NRL Round Table: Who will win the Grand Final and Clive Churchill Medal?

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.

Who wins the 2021 NRL Grand Final and Clive Churchill Medal?

Lucie: While the Rabbitohs have run into the NRL title decider high on confidence from their two postseason victories, I think Penrith will beat them on defence. A week ago my answer would have differed based on their current form, but the Panthers' defensive display against the Storm turned the series on its head. The battle-ready Panthers boast the NRL's best defence, and while that's a known fact, I don't think the Storm's attack crumbling as it did was expected after their historic run. Penrith have conceded just four tries in three finals fixtures, with only two in the last fortnight. Ivan Cleary's side will have learned from their 16-10 loss to the Rabbitohs in week one and while they'll be wanting to make amends for it - the shadow from last season's Grand Final loss also looms. The return to form of Penrith's backline combination of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, linking with a healthy Brian To'o, will be crucial to orchestrating a Panthers victory in attack. When the backline is clicking, there's little that can stop the Panthers pouncing. To rattle Penrith, the Rabbitohs must also pull off a defensive masterclass and make time with the ball count. As the battle of the halves will be crucial to this result, Nathan Cleary or Cody Walker will claim the Clive Churchill medal depending on the winning team.

Darren: I have struggled to predict the results during these finals, often picking the wrong underdog and totally underestimating the Rabbitohs. So fans of South Sydney should be very happy that I will again be tipping a Panthers victory this week. I just think that on their day the Panthers are more than capable of beating any other side in the competition, while I can't confidently say that about the Rabbitohs. Of course, the Bunnies only have to beat one team to take the ultimate prize and they did so just three weeks ago. Can they repeat that performance where they shocked the Panthers with their intensity? Surely Ivan Cleary's men won't fall for that again, they should be primed to meet aggression with more aggression and come out firing from the opening whistle. Losing last year should only narrow their focus, knowing what that feels like should drive them to their greatest performance. If they really click, as they have at times during the season, the scoreline could get ugly for the Rabbitohs. Tipping the Panthers is a fairly obvious choice, but I'll mix it up a bit by saying captain Isaah Yeo will take the Clive Churchill Medal with a dominant and inspirational display up the middle.

What is your greatest hope for the 2021 decider?

Lucie: Regardless of whether Benji Marshall retires, I'd like to see him and Adam Reynolds have a fairytale finish to this season. It's been 16 years since Marshall's triumph with the Wests Tigers and if he hadn't been so loyal to the embattled club, the 36-year-old utility would have been close to playing a few more. A man like Marshall is designed for these big games and his influence on rugby league itself cannot be understated. He inspired a generation in his heyday with his fleet-footed steps and flick passes, and speaking as one of those kids from the mid-2000s, to see his career come full circle on Sunday would be something to smile about in lockdown. And it's the same for Adam Reynolds. He, not dissimilar Marshall, has been snubbed by his debut club and is looking for a fitting end to a decade-long career with South Sydney. His influence on the club and its fans has been huge and to see him farewell his tenure with another NRL title, in his new hometown of Brisbane no less, would be fitting. So while it looks like my greatest hope is for South Sydney to succeed, for me it's about these two players. Just please, don't be one-sided. I hate nothing more than a blow-out Grand Final.

Darren: With the latest COVID developments in Queensland, I guess the first hope is that the game is played at all. The reduction in the crowd by 25% is such an arbitrary and largely meaningless public relations exercise, really. It just means 13,000 less people will be exposed to a potential super spreader event. The 39,000 still going will be crammed into the good seats with little or no opportunity for social distancing. You either lock down South East Queensland over six cases or you don't. If the two teams do make it onto the field, I unrealistically hope to make it through the entire game without hearing that ridiculous chime to signify a "six again" call from referee Gerard Sutton. As far as I'm concerned the tackle restart rule has been the biggest blight on the game, and the way it often knocks a defending team flat in the opening exchanges can completely ruin what might have been a great contest. Let the game flow, let the amount of possession be determined by completion rates and above all, let the players decide who deserves to hold up the trophy at the end of the night.

What part in the Grand Final story will Latrell Mitchell play?

Lucie: The last few chapters of South Sydney's NRL finale story have shown Wayne Bennett's side can overcome the loss of Latrell Mitchell, defying the critics who wrote them off for the 2021 title, myself included. I thought the Rabbitohs' chances of lifting the trophy had ended when the fullback was handed a six-match ban for a high tackle on Joey Manu in round 24. But Bennett and his craftiness proved me wrong as the Rabbitohs went on to beat the Panthers in the qualifying final, then the Sea Eagles comfortably last weekend. Blake Taaffe has excelled in Mitchell's big boots, despite being a specialised halfback with limited NRL experience. If Souths win the premiership, Bennett and his team will be lauded for their ability to overcome Mitchell's absence and beat the Panthers twice in the finals series. But should they fall short, I think there will always be a 'what if' element concerning Mitchell's availability. The 24-year-old star, who has won two premierships with the Roosters, is a big stage player. No doubt Souths have lost an X-factor in Mitchell, which could be a huge difference in key moments of Sunday's decider. We know this from his instrumental plays for the NSW Blues this year, and just as he was key for their Origin triumph - he could be the missing star for this.

Darren: The significance of a South Sydney victory in the 2021 Grand Final will only be amplified by the absence of Latrell Mitchell. Wayne Bennett and his men will be roundly applauded for their ability to go all the way without arguably their greatest attacking weapon. Most didn't expect them to make the big dance without him, he was such an integral part of their successful season. Bennett resisted the obvious and safe move of shifting Alex Johnston into the No.1 jersey and instead threw it to a vastly inexperienced halfback in Blake Taaffe. Taaffe becomes the least experienced player to ever run out for an NRL Grand Final on Sunday, but he has shown in his short time in the team that he can handle the role. I, like many, have been critical of the club's decision to let Adam Reynolds go at the end of this year, but when you consider they have Tauffe ready to step into his role, the call becomes far less alarming. If the Rabbitohs lose the decider to the Panthers and Tauffe has anything but a perfect game, or even if their attack is slightly off on the day, of course people will start wondering what might have been with Mitchell in the side. I'm hoping the young bloke has a blinder, win or lose, because he doesn't deserve to be the prime reason fans lament the loss of Mitchell.