NRL grand final 2023 | Stopping Reece Walsh the ‘near impossible’ task Panthers must overcome in hunt for three-peat

One of the biggest hurdles facing the Penrith Panthers in their bid to secure a third straight NRL premiership and enter themselves into league folklore will be keeping Broncos fullback Reece Walsh quiet.

In his first season at Red Hill, Walsh has been a standout in a team full of superstar players including Adam Reynolds, Selwyn Cobbo and Patrick Carrigan, among others.

Teams can watch video and come up with strategies and plans to defend set plays, but it’s virtually impossible to defend outright speed. If he finds space or he has time, he’s unstoppable.

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Speaking on Nine’s Sunday Footy Show, Blues coach Brad Fittler said the key was trying to slow the play-the-ball. 

“If you’ve got the quick play-the-ball, and Reece Walsh (gets) to where he wants to, you nearly can’t stop it,” he said.

“It’s nearly impossible to stop because he’s too fast.”

A common tactic employed by the Broncos — and also by Queensland during Origin — involves forwards dragging defenders wide, followed by a quick play-the-ball, quick passes back inside, where Walsh then runs into space.

Fittler said an example of that was Queensland’s second try in Origin I in Adelaide. He said the Blues defence did nothing wrong, but Walsh was just too good.

“(The Blues defence) jammed in perfect, timing was perfect, but he still got the ball and hit the winger,” he said.

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“No one else, now or ever, could have made that pass. He had no time.”

Fellow Footy Show panellist Billy Slater said Walsh’s speed was only one of his strengths. He said another was his bravery.

The Warriors’ second try on Saturday night was off a Dallin Watene-Zelezniak intercept. Walsh threw the pass.

Slater said his response to that moment was telling.

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DWZ picks off Walsh pass for intercept try

Only minutes later, Walsh anticipated DWZ would position himself to make an intercept. So instead he went short to Herbie Farnworth, who scored.

“He showed his footy IQ … He didn’t shy away from what happened,” Slater said.

“He would’ve been disappointed with himself when he threw the intercept.

“Look at Dallin going up past the football looking for that intercept again, then (Reece) went back there and fired the ball again. 

“He’s not afraid to make a mistake – he’s a bit like Cameron Munster. 

Walsh’s perfect reply to put Farnworth away

“They’ll be disappointed with what they have done and the error they’ve made, but he’s so brave that he’ll go for the play again.”

There will be several meetings throughout the week at the Panthers dedicated to coming up with strategies to contain one of the quickest in men in league.

Slater revolutionised the fullback role, so how would he stop him?

“It’s got to happen early – if they can get pressure on the ball players, before the ball gets to Reece, then everyone can slide off,” he said. 

“Looking at the Penrith Panthers, Nathan Cleary slides off better than anyone else.

“The key is knowing where he is too. You have to know where he is. He’ll be here and there. And there’s a lot going on in the defensive line.”

That will be Dylan Edwards’ job.

“The people who have to do a good job on Reece Walsh is the front rowers and markers,” Fittler said.

“If they can start that process by winning that first pass, all of a sudden that gives Nathan an extra second or split-second, or for the winger to fly in. It’s those middle people.”

But all this discussion is from set plays. Slater said there’s still another area that’s virtually impossible to defend.

The offload.

“Just find the space, react to it and hit him,” Slater said.

“You’ve got to be on your game all the time for a guy like Reece.”

The Panthers and Broncos will meet in the grand final at Accor Stadium next Sunday evening.

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