I can already feel your rage and angst in me declaring Cooper Cronk as a better halfback than Johnathan Thurston. I also know everything you’re going to say in argument.
The Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm face off in the 2020 NRL grand final coming from different places in recent times.
The Melbourne Storm. The immovable force. The mainstay of finals series, grand finals, and the most dominant side in the NRL for a long time.
They may have been guilty of systematic salary cap breaches that cost them earlier premierships, but since then they have proved that on level terms they are the envy of plenty of other teams. This will be their fifth grand final since 2012, with two wins from their previous four appearances.
All the talk used to be about the Big Three of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. How couldn’t they succeed with three of the most talented players this generation has seen? Smith and Slater, in particular, are the best in their position of the last decade or so at least.
Now we are down to one, Smith at 37, with 430 games and counting. If he were ten years younger, clubs would be falling over to sign him such is his form.
Yet even without the other two, here the Storm are. An organisation that just breeds success. Ryan Papenhuyzen is in the top three fullbacks this season, they have two fliers on the wing, Jahrome Hughes has effortlessly transitioned from the back to halfback. Cameron Munster is playing busted but is ever the match-winner.
They have two other hookers on their books – another Smith, Brandon, who has the most impact off the bench of any player and a kid called Harry Grant, who was another club’s best player this year but is returning home.
They have an underrated pack and one of the most experienced, driven coaches the NRL has ever seen.
Most clubs have off years or patches; they rebuild and miss finals series, and ebb and flow with the form of their players. The Storm are always there or thereabouts, they never beat themselves and are more consistent than anyone else.
Rather than wilt with Cronk and Slater moving on, they have just evolved. They’ll just do the same when Smith moves on, be it this year or not. They haven’t been the defensive force of years gone by, but now have more weapons in attack.
Then there are the Panthers. The unstoppable force, a team of kids riding high on 17 wins in a row – a grand final victory would see them take the record for consecutive wins.
Under Phil Gould, Ivan Cleary and a big supporting cast, this team has been built off ten years of hard work from perennial underachievers to contenders. They had four finals appearances in five years from 2014, after a rebuilding phase, but this is the furthest they have been in 17 years.
Last year, the turmoil of coaching changes and off-field scandals saw them play some awful football, well off the pace that has seen them win the 2020 minor premiership.
But this year – with some kids coming through, Nathan Cleary at the helm, and combinations firing – here they are. The synergy with their other premierships can’t be denied: a big junior representation and a young team.
In 2003, Martin Lang and John Lang shared the premiership as father and son. This year it is Ivan and Nathan. No one expected their success of 2003, but things just aligned. Of the 17 players that should line up for the club on grand final day, 13 made their debut for the club. They haven’t bought this success, they have developed it, and that is always how the Panthers achieve.
They used to be the comeback kids, confident and cocky, but not complete. But the addition of Api Koroisau and the control of Nathan Cleary have made their game more complete. They haven’t had a bad player all year, everyone is playing career-best football and it is showing in their results. With the limited injuries they have had, the players who stepped up haven’t missed a beat.
Jack Hetherington was one of the Warriors’ best when on loan from the Panthers. Charlie Staines only got a game and a half but crossed for six tries. They can’t find a spot for veteran centre Dean Whare. James Tamou has been consistently strong and the mature influence in the pack, but can’t stay with the depth and talent coming through. Matt Burton has just the three games to his name as starting half, but will be sought after as he comes off contract. At the start of the year, there were advocates for him to partner Cleary instead of Jerome Luai.
Many of their players are likely to be rewarded with Blues jersies at season’s end – some new faces, some old. They all deserve it.
The club record for consecutive wins used to be eight but they have lost just once this year, and that was some time ago. They have seen off the reigning premiers and outlasted the Rabbitohs to book this spot.
This is the match-up that Penrith have been waiting for, facing the team they aspire to be over the next ten years. They have a young side and if they can keep the bulk of this squad together, they can create a dynasty. It can start this year with a win, or show them what they need to do to take that next step.
The Storm should be favourites. They have the experience, they haven’t had the record-breaking season of the Panthers but they finished second, and only had three losses – two of which were with big outs in terms of personnel. They have had to overcome their displacement from Victoria, and deal with constant travel and change.
They have the extra day of rest and did a preliminary final as easy as you can do it, with the game all but won in the first quarter, before they set about protecting the lead in the second half. They also have the added motivation of sending out club legend Cameron Smith a winner, if indeed he is retiring.
This grand final could well represent the end of an era or the start of the next. The Storm doing it for a fan-base and community that has done it really tough this year. There has been no league or sport of any kind played before crowds in Melbourne this season and they deserve something to smile about.
Or it is the Panthers, after 17 years, starting what could well be their own period of sustained success.
You wouldn’t be surprised either way. The two best sides all season, in the biggest game of all.