The Penrith Panthers have marched into their third consecutive Grand Final with a 32-12 win over the Rabbitohs at Accor Stadium on Saturday night.
With Viliame Kikau and Dylan Edwards playing starring roles the defending premiers ran away with the game in the second half as Rabbitohs winger Taane Milne was marched for a high tackle on Spencer Leniu.
The Panthers have set up a first ever Grand Final against arch-rivals Parramatta and have the opportunity to become the first team since the Roosters in 2018-19 to win back-to-back titles.
The Rabbitohs grabbed the early ascendancy on the back of a Lachlan Ilias grubber which forced a line dropout but a sweeping right side raid came up empty when Latrell Mitchell’s long pass was called forward.
Come the 11th minute and the Panthers got across the line through Izack Tago but the play was called back for Jarome Luai interfering with Ilias as he tried to collect the bouncing ball from a towering Nathan Cleary bomb.
Some brilliant play out of dummy half by Damien Cook put Mark Nicholls into a hole a minute later, the prop offloading a pass which rebounded off Liam Martin into the in-goal and Cody Walker pounced for the game’s opening try.
The Rabbitohs had their second of the night in the 19th minute when late call-up Richard Kennar crossed in the left corner after slick lead-up from Walker, Mitchell and Isaiah Tass.
The Panthers were then denied a second time when Luai was ruled to have run behind James Fisher-Harris and obstructed the Bunnies defence and sending a long pass out for winger Charlie Staines to cross.
Kikau then became the third Panther to get across the stripe in the 26th minute but he was also called back when replays showed Tago had knocked the ball forward into the back-rower’s hands in an offside position.
With three minutes remaining in the half the premiers finally had their first try through Api Koroisau, who had started the game on the bench but added plenty of spark when he was injected into the game.
The Rabbitohs had a chance to set up for a field goal to take their lead out to seven points inside the final minute but chose to run the ball, a mistake by Campbell Graham landing in the arms of Brian To’o who sprinted 80 metres to score and the Panthers were level at 12-12.
Five minutes into the second term the Panthers had the lead when Cleary put in a grubber from close range and Spencer Leniu trailed through to score his sixth try of the season. Cleary’s conversion made it 18-12.
A magnificent run by Edwards on a kick return in the 55th minute got the Panthers rolling and Luai finished the movement in style with a deft grubber kick for Tago to follow through and score.
The game was finished as a contest with 16 minutes to go when Taane Milne was marched for a swinging arm on Leniu and Cleary landed the penalty goal to make it 26-12.
From there the Panthers were able to cruise home, Cleary icing the win with a solo try in the closing minutes when he kicked for himself and followed through to touch down.