The Penrith Panthers have been the dominant force all season, and the minor premiers stand just 80 minutes away from yet another grand final as they line up to face the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the second NRL preliminary final.

The minor premiers have barely been challenged this season.

The odd loss has hampered their progress here and there, but they managed to send everyone a reminder of just what a dominant team they have been during the qualifying final a fortnight ago.

In a performance which rubber-stamped their authority over the competition, Penrith found themselves in an arm wrestle during the first half against the Parramatta Eels, but would ultimately race away with the game during the second half as they beat the Eels to within an inch of their life through brutal play in the middle third and excellent attack on the edge.

Particularly pleasing for Ivan Cleary's side was the ease in which Nathan Cleary slot straight back into the halves following his five-week suspension for a dangerous throw on Dylan Brown when Penrith met Parramatta for the second time during the regular season.

His combination with Jarome Luai, who himself missed a chunk of time at the back end of the regular season, flowed effortlessly throughout the second half, with Penrith able to book themselves a week off and a direct ticket to another preliminary final.

NRL Rd 23 - Panthers v Rabbitohs

It means they are just 80 minutes away from yet another decider, with the Panthers having won last year's competition in a grand final over their opposition tonight, and losing the previous year's decider at the end of the 2020 season to a red-hot Melbourne Storm outfit.

But it's been Penrith's world ever since then, and a finals loss seems to be something more like a pipe dream for rival teams than something that seems likely to happen.

That's not to say the chance doesn't exit for a gritty South Sydney side to avenge the dramatic loss in last year's Suncorp Stadium decider, but they will need to be close to perfect if the Panthers are anywhere near their best, so good are Ivan Cleary's side.

But that also says plenty about the Rabbitohs and the somewhat topsy-turvy nature of their own season.

From major low moments, like letting 32 points in during the opening half an hour on a Thursday night in Wollongong, to the high that was knocking over arch-rivals the Sydney Roosters in the last elimination final during the opening weekend of the playoffs just nine days after losing to them previously in the grand opening of the new Sydney Football Stadium, the 2022 campaign has had it all for rookie coach Jason Demetriou and his team.

But it's hard to argue the Rabbitohs haven't come very good at the back-end of the season.

Their run of form since the return from injury of Latrell Mitchell inspired them to go from fighting for a spot in the eight to winding up with one comfortably, and it's now down to those same names - Mitchell, Cody Walker and Damien Cook - to guide the team through what will be their toughest challenge of the year to date.

NRL Rd 3 - Rabbitohs v Roosters

Adding to the issues for South Sydney is the fact they had a brutal opening week final against the Roosters, and seemed to struggle to back up with any real consistency last weekend against the Sharks, although they were able to take the win by virtue of the Sharks being far worse than they were.

That fatigue and any potential niggling injuries - of which there were certainly some sustained last weekend - could yet play a major role in tonight's game, with at least one confirmed team change that will leave Demetriou and his coaching staff more than just a little bit worried.

And yet, even at full strength, South Sydney would need to be close to perfect, as they will need to be with whichever team takes the field to overthrow the NRL's dominant force.

Team news

Penrith Panthers
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Charlie Staines 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo
Interchange: 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon 18. Sean O'Sullivan 19. Matt Eisenhuth

The Rabbitohs may not be quite at full strength, but neither are the Panthers.

They lose Taylan May for this game after he was suspended for an incident during the qualifying final against the Eels.

The one-match suspension will see him return for the grand final should Penrith make the decider, however, it does mean Ivan Cleary has reportedly been weighing up moving Brian To'o back to the left wing, with Charlie Staines named as the replacement to come into the side for May.

The only other change the men from the foot of the mountains have made for the grand final qualifier is to move Apisai Koroisau back into the starting side, with Mitch Kenny to come from the bench.

South Sydney Rabbitohs
1. Latrell Mitchell 21. Richard Kennar 3. Isaiah Tass 4. Campbell Graham 5. Taane Milne 6. Cody Walker 7. Lachlan Ilias 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Mark Nicholls 11. Keaon Koloamatangi 12. Jai Arrow 13. Cameron Murray
Interchange: 14. Kodi Nikorima 15. Hame Sele 16. Michael Chee Kam 17. Jed Cartwright 18. Davvy Moale 19. Blake Taaffe

The Rabbitohs have suffered a horror late blow heading into this game, with Alex Johnston failing to overcome a hip flexor injury that he picked up last week against the Sharks.

His absence means Richard Kennar comes in off the reserves list to play on the wing for the men from Redfern.

Siliva Havili is also out after injuring his calf last week, with Jed Cartwright the man named to replace him on the bench, seemingly winning the race for a spot over Davvy Moale and Peter Mamouzelos, who was recently named to play for Greece at the Rugby League World Cup.

Jai Arrow was also nursing a groin complaint last week, but scans have cleared him. It's unclear if he is at 100 per cent fitness for the contest, however.

Where it'll be won

They say defence wins matches, and while that wasn't true last week for South Sydney as they managed to overcome Cronulla in a high-scoring match that at times seemed to lack the intensity like you'd expect out of a final, you can almost guarantee they will need to step it up in that department this week.

Put simply, Cronulla fell apart against the Rabbitohs.

The Rabbitohs can not, and will not, expect the Panthers to roll over in the same way.

The Rabbitohs also allowed the Sharks back into that game a handful of times with silly errors in their own game. Do that against the Panthers, and you can guarantee beyond a shadow of a doubt that they will make you pay in a big way.

So a lot of this game does come down to how the Rabbitohs play. That is on the back of the remarkable consistency the Panthers have been able to show over the last three years.

Even their worst games have still been played to a level some teams can't hit on their best days.

That's not to say they are unbeatable though, and there is still the doubt lingering over a lack of match fitness.

The Panthers all had a rest in Round 25, then another one on semi-final weekend, and the likes of Nathan Cleary have played just one game in the last seven weeks.

That could lead to a bit of rust and potential fitness issues at the end of the game. For that reason, Penrith need a fast start, and their own performance could well be dictated by the kicking game.

It has been perfectly led by Cleary for most of the season, but at times in his already glittering career, he has had the tendency to go off the boil.

Do that, and the likes of Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker will make Penrith pay.

The history

The Panthers do hold the wood over the Rabbitohs, but only marginally so when it comes to the history between the two sides. The men from the foot of the mountains have won 47 matches, compared to South Sydney's 43.

Penrith have also won two of the three finals played between the sides, including at Homebush in 2020.

But that's where the fun ends. This might be a home game for the Panthers, but they have lost seven of their ten games played against the Bunnies at Homebush.

That said, they have won all of the last three, so the tide does appear to be well and truly turning with their incredible success over the last couple of years.

Overall record: Played 91, Panthers 47, Rabbitohs 43, drawn 1
Record at Homebush: Played 10, Panthers 3, Rabbitohs 7
Record in finals: Played 3, Panthers 2, Rabbitohs 1


The Panthers are the minor premiers for a reason.

South Sydney have had a strong finals campaign, and a strong finish to the season. They also have some brilliant players could potentially win this game off their own bat.

The consistency though has been lacking, and up against the NRL's own defensive outfit, alongside their own defensive inefficiencies at times this season - and it was on show against Cronulla - this should be a bridge too far for Jason Demetriou's side who will bow out one week earlier than they did last season as the Panthers advance to their third straight grand final.

Panthers by 14.

Key information

Kick-off: Saturday, September 24, 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: Accor Stadium, Homebush
Referee: Ashley Klein