The top two teams have booked their spots in the NRL grand final, with the week off doing wonders. Here are my talking points from the preliminary finals.
Nathan Cleary’s kicking game holds the key next week
The Panthers are going to the grand final for the first time since 2003.
I don’t think that is a sentence anyone was expecting to write before the first ball was kicking in anger all the way back in March, but in mid-October, that is where we sit.
It has been a chaotic season, and while some will shout asterisk to anyone who could listen, the fact the Panthers have overcome everything to make the grand final on the back of 17 straight victories proves beyond all reasonable doubt they deserve to be there.
Whether they can challenge the Storm next week is another question altogether, and frankly, not a very easy one to answer.
You see, the Storm are just a different beast (more on this in a bit). They have beaten almost everyone, and when it comes to big games, there is no team you’d want to avoid more.
They just find a way to step up. Craig Bellamy gets them firing, Cameron Smith manages the game on-field and they roll to a plan.
Most of these Panthers players have never played in an NRL grand final either apart or together (although many have played in junior finals with the Panthers), they simply don’t have the big-game experience which next Sunday will be.
If they are going to win, then a good start will be critical. They can’t be conceding the first try, particularly early like they did against Souths on Saturday night. The Storm won’t be as easy to peg back.
But not only is getting a good start critical, Nathan Cleary’s kicking game will also be of utmost importance. He has a huge role to play in the territorial battle, and if the forwards hold their own, then Cleary’s impact could well decide the game as it could be argued it has done many times this year.
Melbourne are the ultimate NRL club
When it comes to a record of success, it doesn’t get any better than what the Storm have dished up over the last decade and beyond.
Under Craig Bellamy, the club from a non-rugby league heartland have found a way to turn themselves into the best, full stop.
Sure, people will point at back-to-back premierships for the Roosters as something special over the last two years and granted it is. It hasn’t been done for more than two decades.
But the Storm are just something else. This will be their ninth grand final appearance since 2006. In a salary-capped league (and yes, I know what’s coming), that is a remarkable achievement. Even taking it after the scandal of 2010, this is their fifth grand final in the last ten years.
In fact, 2010 is the only year they haven’t made the finals since 2003. That is success like we have never seen before, and not just in the NRL, but almost all of Australian sport. The only record better is the Perth Wildcats in the NBL, who have made the semi-finals 35 years on the hop.
It puts the Storm in elite company, and the structure they have built means that more often than not, it is done with a couple of superstars to go with players they have bought who were outcasts or battlers at other clubs.
Their squad is full of them, to go with the players who they have brought their own ranks, using a talent scouting system that goes far and wide, and it has to given Melbourne isn’t a rugby league hotspot.
Already they have potentially the next Cooper Cronk on the books in Noah Griffiths to go with the youngsters you have already seen this year running around and steering a ship which just doesn’t look like it’ll ever sink.
If Cameron Smith goes, it’ll be another hurdle for the club to overcome, but based on all the evidence available, you’d be a brave man to say they aren’t going to be able to do it.
Preliminary final? Wayne Bennett overachieves again
Craig Bellamy might have built his very own dynasty in a rugby league outpost, but Wayne Bennett, who is one of the all-time great coaches, continues to impress.
It doesn’t matter where Bennett goes, he makes his clubs better than they should.
Mid-season, the chance of the Rabbitohs making a run in the finals looked next to nothing. Heck, making the finals was going to be a stretch at certain points.
But, in true Bennett fashion, his team hit their stride at the right time of year, then made a charge into the finals where they knocked over a few teams, before pushing the minor premiers, unbeaten for four months, all the way to the finish line.
That deserves recognition. He somehow found a way to get the cardinal and myrtle firing, and it may not have been enough for a premiership, but this man is a master at squeezing every drop of potential out of all of his players.
You only need to look at his career to know what he is capable of. While the argument has been made the game has passed him by, even recently, where he took the Broncos to a grand final in 2015, the Knights to a preliminary final during his stay there and the Dragons to a premiership in 2010, he still has what it takes to be an elite coach.
Why would Cameron Smith retire?
This is the topic which has divided the rugby league universe. Is Cameron Smith selfish for refusing to announce a decision? Is he selfish for even thinking about playing on? Or should he be able to do what he wants?
After all, the future immortal has given 430 games of service to the competition and is undoubtedly one of the greatest players in history. Not just in his on-field smarts, but his longevity and the tenaciousness with which he plays the game.
Sure, he divides rugby league audiences over some of the methods he uses, but anyone who doesn’t have at the very least begrudging respect for the Storm captain is just pushing an agenda.
And if you look at some of the plays he made on Friday night, you’d swear he wasn’t a day over 20, still trying to impress and keep his spot for the following week.
Of course, Smith’s spot is his for as long as he wants it. The only reason he doesn’t play representative footy anymore is that he retired, and it’ll be the same in giving up his club spot.
He is an unreal talent, an almost once-in-a-generation player and someone who is still performing at close to the top of his game. While the wait goes on for him to slow down, the fact he may hold back or potentially cost the Storm Brandon Smith and Harry Grant is a concern to fans, but Smith of the Cameron variety has the right to do what he wants to do.
Penrith’s outside backs win them games
The role of fullbacks and wingers in the modern game has changed beyond belief. No longer are they simply try-scorers. Now, they must be good defensively, find ridiculous ways to score, set up tries and run the ball back from kicks like madmen.
In this new era of rugby league, where momentum is so hard to gain, but so, so important to have, the outside backs play a monstrous role in the ascendency of the contest.
More often than not, Penrith’s have been close to perfect this year, and they were again on Saturday.
While Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o had a try apiece, add Josh Mansour in and the trio ran for a staggering 604 metres between them, with 123 of them kick return metres and another 180 of them being post-contact metres.
They are staggering stats to be shared between three players, who have the potential to flip a game on its head in a matter of minutes.
Compare that to South Sydney’s efforts where the back three trio of Corey Allan, Alex Johnston and Jaxson Paulo could only manage 358 metres with 74 kick return and 77 post-contact between them, and you start to get an idea of why the Panthers were able to dominate the territory and momentum battle.
It’s so, so important, and might just have been the difference at Homebush.
Canberra’s premiership window isn’t shut yet
The Raiders were never supposed to go as far as they did this year.
When Josh Hodgson went down in Round 9, the grand finalists of last year were written off by a vast majority of pundits, this one included in the list of their doubters.
More injuries followed for the green machine, and like the Rabbitohs, there were times when they looked like they’d be merely making up the numbers.
They ended up doing anything other than that, with a gallant run to the preliminary finals before falling in the impossible challenge of playing a refreshed Melbourne Storm side after a physical win over the Roosters seven days prior.
The fact both Melbourne and Penrith came away with victories will prove the week off was the most important factor in this year’s finals series, but Ricky Stuart’s men can hold their heads high.
It was a performance which may not have been their best, and the doors were blown off early but with the only substantial loss being John Bateman, and Josh Hodgson to return to the side, a side which is now stacked with another year of experience and handy back-up options all over the place, the Raiders may be better balanced than ever before to make a charge at the crown in what should be a slowly getting back to normal 2021 season.
The side have a hard-hitting forward pack who can challenge most in the competition, and a backline which, when it gets going, is a thing of beauty to watch, led by the ball-running wizard Jack Wighton.
Again, he may not have gotten to show that in the preliminary final, but if the Raiders get a decent hand with injuries next year, there is no reason they won’t be once again challenging for the title.