The Melbourne Storm raced out to a 26-0 lead, before serving a late comeback by the Penrith Panthers to claim their third legitimate premiership under Craig Bellamy with a 26-16 win.
On a cold and wet night in Sydney, it was Nathan Cleary and the Panthers who kicked off first and the match got off to an incredible start. with Cleary’s kick bounced towards the touchline and Justin Olam elected to pick it up, having to hastily offload it after being dragged towards touch, eventually resulting in a Melbourne knock-on and Penrith scrum deep in attack.
But it was an Apisai Koroisau knock-on a few minutes later that would lead to the first chance of the game. Melbourne spread it quickly to the left wing on the ensuing set, with Josh Addo-Carr sending a pass into to Olam, who had the ball kicked out his hands by Tyrone May on the way down.
It went to the video referee, but the penalty try was awarded – giving the Storm the early 6-0 lead.
Olam knocked it on from the first set afterwards however, and Josh Mansour looked to have made them pay deep in the corner, but the video referee called it back after pinging Stephen Crichton for obstruction.
Penrith got some repeat sets deep in Melbourne territory at around the 15-minute mark, but the closest they got was being held up just over the try line. Despite dominating possession for most of the opening portion of the half, and boasting big leads in run metres and set completion, the minor premiers just couldn’t penetrate the Storm defence.
Then, with Melbourne in possession, Penrith got caught offside and Cameron Smith took the opportunity to put two more on the board. Smith added two more barely five minutes later after James Fisher-Harris was penalised for a late hit.
The highlight of the first half came soon after, however, with Nathan Cleary throwing a very loose and speculative pass towards the left wing that Suliasi Vunivalu had no trouble intercepting. He did well to escape the clutches of Josh Mansour, before running the length of the field to score a massive try.
Things started to unravel for the Panthers from there, with Villame Kikau called for a contentious knock-on in the 34th minute and, while nothing came of that, they were guilty of a forward pass inside their own territory a few minutes later.
Then, on the stroke of half time, Cameron Smith had the ball knocked out of his grasp one metre out, but simply scooped it up and crossed under the goalposts to put the game just about out of reach before the break.
It was the Storm who’d make the first error of the second half, with an errant pass in their own half rolling close to the touchline and being knocked on by Josh Addo-Carr when he desperately tried to retrieve it.
But, in a play symbolic of the evening, Moses Leota knocked it on in the next set, the Panthers wasted a challenge on the call and then gave up a long-running try to Ryan Papenhuyzen on the scrum.
It was an arm wrestle for the next 15 minutes, before Penrith got their first try of the evening despite the bunker clearly getting a basic obstruction call wrong. Isaah Yeo ran around the back of Kurt Capewell and kicked it to the touchline, with Brian To’o gathering it close to the line and grounding it.
That looked be as good as it would get for the Panthers, with numerous errors and silly penalties seemingly dooming any chance of a fightback.
But the Storm had taken their foot off the pedal too – much to the fury of Craig Bellamy. After another ten minutes of fairly ordinary footy, Stephen Crichton bowled past Brenko Lee to cross and give the Panthers life.
The drama wasn’t over yet, with Jahrome Hughes sin-binned for a professional foul on Villame Kikau close to the line, giving Penrith a one-man advantage for the remainder of the game.
But the Panthers weren’t able to take advantage, with a crucial late knock-on by Dylan Edwards in defence essentially sealing Penrith’s fate.
Nathan Cleary scored a great consolation try late, but they had just three seconds on the clock to get the job done after the kick-off and, despite making the last play entertaining, weren’t able to do so.
Penrith Panthers – 20
Melbourne Storm – 26
Panthers: To’o 56′, Crichton 69′, Cleary 80′
Storm: Olam 4′, Vunivalu 31′, Smith 40′, Papenhuyzen 46′
Panthers: Cleary 2/3 56′, 70′
Storm: C. Smith 5/6 5′, 23′, 27′, 32′, 40′