One of rugby league’s biggest rivalries reaches the next level as the Penrith Panthers take on the Parramatta Eels in the battle of the west at the NRL Grand Final on Sunday. 

Central News is on hand to preview rugby league’s biggest day, and go inside Accor Stadium, revealing the behind the scenes secrets and preparation that go into game day.  

The Panthers, the reigning champions, will be looking to go back-to-back, while the Eels aim to end a 36-year premiership drought, the longest barren spell of an active team in the NRL.

Penrith have largely been an unbeatable juggernaut in 2022, but the one team that has proven to be their Achilles’ heel is Parramatta, who boast a 2-1 record against them this season. 

Tickets to the grand final sold out “in minutes”, according to NSW minister for sport Alister Henskens, with over 80,000 fans to watch live from Accor Stadium as Sydneysiders enjoy, as NSW minister of transport David Elliot put it, “the biggest celebration that Sydney has been able to see for quite some time”.

When and where?

There’s a whole day of footy grand finals on Sunday, starting with the State Championship Grand Final, followed by the NRLW Grand Final, and closed out by the men’s NRL Grand Final. 

Sunday, October 2 at Accor Stadium.

  • State Championship Grand Final – 1:20pm
  • NRLW Grand Final – 3:55pm
  • NRL Grand Final – 7:30pm
Panorama of Accor Stadium

Panorama of Accor Stadium. Photo: Sam Kosack

Getting to the game

Transport for NSW highly encourages fans to take public transport to the game with free public transport included with each ticket.

Trains will run every 10-15 minutes from Central and Penrith before the game, while coming home, trains will run every 6 minutes to Central and Blacktown, and every 15 minutes to Penrith. Event buses will also run to and from the event.

Regarding driving to the game, NSW Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith reminded motorists to “make sure you leave enough time for the congestion that you will see and obviously book a parking spot”.

Food and drink

Central News was given a look inside Accor Stadium and at the enormous amounts of preparation that go into preparing the food for a crowd of 80,000. 

There is enough beer to fill 100,000 schooner glasses on hand at the ground, with 1300 kegs stored in 12 cool rooms across 7 levels. 

It’s a mind boggling number which head of procurement, Campbell Dunstan, says is bigger than the pre-pandemic 2019 NRL Grand Final. 

“We’re thinking everyone’s going to be fairly excited with the battle of the west going on so we’re pretty keen to get right into it,” said Dunstan.

“We’ll change about a keg every three minutes so these keg rooms will have about 10 blokes in each one going gangbusters so it’ll be an exciting night.”

When it comes to the most popular beer, Dunstan says it’s Hans Super Dry “for sure”, adding: “We’re holding about 700 kegs… over half are Hans.”

One of the keg rooms at Accor Stadium

One of the many keg room at Accor Stadium ready for Sunday. Photo: Sam Kosack.

Patrons are also expected to consume 25,000 buckets of chips, 10,000 hot dogs, 8,000 plated meals, and 12,000 pies, meaning it has required months of planning to ensure there’s enough for everyone. 

“This is months and months of planning… coming into grand final day. It is a collective group that are a part of that, it’s not just one person so it’s very detailed,” said Mark Adler, the executive chef at Accor Stadium.

“We have a great team of executive sous chefs that have been working throughout the preparation and on Grand Final day.

“We have 27 kitchens here at Accor Stadium so, as you can imagine, it’s very challenging to ensure that all the food is delivered to the right areas [and] all the teams are fully briefed.” 

Key matchups

Nathan Cleary v Mitchell Moses

The contest between Nathan Cleary and Mitchell Moses shapes as the most crucial individual battle in this game. 

Nathan Cleary is arguably the game’s best player. The eighth immortal, Andrew Johns, this week, said that, when comparing what they’d achieved at Cleary’s age, he is ahead of both him and Jonathan Thurston. He’s also the heavy favourite to claim the halfback jersey from incumbent Daly Cherry-Evans at the Rugby League World Cup in November, and a second premiership on Sunday would make his case all the more indisputable. 

Former Panthers premiership winner Paul “Nobby” Clarke says it’s been a long time since he’s seen a half as good as Cleary.

“The way he controls a game… I’d have to go back to Peter Sterling to see a player as good as him control the game like he does.”

Cleary’s kicking game is the best in the world, and he’ll be required to use every trick in the bag to win.

Moses, while not possessing the same accolades or praise, is Parramatta’s main man. When Moses is ‘on’, the Eels are at their electrifying best and can beat any team in the competition. 

Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Parramatta hall of famer Steve “Zip Zip” Ella said: “Mitchell Moses is a really good leader for us… Mitch is someone who’s led us around the park for most of the year and we’re very excited for him to do that [on Sunday].”

