Six weeks out from the start of the finals series, we’ll get a sneak peek of September when the Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers square off in a pre-finals blockbuster at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
It isn’t hard to see why these two have been the most consistent teams of the season, with the Storm riding a 15-match winning streak dating back to Round 3 and the Panthers continuing to go about their business, even with halfback and co-captain Nathan Cleary sidelined.
Last week, both sides were given serious tests of their premiership credentials by lowly-ranked Queensland sides, with the mountain men overcoming a brave Brisbane Broncos side at Suncorp Stadium while the Storm survived a major scare against the Cowboys in Townsville.
For the second time this season the mountain men were held on a leash by the Broncos in Brisbane. After winning their Round 6 encounter by just 20-12 a hundred days earlier, they were held try-less in the first half, though Dylan Edwards potted a two-point field goal just before halftime.
Three quick-fire tries got them out to an 18-0 lead, but the Broncos would peg back two of their own as they threatened to send the match into golden point.
But coach Ivan Cleary wouldn’t have been impressed with his side’s performance, especially after they missed a whopping 66 tackles as the Broncos pushed for a huge upset, which could’ve seen them skip clear of the Bulldogs in the race to avoid the wooden spoon.
(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)
He also fumed after losing his other co-captain, Isaah Yeo, to a high tackle from Tom Flegler for which the Bronco was sin-binned when many argued he should have been sent off.
On the other hand, the Storm appeared headed for an easy night in the office against the Cowboys when Dogs-bound winger Josh Addo-Carr scored after just three minutes, followed by Justin Olam scoring not long after to give them a 10-0 lead.
However, they quickly fell behind 12-10 early in the second half as the Cowboys pushed for an upset win, and after the Storm reclaimed the lead 20-12 the northerners would not throw in the towel just yet, pegging it back to 20-16 with less than five minutes remaining.
The Storm would hold on in the end to claim their 13th straight win over the Cowboys, dating back to the 2015 preliminary final, and their 26th straight win in Queensland, dating back to mid-2017.
The club’s dominant record in the sunshine state, where they were based in the second half of last season, and for most of this season, should give them the edge as they attempt to reverse their Round 3 loss to the Panthers.
When the two clubs met four months ago, it was the mountain men who won 12-10 but only after Viliame Kikau put a try-saving tackle on Justin Olam right at the death, giving his side a 3-0 start to the season while sentencing the Storm to a 1-2 record.
Since then, the Panthers have dropped two matches – in consecutive weeks against the Wests Tigers and Sharks in Rounds 13 and 14 respectively – to drop to second on the ladder ahead of Saturday night’s heavyweight clash at Suncorp Stadium.
Meantime, the Storm have adapted to life without Cameron Smith well – something the Roosters and Broncos struggled to do when their respective club legends, Brad Fittler and Darren Lockyer, retired at the end of the 2004 and 2011 seasons.
Following the 2004 season, the Chooks didn’t win another finals match until 2010, before which they crashed to a wooden spoon in 2009, but they would ultimately become the most successful side of the 2010s decade, winning titles in 2013, 2018 and 2019.
Meanwhile, despite consistently reaching the finals in the years following Lockyer’s retirement, the Broncos could not find the right ingredients to win a premiership, though they did reach the decider in 2015, which they lost to the Cowboys in heartbreaking fashion.
The current-day Storm side, which also lost Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater to the Roosters and retirement in 2017 and 2018 respectively, will be shooting for a club-record 16th consecutive win on Saturday night.
(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)
Standing in the way are the Penrith Panthers, who have won three of their last five matches against the Storm dating back to the final round of the 2018 season.
The mountain men will be without Isaah Yeo, who was concussed from the aforementioned tackle from Tom Flegler in the opening minutes, as well as suspended hooker Apisai Koroisau, James Fisher-Harris (who has returned to Sydney for family reasons) and Nathan Cleary.
Premiership-winning Sharks hooker Michael Ennis has recently questioned the club’s direction in attack, while the 66 tackles they missed against the Broncos was the most by any side this season, quite surprising for a side that is second on the ladder.
Given the personnel that the Panthers are without, it is no surprise that the Storm will start favourites as they look to extend their winning streak and continue their march to consecutive premierships, something the club has never achieved.
It is possible that this may not be the only time these teams meet at Suncorp Stadium this year. The chance that the ground could host the NRL grand final is very high as the current COVID-19 crisis in New South Wales is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.