reynolds are both top players at their positions. However, there is no question that Luai's form has dropped off over the second half of the season. He looked to be playing himself into form against the Storm last week, but he can't be entirely trusted to carry that into Sunday given what we have seen since the State of Origin break.

Reynolds, on the other hand, is carrying an injury into this one. He ended up with 264 kicking metres last week but was clearly hampered early. It's a crucial part of his game and the area he is most likely to influence the game positively. 

Reynolds is a traditional #7 and will still add a lot of value as a game-manager even if his kicking game isn't able to flourish. Still, like Luai, we can't trust that he will be at his best given the likelihood he comes into this one slightly underdone. 

Props

Moses Leota (7.2) & James Fisher-Harris (7.8)

Mark Nicholls (7.1) & Tevita Tatola (7.2)

James Fisher-Harris sees the battle between the starting props fall firmly in Penrith's favour. While he hasn't produced the numbers he did earlier in the season throughout the finals, Fisher-Harris is one of their most reliable ball carriers. The Kiwi international averages 154 running metres per game, and when he isn't carrying the football, he is pushing up in support and creating space for others. Meanwhile, few hit harder and stop opposing players in their tracks quite like Fisher-Harris.

The remaining three props running out for kickoff do so relatively even.

Moses Leota (108 metres per game) and his footwork at the line makes him one of the tougher props to handle even when the defence rushes up to close him down.

Mark Nicholls is one of Wayne Bennett's most consistent performers and has averaged 131 running metres per game since moving into the starting lineup back in Round 14. 

Tevita Tatola is a combination of the two. He's a nimble ball carrier for his 113 running metres and capable of wrong-footing a defender when given the chance.

All four are going to receive simple tasks from their coaches this week: Run hard, run straight and get your body in front in defence. It's unlikely that any take a backwards step, but Fisher-Harris is the most likely to move furthest forward.

Hookers

Api Koroisau (7.4) 

Damien Cook (7.9)

This head-to-head matchup has premiership and Clive Churchill-winning potential.

If one of Api Koroisau or Damien Cook can get on the front foot and make an impact with their running game, there is a good chance the forward pack in front of them is winning the middle.

As we know, winning the yardage battle is crucial to lifting the trophy.

"Five of the last seven premiership-winning teams have finished inside the top three in running metres per game." - Stats That Matter: 2021 NRL Grand Final - Panthers v Rabbitohs

With only one try assist and one line-break assist this season while running for just 48 metres per game, Koroisau's impact doesn't always come across in the numbers. He is the subtle player of the two hookers running out on Sunday. He shapes right before going left; takes a step left before passing right; engages the marker before finding Luai down the short side. You don't always notice Koroisau's work in creating a try until watching it back on the replay. 

Cook, on the other hand, is a highlight reel. He has handed out ten try assists, scored two himself and ran for 66 metres per game. He spots a tackler on the ground and bolts; if there is a slow defender tracking back at A, he follows; his eyes are up the second a teammate pokes their head through the line to promote a quick play-the-ball. Cook is a proven match-winner and is coming into the Grand Final off one of his best games in two years.

Second Rowers

Liam Martin (7.1) & Kurt Capewell (7.1)

 v 

Keaon Koloamatangi (7.7) & Jaydn Su'A (7.2)

I've taken it upon myself to move Viliame Kikau to the bench where he has started since Round 23. He's unlikely to run out for kickoff and it makes a lot more sense for the Panthers to start with their best defensive side on Sunday night. So, in comes Liam Martin at a position that is relatively even. 

Martin and Kurt Capewell are no frills. They defend well, hit lines in attack and take strong carries in possession. The two make for an ideal pairing to start a game that Penrith will be looking to work themselves into rather than flying out of the blocks.

Keaon Koloamatangi remains as one of the most underrated players in the game at the moment. His versatility has seen him play on both edges and through the middle. Regularly playing the full 80 minutes for his 132 running metres per game, it's in his hole-running that he is most valuable. He is a key component to their left edge with his veteran-like timing when it comes to hitting the right gaps at the right time. 

Jaydn Su'A is the possible x-factor player on Sunday. Dropped at one stage this year before playing Game 1 of the State of Origin series, Su'A has found his form at the right time to average 126 running metres in his last three matches of 70+ minutes. A destructive ball-carrier at his best, Su'A could surprise a few people in this one.

Locks

Isaah Yeo (7.8) 

Cameron Murray (8.0)

Unfortunately for Isaah Yeo, there is no stat recorded for footy smarts. He'd be closer to an 8.0 if there was. Yeo is the co-captain of this ship in attack. While Cleary touches the ball 70+ times per game, it often ends up in Yeo's hands if Cleary steps back for a play or two. Excellent on his feet and with the ball skills of a half, Yeo pushes and pulls the defensive line around the field by running for his 120 metres per game or tipping teammates onto single defenders. He is effective as a ball player in yardage sets and a key component to their shifts in good ball.

Similarly, Cameron Murray often acts as the trigger to South Sydney's lethal left shifts. It will be a scheming Murray carry through one or two defenders that earns a quick play-the-ball on the right post. Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker and the outside backs know that is their cue to swing into action to the tune of 77 tries down the left edge this season.


Games
Tries
Try Assists
Tackle Breaks
Offloads
Running Metres per Game
Tackles per Game
Murray
19
5
1
40
23
123m
35.7
Yeo
24
2
2
38
5
120m
34.8


If it isn't Cleary or Walker that ends up winning the Clive Churchill Medal on Sunday, it will more than likely be one of Yeo or Murray.

Bench

Tyrone May (6.9), Scott Sorensen (7.0), Spencer Leniu (6.7) & Viliame Kikau (7.5) 

v

Benji Marshall (6.9), Jacob Host (6.7), Thomas Burgess (7.4) & Jai Arrow (7.3)

Kikau's move to the bench evens things up but it's an area the Rabbitohs can really make a mark on this match.

Thomas Burgess has quietly put together a fantastic season to average 144 running metres per game and has found a lot of success when running at a tired opposition middle when coming off the bench. Similarly, Jai Arrow packs plenty of punch for his 120 metres per game and provides Bennett with a versatile forward capable of covering multiple positions. If the Rabbitohs manage to win the middle throughout the first 20 minutes, Burgess and Arrow will add instant impact when they're introduced to the game.

Benji Marshall's role depends on the situation. Ideally, he plugs into the middle for ten minutes either side of halftime and picks holes in a tired defence with his ballplaying just as he did in the Preliminary Final. Jacob Host, as his rating suggests, will perform a limited job off the bench but the Bunnies might run into some trouble if he is asked to play more than 30 minutes. 

The plan will be to run Kikau into the left edge attack and have him feature in try-scoring actions after working their way through a patient start to the match. Kikau is a destructive runner and can cause havoc with the ball, but a lot needs to go right for the Panthers early if he is to have a significant impact on this one.

Similar to Host, Scott Sorensen and Spencer Leniu can be relied upon to plug the middle to give Fisher-Harris and Leota a spell but it will all look a lot different if either of the Panthers starters suffer an early injury.

Despite being rated the same as Marshall, few will be expecting Tyrone May to provide the same impact. He's versatile and can cover injuries but with Yeo a good chance of playing 80 minutes, May might not be required at all.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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