So close, and yet so far!
Penrith’s amazing season ended in heartbreak with just their second loss of 2020 while the Melbourne Storm held onto win another premiership.
This game had everything. A massive first half from Melbourne, a resurgence from Penrith late, two sin bins in the final 10 minutes and one last play to level it up. After processing the result over a couple days, here are my takeaways.
Cameron Smith became undesirable to undeniable
There have been discussions regarding whether another grand final win puts Cameron Smith into the Greatest of All-Time conversations. Personally, he can definitely be in the conversation however I just don’t feel like he would be on top of the list.
However, it does depend on the criteria though. If we’re talking about the hooker position, he is the greatest hooker of all time. But overall, I can’t seem to place him over Wally Lewis or Andrew Johns, and it would be fairly tight with Johnathan Thurston
Obviously, everybody has their opinions and are welcome to make their cases.
While I have never been a massive fan of Cameron Smith, the grand final victory has certainly taught me to respect and admire his achievements and longevity during his career.
What he has accomplished is amazing and he will be a sorely missed player once he retires from the game.
Experience trumps over every factor in the grand final
Heading into the game, the Melbourne Storm were much more experienced in grand final situations compared to the Penrith Panthers. Penrith are only infants when it comes to the big stage and it certainly showed in the opening half when the Storm raced out to a huge lead.
Whether you thought the Panthers had the better talent or better philosophies in styles of play, everything that was built up leading to the grand final had to be thrown out the window. We saw examples back in 2017 and 2019 when the experienced side of the Storm and Roosters took on the hot teams of Cowboys and Raiders.
The most recent exception would be the Cronulla Sharks when they won back in 2016 against the Storm.
The Panthers were clearly rattled and made plenty of errors and only completed less than 70 per cent of their sets. How the team looked leading into the finals with 17 straight wins can be scrapped for the grand final. When people mention finals football experience, it matters for a reason.
Christian Welch and Nelson Asofa-Solomona were the unsung heroes
Everyone will be raving about the performances of Cameron Smith and Clive Churchill medal winner Ryan Papenhuyzen.
However, you can’t discount the underrated performances of Welch and Asofa-Solomona doing the hard work. Welch and Asofa-Solomona played 52 and 43 minutes respectively. While Welch had a superhuman effort on the defensive end, Asofa-Solomona wreaked havoc with the ball.
Christian Welch managed 42 tackles in 52 minutes while also providing one offload, one tackle break and 16 runs for 132 metres. Meanwhile, Nelson Asofa-Solomona had 12 runs for 118 metres, produced 25 tackles and made 6 tackle breaks while leading the team with 59 post contact metres.
They set the foundations which allowed Melbourne to flourish throughout the game.
The Penrith Panthers will be contenders for years to come
If anybody said that Penrith will move from tenth in 2019 to become runner ups and minor premiers in 2020, it would have been a bold prediction. But here we are with the Panthers gaining extremely valuable experience and will be looking to improve with a fairly young squad.
They’ll be able to run it back for 2021 with everyone returning except James Tamou and Tyrone May being the most notable names in the grand final squad that will be off contract. They still have so much depth to cover the departures and many of the key players are locked up for multiple years.
Penrith fans have reason to be excited amidst their massive disappointment.
Time for Smith to retire to introduce the new era of Harry Grant and/or Brandon Smith
With plenty of speculation and no confirmed announcements regarding Cameron Smith’s plans to retire, it would be beneficial for the Storm and Smith to move on.
Harry Grant who was loaned to the Wests Tigers in 2020 made a massive statement saying he would look to play elsewhere should Cameron Smith return for 2021.
Melbourne have a dilemma as their trio of hookers in Cameron Smith, Brandon Smith and Harry Grant means there’s not enough minutes to go around. There is a certainly a chance for Brandon Smith to leave also as he is looking for a bigger opportunity as opposed to coming off the bench.
Overall, Harry Grant has shown his quality and looks to be a star in the making in the NRL. Averaging almost 50 tackles a game, he also mixes it up with over 80 running metres per game and has produced three tries, five try assists and six line break assists
The front office for the Storm will have some interesting scenarios to prepare for.