We’ve got the NRL grand final most had predicted heading into the post-season, with arguably the greatest player in the game leading his troops into battle against a team helmed by his heir apparent.
And despite the fact Nathan Cleary’s Panthers finished the season as runaway minor premiers and are on a 16-game winning streak, the bookies have still got Cam Smith’s Storm as the favourites to win on Sunday evening.
Because, while we’ve got a one versus two decider, few would have imagined the scorelines that decided our grand finalists.
Armed with a back three of Suliasi Vunivalu, Josh Addo-Carr and Ryan Papenhuyzen, the Storm don’t struggle to score points, but they are also the masters of slow suffocation. And when you’re in a knock-out game against last year’s grand finalists, playing the percentages and winning a war of attrition is a logical method of securing victory.
Instead, Melbourne absolutely blew Canberra off the park. They led 16-0 before ten minutes had been played and were up by 24 before Canberra finally got on the scoreboard, at which point Frank Ponissi was probably already negotiating with NRL HQ as to whether his side would be allowed to fly into Sydney the day before the grand final.
It was 30-10 at the final buzzer but that flattered the Raiders, who gave a brave account of themselves after being decimated by injury throughout the year but were no chance of clawing back a win in the face of the Storm’s opening-quarter blitzkrieg.
In the other game, between two sides that love to chuck the footy around and score ridiculous tries, Cleary’s accuracy off the tee proved the difference as Penrith squeaked past Souths 20-16.
So the game that was anticipated as a knock-down-drag-out was decided by a burst of tries from the opening whistle, while the match that we thought would be a try-fest was a nail-biter where a penalty goal proved critical in the Sydney side’s victory.
And it informs why, despite their ridiculous run of wins, the Riff are going into Sunday as the underdogs.
Finals mark the start of a new competition and while Ivan Cleary’s boys are still undefeated, their two wins have both been by slim margins – one and four points, respectively.
Now, that’s not to say they’re no hope on Sunday. A win’s a win, whether it’s by one or 50, and concerns that these young Panthers would be found wanting when they were down on the scoreboard have been proven baseless, having come back from a losing position early in both matches.
But if there’s any truth to the saying ‘you’ve got to lose a grand final to win one’ – and, as a supporter of a team that’s won two from two, I don’t buy it – the Storm are in far better stead to raise the Provan-Summons Trophy.
Despite their Big Three of Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Cam Smith having been whittled away, the Victorians are still led onto the field by the Big One. And with Smith calling the shots, the Storm’s worst result in the last five seasons was getting knocked out in last year’s preliminary final. Other than that loss to the Chooks, Melbourne have played in four of the last five grand finals.
It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate how ridiculous that is. Four of five! Clubs are supposed to have a lull after success, not sustain it for half a decade.
What’s more, that means we’re calling the Storm’s 2013, ’14 and ’15 seasons as failures, because they only made the finals, instead of competing for the big prize. And those years were preceded by their 2012 premiership.
Salary-cap scandal aside, success has been so consistent for them regardless of the team’s make-up, barring two common factors: captain and coach.
In fact, since Smith and Craig Bellamy first teamed up in the Victorian capital in 2003, the club has made nine grand finals and won four (with two premierships taken off them), having only missed the top eight the year they were stripped of all points due to the cap scandal. That’s an average of playing a grand final every second year and winning almost half of those – a number that will either be a bit more or a bit less than 50 per cent after this weekend.
Sure, the Roosters have been good of late, but even they can’t compare to a run like that.
And when you add in the fact it’s likely to be Smith’s last game, I’m tipping the Storm to secure premiership number four this weekend. The skipper’s whole career has been fairytale-like – the promising start, the complicated middle, the triumphant comeback – and while there are no guarantees in sport, it just seems inevitable that the most capped player in NRL history, whose list of achievements will likely never be matched, will go out a winner.
It’s not a terribly analytical perspective but I’m tipping Melbourne because Cameron Smith gets what he wants.
But it would be so much better for the game of rugby league in Australia if he’s denied. Because while many clubs have tried to imitate the Storm’s sustained success, none have been able to.
And the reason for that is you can’t replicate their foundation – the aforementioned captain-coach pairing. Knowing your job and doing it well, unprecedented levels of accountability and wonderful scouting of talent are all factors in Melbourne too, but any and all clubs should strive for those. The difference is Smith and Bellamy. And try as they may, the rest of the comp can’t and won’t be able to manufacture a duo like it.
Which is why Penrith winning would be such a boon for the comp. Because the key to their success is largely able to be copied: develop juniors!
Of the 17 players who featured for Pennie against Souths last week, only James Taumo, Api Koroisau, Kurt Capewell and Zane Tetevano have played for other clubs. That’s an astonishing 13 men – an entire starting line-up’s worth – who have come through the Panthers’ systems. And with the likes of Matt Burton and Charlie Staines unable to make the gameday squad, it would appear the Panthers have got local talent to burn.
Obviously the club has access to a tremendous nursery in the golden west but they’re far from being the only organisation who boast thousands of juniors in their catchment area. The Panthers – and, say what you will about the man, this is largely due to Phil Gould’s time there – have spent time and money developing their own talent and are now seeing the benefits.
Which means a victory for the mountain men would hopefully be a victory for the game at large, because it would act as proof that creating a strong pipeline of juniors is still a means to achieving the ultimate victory. This, in turn, would hopefully mean other clubs would start creating five or ten-year plans to have a team that consists largely of their own talent playing first grade.
Look, hopefully the Panthers’ ridiculous run this year already has the rest of the comp reassessing their approach to developing talent but until it nets Penrith a grand final victory, short-sighted board members will be less inclined to make it happen at their own clubs.
So a win for Penrith would be a win for supporters of every club with a big junior base and a trophy cabinet collecting dust – looking at you Eels, Tigers, Knights and Broncos fans.
But a win for Melbourne would be the fairytale ending Cam Smith is angling for.
And Cam has a tendency to get what he wants.