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2020 NRL grand final: The ultimate preview

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21st October, 2020
6

Up to 40,000 fans will pack ANZ Stadium on Sunday for the 2020 grand final between the Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm.

The Storm have been away from home since their Round 7 match against the Warriors, played in Sydney. They then relocated to the Sunshine Coast, the home of their netball sister side the Sunshine Coast Lightning.

Craig Bellamy’s side adapted well to their new temporary home, winning three matches (including two finals) at Suncorp Stadium and winning all six of their matches at Sunshine Coast Stadium to finish second with a record of 16 wins, four losses and a points differential of +258.

Meantime, the Panthers won their final 15 matches in a row to secure the club’s first minor premiership since 2003, with a record of 18 wins, one loss, one draw and a points differential of +299.

Looking back now, it’s fair to say that the first seed planted in what has been a successful season for the mountain men was the Round 1 win over the Sydney Roosters, in which they came from behind to win 20-14 just before the crowd lockouts began.

Now, it is left to the two best sides of the NRL season to fight it out in the grand final, which was originally fixtured to be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground but was returned to ANZ Stadium after planned renovations at the latter venue were abandoned due to COVID-19.

Both the Panthers and Storm enjoyed direct routes to the game, winning their respective qualifying finals against the Roosters and Eels at Panthers Stadium and Suncorp Stadium.

They then defeated the Rabbitohs and Raiders in their respective preliminary finals, with Ivan Cleary’s side outlasting the Pride of the League by 20-16 and the Storm having their berth wrapped up by halftime when they led the Green Machine 24-6.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers runs the ball

Nathan Cleary (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

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Penrith will be boosted by the return of Viliame Kikau from suspension, while the Storm will go in unchanged from their preliminary final side.

The grand final will see Ivan Cleary come up against Craig Bellamy in a finals match for the third time, and there is no reason why the former should feel nervous, having masterminded two upset victories against the Storm during his time as Warriors coach.

The first came in the historic 2008 fourth qualifying final, when the Warriors became the first eighth-placed team to win a match under the much-maligned McIntyre system, when they upset the Storm 18-15 at the since-demolished Olympic Park Stadium.

Most famous of all was the Warriors’ 20-12 win in the 2011 preliminary final, which denied Melbourne a spot in the decider 12 months after they were sentenced to finish last due to massive salary cap breaches.

While the Storm have been a side of consistency and excellence since those dark days of 2010, for the Panthers this will be their first grand final since 2003, when they defeated the Roosters 18-6 to win the most recent of their two flags.

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And while Cleary and Bellamy will face each other as coaches in a finals match for the third time in 13 seasons, it will be the first time these two clubs face each other in any kind of finals match.

Penrith have to overcome a poor record against their opposition, having only beaten the southerners three times since 2005. That does, however, include the teams’ only regular-season meeting, in Round 6, when the Pennies won 21-14 at Campbelltown Stadium. Scores were 14-all with 20 minutes to play, before a try to Kikau and a field goal to Nathan Cleary got the home side the win.

This is expected to be the final match played by Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith, the NRL’s games record holder. The 37-year-old has achieved just about everything in the game, winning two premierships (not including the stripped 2007 and 2009 premierships) and claiming the Dally M Medal twice – 11 years apart, in 2006 and 2017.

The only one major award he has yet to win is the Clive Churchill Medal and how fitting would it be if he wins it in his NRL swansong.

Joshua Addo-Carr and Cameron Smith of the Storm celebrate

Cameron Smith (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

A premiership win for the Storm in what is their tenth grand final would be their fourth legitimate title, and third in the past nine years. From the side that has been named, there are only nine survivors remaining from their 2017 premiership side, including Smith.

As for the Panthers, only their captain, James Tamou, and reserve forward Zane Tetevano have tasted the ultimate success, being part of premiership sides with the Cowboys and Roosters in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

Coincidentally, Tetevano will face the Storm in a grand final for the second time in three years.

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Further, Ivan and Nathan Cleary could become the first father-son combination to win a premiership since John and Martin Lang did so in 2003, also with the Panthers.

[1] Penrith Panthers vs [2] Melbourne Storm
Sunday, October 24 at 7:30pm (local)
ANZ Stadium, Sydney

This season: Panthers won 21-14 at Campbelltown Stadium in Round 17.
Last meeting in a finals match: none previous.

The stats that matter
• This is Melbourne’s tenth grand final, they are 5-4 so far, losing the most recent against the Roosters in 2018. They will be looking to win their fourth legitimate premiership after their 2007 and 2009 titles were stripped due to salary cap breaches.
• This is Penrith’s fourth grand final and they are 2-1, winning the most recent against the Roosters in 2003. They are aiming to win their first premiership in an even year (their two previous premierships came in 1991 and 2003).
• Cameron Smith is looking to win his third premiership medallion, all as captain. He is the only remaining survivor from the 2007 and 2009 sides that had their titles stripped.
• Smith only needs to win the Clive Churchill Medal to claim just about every major individual award possible (also including the Golden Boot Award and the Dally M Medal). Others to have achieved this include Johnathan Thurston, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Andrew Johns.
• This will be the first grand final since 2010 not to feature a previous Clive Churchill Medallist.
• The only remaining survivors from the Storm’s 2012 and premiership side are Cameron Smith and Jesse Bromwich.
• Storm survivors from their 2017 win are Smith, J Bromwich, Kenny Bromwich, Suliasi Vunivalu, Josh Addo-Carr, Cameron Munster, Felise Kaufusi, Dale Finucane, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
• James Tamou is aiming to win his first premiership as captain.
• Smith can become the first triple-premiership winning captain this century.

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The verdict
The Storm have more premiership experience but the Panthers have been the most consistent team all season, as evidenced by winning 17 straight matches and not being beaten for more than four months.

The Panthers have the Sydney support, as was the case in 2016 when the Sharks had nearly all of the city behind them, with the expectation that ANZ Stadium will be a sea of black.

Predictions
Match: Penrith Panthers by four points
First try: Dylan Edwards (Panthers), Josh Addo-Carr (Storm)
Most tackles: Viliame Kikau (Panthers), Kenny Bromwich (Storm)
Clive Churchill Medal: Ivan Cleary (if the Panthers win), Ryan Papenhuyzen (if the Storm win)