Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.
Has the season been ruined or revitalised now that the Panthers and Storm won't meet in the Grand Final?
Lucie: The Storm and Panthers have been the teams to beat all season, so while it does feel like the final chapter of 2021 has been ruined, there's still one resolution to this dilemma: the Rabbitohs. The title decider can only be saved by South Sydney facing either team because all others would likely be smashed. And I loathe a Grand Final capitulation, it's the biggest let down after investing six months of time into watching footy. The Storm train isn't slowing down and the Panthers have an axe to grind after falling one win short of the 2020 title, so whoever makes it will be clinical. Coach Wayne Bennett is the master of finals footy and rest assured, his men will be ready when it matters most. The Rabbitohs came out firing and executed better than the Panthers to reach their fourth preliminary final in four years. They have momentum behind them, Bennett's brilliant mind and now a week off to rest. So while Souths will need to take their match to another level for a shot at the title, they have much better odds than the other teams still alive. Either way, as long as the Grand Final is somewhat close, the season's finale will be revitalised.
Darren: From the moment the fulltime whistle was blown to end the 2020 NRL Grand Final, talk was rife of a rematch and the opportunity for the Panthers to right the wrongs of that day and win a rare Premiership for the club. Were the Panthers thinking too far ahead when they took on the Rabbitohs last week? They certainly looked a bit flat and far from their best during the loss. Now the whole narrative of the 2021 season has been thrown out the window. The Panthers and Storm can only meet in next weekend's preliminary final. Firstly, the Panthers have to completely reset and play an elimination semi-final against the Eels that they never expected to play. The feeling now is that the Panthers will beat the Eels this week and the premiership will effectively be decided a week before the Grand Final, with the winner of the Storm-Panthers preliminary final being too good for whoever makes it through the other side. The Rabbitohs need only point to last week to refute that train of thought, but they will have to be at their absolute perfect best to beat either the Storm or Panthers in the big dance. That is assuming the Rabbitohs can beat the winner of the Roosters, Sea Eagles semi-final. The fear now is that the Grand Final could be a one-sided flop of a game, but the Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles and Roosters all believe they can run with the best of them. The Panthers' loss last weekend has certainly added intrigue to the run to the Grand Final.
Can the Sea Eagles bounce back against the Roosters or did the Storm show them up to be finals pretenders?
Lucie: What's more dangerous than Manly? A wounded Manly and a wounded Tom Trbojevic. While the Sea Eagles will be out to keep their season alive when meet the Sydney Roosters in Mackay, they'll also be out for vengeance. Melbourne Storm outclassed them and swarmed their star fullback in week one, a lesson Des Hasler will be keen to learn from come Friday night. He'll also want more time with the ball than the dismal 39% possession they had against the Storm to work his magic. I think the result will be close and the battle of the fullbacks will be key to deciding who advances to week three. Trbojevic should have more room to move in this clash, albeit the Roosters could take a leaf out of the Storm's defensive book to shutting the Origin star down. He finished the match with only 20 touches of the ball, 151 running metres and zero line breaks or tries. Sydney should be wary of a Trbojevic rebound and they'll have to pay for any opportunity given to him. But equally, the Sea Eagles will have to contain James Tedesco and a Roosters side also keen to re-establish their finals credentials after scraping past the Gold Coast Titans in sudden death.
Darren: I was one who overestimated the momentum and strike power of the Sea Eagles heading into last week's clash with the Storm. It's a foolish thing to tip against the Storm, every time you think they might be in for a battle, they go up a gear and wipe the floor with the supposed threat. They certainly made the Sea Eagles look ordinary last week, while the Roosters really struggled to get on top of the Titans. It's a very tough form guide to read. Are the Sea Eagles pretenders or should we just hand the trophy to the Storm right now as they are so clearly ahead of the rest? Are the Roosters working their way back into form, or limping towards an inevitably brave finish short of the big prize? To answer the original question, I don't think last week proved that the Sea Eagles are completely out of it, just that they, and most other teams for that matter, are in a different class from the Storm. If the Sea Eagles can bounce back and beat the Roosters on Friday, I wouldn't be at all surprised if they beat the Rabbitohs next week and took their place in the Grand Final. And a runners-up medal is nothing to sneeze at.
Has the NRL done the right thing by moving the Melbourne Storm preliminary final forward to avoid a clash with the AFL Grand Final?
Lucie: Having endured more than 200 days in lockdown due to COVID-19, this is welcome news for Melbourne fans who have been doing it tough. Why should they have to choose or flick between an all-Melbourne AFL decider and a Storm preliminary final? "Porque no los dos?" This is not a backing down on the NRL's behalf but rather an acknowledgement of the role sport has in Australian lives, especially in lockdown. The fact is Victoria is the AFL heartland and with two Melbourne-based teams in the Grand Final, one does not have to do hard maths to figure out which match will draw more viewers. What an afternoon it'll be for Melbourne fans to watch the Storm continue their bid from afar before tuning into the biggest match on the AFL calendar. Furthermore, the NRL has to do more to reward Storm fans after a tough two seasons in which their team has only played seven matches in Melbourne itself. Craig Bellamy's side have won a title and levelled the best winning streak in Australian rugby league history in that time - but their home fans have had to cheer on from behind a screen. So while it's a small change logistically, it's a huge move in terms of starting to give back to the loyal Melbourne NRL community.
Darren: This is a very astute move by the NRL, saving Storm fans the anguish of deciding between two of the biggest games on the footy calendar. There wouldn't be many Melbourne-based Storm fans who weren't also keen AFL supporters on the side, so moving the game forward makes perfect sense. Then you have the Melbourne sports fans, with just a passing interest in the NRL and how the Storm go, they now have the chance to watch the NRL preliminary final before strapping in for the AFL Grand Final. Grand Final parties now have an entrée to have playing in the background as beers are downed and BBQs are fussed over, all within the appropriate COVID restrictions of course. Even a pure rugby league fan doesn't mind taking a look at the AFL's big dance, so this move is a win, win, win, win. There is also some added spice to this preliminary final, in that it could effectively be the NRL Grand Final a week early. The decision to move it forward a couple of hours is an absolute no-brainer and good work by the NRL to make the call so early and decisively.