The Melbourne Storm have won yet another grand final, a superb opening half propelling them to their fourth NRL premiership.
Ryan Papenhuyzen won the Clive Churchill Medal, Cameron Smith grabbed a try in what may or may not be his final NRL game, but the Panthers showed impressive character to force a thrilling finish.
Bizarre ending to a bizarre season
As far as grand finals go, it certainly wasn’t the worst we’ve ever seen, but it didn’t quite have the feel of a match which went down to the very last play.
Melbourne utterly dominated the first half – the 22-0 scoreline at the break didn’t, contrary to certain reports coming out of the commentary box, flatter them, and Ryan Papenhuyzen’s early second-half try looked to have put the match to bed.
A lull followed, punctuated by a head-scratching try to Brian To’o and plenty of entertaining cuts to Craig Bellamy in the coaches box, who wasn’t behaving anything like a man whose side was in cruise control in a grand final.
As it was, the veteran coach was onto something. The Panthers finally clicked in attack and produced a superb surge to threaten what would have been one of the greatest comebacks in NRL history.
Jahrome Hughes was sent to the sin-bin, Josh Mansour scored out wide, Brandon Smith was sent to the sin-bin, Nathan Cleary scored in close, but there just wasn’t enough time left for Penrith to finish their comeback.
Much like the 2020 season itself, the grand final was unusual – dare I say “unprecedented”? – but it finished as an entertaining, even thrilling, affair.
Panthers have no one to blame for their first half but themselves
Their incredible second-half effort almost made up for it, but Penrith’s dismal display before the break lost them the grand final.
With a penalty try, no try, and an on-field no try overturned all going against them, some Panthers fans might have been looking towards the referees as the culprits for their first-half showing.
But all three of those decisions were bang on the money. Tyrone May might not have endangered Justin Olam, but by sticking out a leg he illegally prevented the Melbourne centre from scoring. A penalty try was correct.
Josh Mansour’s disallowed try was less clear cut, but there was no doubting Stephen Crichton made contact with his opposite, Brenko Lee, in the lead-up. Similarly, Api Koroisau clearly knocked the ball from Cameron Smith’s hands as the Storm skipper scored on the halftime buzzer.
Give the men in the Bunker a perfect score for their first-half efforts. Their second-half ruling for Brian To’o’s try was… less so.
And while there were a couple of admittedly iffy decisions which went against the Panthers – Viliame Kikau being penalised for offside after a Melbourne player seemed to have knocked the ball on, and then Kikau again being pinged for a forward pass when it was, in fact, knocked back by the Storm – the minor premiers didn’t take the opportunity to challenge them, instead wasting their challenge soon after halftime.
The decision to start Tyrone May at centre badly backfired too, as he struggled in defence and threw a careless forward pass, while Brent Naden looked far more dangerous in attack after he came on.
Ultimately, in spite of what Phil Gould would have you believe, no one was at fault more for their 22-0 deficit than Penrith.
They missed 17 tackles in the first half, completed at barely over 63 per cent, and were unable to manage a single line break despite throwing more offloads than the Storm. A recipe for success that is not.
Grand final experience counts for plenty
To be fair to Penrith, they did enjoy some good field position early on, but they didn’t look looked composed in attack – or defence, for that matter – until late in the game. Gone was the calm, lethal playmaking from Jerome Luai and Nathan Cleary, replaced instead by rushed passes and, in Cleary’s case, a loopy, floating intercept for Suliasi Vunivalu.
Viliame Kikau looked flustered in his first game since the opening week of the finals, and James Fisher-Harris gave away a silly penalty which gifted Melbourne two points.
Melbourne, for the most part, played like a side thoroughly accustomed to the big stage. They completed far more efficiently in the first half, and after grabbing the opening try, were content to chip away with a couple of penalty goals to keep ratcheting up the scoreboard pressure.
After dropping off and allowing Penrith back into the game, that experience came to the fore again in the closing minutes. In the face of a remarkable of late comebacks after Hughes was sin-binned, the Storm simply kicked well, forced a repeat set and whittled the clock away so that there just wasn’t enough time for the Panthers to send the match into extra-time, even with Cleary’s outstanding late try.
As disheartening as tonight’s result is, the Panthers will be back. Their improvement in this year alone has been outstanding – hell, it was remarkable in this match alone – and their young cohort will learn from defeat on the big stage and be desperate to return to make up for a lacklustre opening half.
Love them or hate them, you have to admire the Storm
They have more detractors than probably any other club, but the Melbourne Storm’s consistent success is remarkable. Tonight was their fourth grand final appearance in the last five years, and their third premiership of the last decade.
Making that streak more admirable is how flawlessly they’ve managed to replace key players. Jahrome Hughes has blossomed into an assured playmaker wearing Cooper Cronk’s old number seven jersey, and was among the Storm’s best in the first half.
Ryan Papenhuyzen, on the other hand, had perhaps the even more daunting task of taking over from Billy Slater at fullback. Safe to say he’s exceeded expectations on that front – viewers would have been forgiven for thinking Slater had returned from retirement when Papenhuyzen scythed through the Penrith right-side defence and raced away to score the match-sealing try.
His excellent match didn’t finish there, with a jaw-dropping effort to fling the ball into play off a penalty touchfinder denying the Panthers excellent field position. Add in a further line-break assist and a game-high 208 running metres, Papenhuyzen was a deserving Clive Churchill Medallist.
When he eventually does retire, whether it’s the offseason or a later one, replacing Cameron Smith will prove even harder than Cronk or Slater. But with either Brandon Smith or Harry Grant at hooker, and more importantly Craig Bellamy still at the helm, only a fool would bet against the Storm remaining one of the NRL’s elite teams.