Panthers v Keas: 5 Key Grand Final Match-ups
Dene Grace (Panthers) v Erwin Sauni (Keas)
Grace was brilliant at fullback when these sides squared off in the major semi, producing two searing breaks to lay on the first two tries and set the Panthers on course for victory.
Below his best in that game, Erwin Sauni’s attributes need little introduction; a centre in last year’s grand final win, he is a dynamic game-breaker in the Keas’ No.1 jumper and experienced in the custodian role at representative level.
Craig Smith (Panthers) v Graeme Patu-Vaega’Au (Keas)
Veteran centre Craig Smith’s pure size makes him an automatic handful for opposition defences; throw in the experience of half a dozen grand final appearances for Hornby and an uncanny knack for finding the try-line, and the big man shapes as a trump card for the Panthers this Sunday.
Linwood rookie Patu-Vaega’Au has earned a contract with the Warriors’ NYC squad for 2018, and it’s not hard to see why. Despite his tender years, the youngster has more than handled the physical step up to premier level and is an attacking force, topping the Keas’ try tally with eight touchdowns in 12 games. The teenager will have the Panthers on high alert.
Sean Spooner (Panthers) v Toi Sepuloni (Keas)
Five-eighth Sepuloni has assumed the chief playmaking duties since Daniel Hartley’s late-season injury, but his deft skills, wily instincts and physical presence have ensured the Keas have barely missed a beat without their linchpin.
Spooner also brings vast experience to the No.6 jumper and was a try-scorer in the Panthers’ major semi win a fortnight ago; coach Jed Lawrie is looking to him to help pick up the slack with halfback and long-serving talisman James Baxendale absent. There is plenty riding on this individual battle.
Peni Mo’Ale and Nick Stewart (Panthers) v Jiordan Fidow-Kele and Alex Todd (Keas)
Laying a front-row platform will be crucial in the decider, and the barnstorming Fidow-Kele was arguably the best player on the field in the Keas’ preliminary final win over the Tigers, while prop partner Todd has been one of the competition’s most consistent performers over a number of years.
The Panthers need a big game from their bookends, and while they may lack the profile of their Keas counterparts, Mo’Ale and Stewart were outstanding in the major semi and never take a backward step.
Corey Lawrie (Panthers) v Alani Kakoi (Keas)
Few players have had more influence over the CRL premiership over the last decade than Lawrie, who came back from professional stints with New Zealand Warriors and Doncaster to help inspire a string of Panthers premierships. Super-versatile, Lawrie has been outstanding at hooker at club and rep level in recent seasons and the 37-year-old will lead the way for his side on Sunday.
A teammate and rival for the Rockcote Canterbury Bulls’ No.9 jumper last year, Kakoi’s slick service and speed off the mark out of dummy-half have been crucial to the Keas’ success. The 30-year-old livewire can bust a game open as well as controlling play around the rucks.