Before the Melbourne Storm could hop on the bus for the three-hour bus trip back to Noosa with the J.J. Giltinan Shield – the Storm sat and watched the Penrith Panthers and Parramatta Eels in game two of the Cbus Super Stadium double header.
Like a champion fighter in the front row of a top contender’s bout.
Penrith knew by the time they were running out they couldn’t win the minor premiership but they were fully aware the Storm were watching.
It was about making a statement right in front of Craig Bellamy and the reigning premiers.
The Eels toiled and made the Panthers work for it in the first half.
Gave as much as they took.
Penrith looked a little off, just half a step but didn’t make it easy for themselves in the opening passages. At times, individuals like Nathan Cleary and Viliame Kikau took charges head-on like they were simply going to run through Parramatta.
It didn’t happen.
Coach Brad Arthur was ecstatic with his second-string team at oranges.
We all knew, however, that the Panthers weren’t far away.
Then it all clicked in the second half.
No team, including the Storm, combine their halves better than the Panthers when they are at full tilt. We saw it several times as the match went on. Cleary with the double pump and teasing the Eels before linking with Jarome Luai and feeding Brian To’o for more meat pies.
And it kept coming.
When commentators called for Ivan Cleary to rest his stars – they pressed harder.
This was what we expected and it was impressive to watch.
Earlier, the Storm got another 40 minutes of priming.
Melbourne may well have still gone through the season undefeated, broken Eastern Suburbs’ 1975 most consecutive wins record and won back-to-back premierships.
While records like that are fantastic and actually mean something to a prestigious organisation like the Melbourne Storm, coach Craig Bellamy would be happier with how far they have been stretched in 120 minutes of footy.
While the Eels were too good for them last week at Suncorp Stadium, it was the type of rugby league they needed and the challenge they so desperately required.
It was a gruelling, arm-wrestle contest.
The Eels got the premiership points but nobody will remember that if the Storm are holding up the trophy again on the 3rd of October.
Then, to back that up, Cronulla-Sutherland threw down the gauntlet at Cbus Super Stadium.
For 40 minutes, anyway.
They then stayed back to watch Parramatta and the Panthers in the second match of the double header – it may have had more to do with some of the silverware the NRL was set to hand them as 2021 minor premiers.
While the Panthers couldn’t snatch top spot after the Storm defeated Cronulla 28-16 – the fact they knew the Storm would be watching on from the stands would have given them a little more motivation before finals football begins.
We were all waiting for Melbourne to click.
Closer to the mark, we were waiting for Ryan Papenhuyzen to find his mojo after several concussions.
At one point, as he was finding his feet, he shifted the ball instead of cutting into the Sharks line. Cronulla tossed the Storm over the sideline. Eventually it all glued together and Melbourne were imperious in banishing the Sharks.
When ‘the wrestle’ dominated the game, opposition teams thought of the Storm as a big python. Squeezing and squeezing. Now, they are a monstrous anaconda shooting lasers from their eyes.
Funnily enough, it was the two losing sides on Friday night that showed the way into September footy.
For most of 2021, the top clubs didn’t have to worry about forcing set restarts and building pressure thanks to the ridiculous ‘six again’ rule.
The Sharks and Eels earned more footy with their short kicking games in attack and making their respective oppositions kick the ball back to them from under the posts.
We’ll see it more and more in the coming weeks.
It’s been a frustrating season and many were disenchanted with the rule changes and what the NRL looked like.
We now have rugby league back.