Both teams will need to apply mountains of pressure on the opposition halfback to have any chance of nullifying their impact and claiming the premiership.

Steve Ella and Paul Clarke with the Provan Summons Trophy

Steve Ella and Paul Clarke with the Provan-Summons Trophy earlier today. Photo: Sam Kosack.

James Fisher Harris v Reagan Campbell-Gillard

For any game to be won in rugby league, your halves need to be on the ball and mounting pressure on an opposition, and the only way this can happen is if a team’s forward pack provides them the platform to do so.

It is imperative, especially in a grand final, that the forwards play with aggression and strength to win their contest early and drain an opposing team of their energy. The forwards need to be pressuring the halves into poor, rushed kicks, and allow their outside backs to start their sets in better positions. 

Both the Eels and Panthers have formidable forward packs featuring many players who’ll be the key men for their countries at the World Cup. However, it’s James Fisher-Harris and Reagan Campbell-Gillard that will be the men that have to lead from the front. 

Campbell-Gillard was in rarified form last week, running for 149m, tackling with 97 per cent efficiency, and scoring two tries. He was aggressive, controlling, and, in tandem with teammate Junior Paulo, dominated the Cowboys forwards for 57 minutes, a long time for a prop. He’ll need to repeat that performance if the Eels are any chance of winning.

James Fisher-Harris plays the same role in a Panthers forward pack that is the best in the business. Along with fellow New Zealand international Moses Leota, Fisher-Harris has routinely improved his game each year, cementing his place as one of the best props in rugby league. Fisher-Harris has run for over 140m in 14 of his 22 games this season, and with his sheer aggression and strength, has controlled other forward packs, laying a platform for Cleary to do what he does.

Clarke says that Fisher-Harris is greatly important to the Panthers chances. 

“Fisher-Harris is fantastic. He goes forward as good as any front rower I’ve seen for a long time,” he said.

Dylan Edwards v Clint Gutherson

While Edwards and “Gutho” don’t possess the speed of Ryan Papenhuyzen or the X-factor of Tom Trbojevic, they make up for it in pure grit and determination. 

Gutherson leads the Eels by example. His determination and spirit are unmatched in the league and this shows itself in his defence and attack. Speaking on Fox League, Michael Ennis emphasises Gutho’s competitiveness.

“He is just that fierce competitor that will put his body on the line and put it in positions for his teammates where others would hesitate,” said Ennis.

In an era where superstar fullbacks get many of the highlights, Edwards is enjoying a breakout, albeit under the radar, season. While he may not have the same highlight reels as other superstars in his position, Edwards leads the league in metres gained, kick return metres, total runs, and support plays, allowing his team to always start their sets on the front foot.

Edwards also polled fourth overall at this year’s Dally M awards, and second best of all fullbacks.

Both fullbacks are invaluable to their teams and will need to perform well for their team to win. 

clint gutherson

Image Credit: Naparazzi on Flickr

Who wins and why?

This grand final marks the first for the Panthers since 2009, and their opportunity to win their first since 1986. It is also likely the last year of their premiership window, with several key players moving on at the season’s end.

Contrary to this, the Panthers have qualified for their third straight grand final, and have the chance to become the first club in history to win the under-19s SG Ball competition, the under-21s Harold Matthews competition, reserve grade, and first grade. 

This will be a game of moments and seizing the opportunity for points when it’s presented. Penrith can never be counted out of a game and if they gain momentum and a lead they are almost impossible to run down. 

For the Eels to win, they must pressure Cleary the entire game. Week one of the finals showed the damage Cleary can do when given time and space, and the nightmare Eels winger Waqa Blake endured when trying to catch Cleary’s bombs. Disrupting Cleary starts in the forwards so Parramatta’s pack must be constantly on him. Adopting a plan like Queensland’s in Origin 3 will present Paramatta with their best chance of bringing home the Provan-Summons trophy for the first time since 1986.

If the Eels win, look for Gutherson, Moses, or Dylan Brown to be wearing the Clive Churchill medal for man of the match. 

The Provan-Summons Trophy. Photo: Sam Kosack.

For the Panthers, they have to stick to their game plan. Strong returns out of their end and the forwards controlling the Eels will give Jarome Luai and Cleary time to dismantle the Eels defence, and with attacking options everywhere they’re well-placed to score from anywhere. 

If the Panthers win, expect Edwards, Cleary, or Fisher-Harris to be awarded man of the match honours. 

Ultimately, the game will be won based on which team wins the middle and holds their nerve. While Parramatta beat the Panthers twice in the regular season, their defeat to the Panthers in week one will be more indicative of the game to come. Penrith have now been at this end of the season three times straight, while only two Eels have ever played in a grand final. Penrith know how to handle a grand final better, and with their incredible forward pack, are the deserved favourites.

Main image by Sam Kosack.