Had Peter V’landys, Andrew Abdo and the powerbrokers at NRL headquarters sat down at the start of this season and handpicked their ideal grand final fixture, it would almost certainly have comprised Penrith and Parramatta. This Sunday’s decider is a match-up made in heaven, and one which ticks every box.
Under the V’landys reign, political power in the NRL has shifted away from Sydney’s east and north and settled in the west – a region now very much at the centre of the governing body’s strategy and desire. Both the Penrith Leagues Club and Parramatta Leagues Club sit inside the 12 biggest registered clubs in New South Wales. The Eels are a memberships juggernaut, ranked second for numbers across the NRL and first among Sydney clubs. The Panthers, even before their numbers are updated, are the fifth-ranked club in Sydney.
Western Sydney has long been called the heartland of rugby league but it is also an area that under previous administrations was taken for granted, under-serviced and under-appreciated. During that time the AFL made its insurgence, launching the Greater Western Sydney Giants and then paying for the set-up of oval fields in traditional league and football strongholds. The A-League launched one – and eventually two – teams to service its dormant fanbase. And even then, the NRL did little to support an area with an inherent inclination to support the NRL.
That has very much changed over the last half-decade. Parramatta Stadium was knocked down and rebuilt as the spectacular CommBank Stadium. Penrith Stadium is, controversially, about to get similar treatment. In 2022, both the Panthers and Eels ranked in the top five for free-to-air games. It was the same story in 2021. Schedules have been favourable to both teams, particularly from a travel perspective, with Penrith playing just four interstate matches – including Magic Round and their final-round clash for which the starters did not make the trip to Townsville. Parramatta have boarded a plane just once since Magic Round.
The Panthers and Eels are clearly viewed as areas boasting not only rusted-on fans, but also growth demographics that can further entrench the code as the most supported in western Sydney.
On-field success, of course, can turbo-charge such a strategy, and both fit neatly into that category.
The Panthers are, of course, on their way to a third straight grand final for the first time in the club’s history. They are heavily favoured to become just the second team of the NRL era to win back-to-back premierships. They have two minor premierships over that stretch and have lost just eight of their past 68 regular-season games. Perhaps most importantly is that Penrith are a team built on local juniors who have come through an expansive club system which was neglected for so long but has grown a group of players representing the unique characteristics of their district.
Parramatta, whose coach Brad Arthur finds himself under barely comprehensible annual pressure, have made the finals for four straight seasons. They have won at least 14 games in each of those years with two top-four finishes. The primary criticism has been their inability to peak in September when it most matters. That criticism has been put to rest this year thanks to a magnificent fortnight during which the Eels thumped the red-hot Raiders before travelling to Townsville to upset the Cowboys. The wins have earned them a third grand final since 1986, with just one match now standing between them and the end of their 36-year premiership drought.
The meaning of all of this in the grand scheme cannot be underestimated. Parramatta’s popularity and Penrith’s unprecedented success constitute for the NRL a model to be replicated across the board, from junior development to marketing departments.
To have them both meet in the season’s showcase event, in front of the nation, is a boon. This could be the most-watched NRL grand final in history. The genuine rivalry runs as deep as that between the Roosters and Rabbitohs, Sharks and Dragons, and Broncos and Cowboys. Over the past 30 years, only the 2015 decider between Brisbane and North Queensland featured two genuine geographic rivals.
Regardless of the quality of Sunday’s game – even though recent history suggests it will be fierce and hard-fought – the symbolism is monumental. In the context of the code’s place in Sydney’s sporting landscape, this is the biggest season decider in some time.