The Penrith Panthers have avenged their heartache from the 2020 grand final, beating the Melbourne Storm 10-6 in a bruising, error-filled encounter that was, nonetheless, absolutely brilliant to watch.
It means Ivan Cleary’s side will take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs in the 2021 grand final next Sunday, in what will be the first-ever NRL decider to be played in Brisbane.
You’d have to say, with favourite son (or should that be beloved granddad?) Wayne Bennett coaching the Bunnies, that Souths will have the majority of fans’ support at Suncorp next weekend, but if the Panthers defend the way they did today, being booed won’t make any difference to them.
Plus, the Panthers will be full of confidence, having dispatched a team that set or equalled a number of historic records this season – only to be denied a place in the grand final and thus meaning they won’t be in the record books for the only piece of history that really matters.
So how did it all shake out?
The pink wall of Penrith
Being the lower-ranked team and with the Storm wearing their dark-purple home strip, the Pennies ran out wearing their pink jersey (which, can I just say, is one of the raddest away jerseys in the comp).
The Panthers then proceeded to reinforce the known fact that real men wear pink, putting in a defensive shift for the ages.
Playing a side that had scored more than 850 points in 2021 – an average of more than 34 points per match – the Panthers held the Storm to just six points.
While Penrith scored early, the first try of the match coming in the third minute, you just knew that if they had possession and territory the Storm would turn it into points.
— NRL (@NRL) September 25, 2021
That possession and territory came around the 25th minute, as Melbourne had five sets in a row and were hammering the Panthers’ line. The sense was that we were about to see things level up on the scoreboard.
But weird things kept happening.
No one stops Ryan Papenhuyzen in space. The Panthers did.
No one stops a charging Justin Olam. The Panthers did.
Play after play the Storm were coming at Penrith, with smart kicks ensuring there would be, at the very least, a line dropout and another chance to get on the scoreboard.
And the eventual outcome? Rather than finding a chink in the Panthers’ wall, the Storm were the ones who made the error and turned it over.
It’s not that they were perfect, missing 43 tackles, but Penrith scrambled with so much urgency and just kept (as they say in the classics) turning up for each other. This was perhaps best exemplified by Scott Sorensen chasing down a runaway Jahrome Hughes to stop a try just before halftime.
The result was that it wasn’t until the 62nd minute that the Storm finally managed to get over the line, with Papenhuyzen pouncing on a Cameron Munster kick that came about from an indecisive Harry Grant going left, changing his mind, then throwing it to his unsuspecting five-eighth. It was a fair try, but not one that came about because the Storm finally broke down their opponents through considered, structured play.
— NRL (@NRL) September 25, 2021
As for concerns that the Storm would suddenly find a second wind and seize that most precious of intangibles known as ‘momentum’ after finally getting on the scoreboard, they were soon put to bed, the Panthers continuing to pin Melbourne down in their own half with the kind of defence that wins premierships.
The Storm suffer two massive blows early in the proceedings
This match was the first time in season 2021 the Storm had been able to field their first-choice 17.
That didn’t last long.
There was a hold in proceedings following Stephen Crichton’s try, referee Gerard Sutton having to settle things down between the two sides before he awarded the points.
And at the centre of the aggro was Christian Welch and Tevita Pangai Junior, who had come together for a bit of push and shove for the second time in the early stages.
Fans were licking their lips at what promised to be a juicy running battle between the two big men.
However it was not to be, a head clash seeing Welch removed from the field just before the eighth minute, not to return (we’ll come back to that).
Shortly after, Brandon Smith made a massive play – and claimed a piece of rugby league history – in making the first ever 20-40, with Dylan Edwards seemingly forgetting (as plenty of the rest of us had) that the rule even existed, just watching the ball dribble over the sideline.
Regardless of Edwards’ error, it appeared the Cheese was on.
Then, after going in hard for a tackle on Nathan Cleary, Smith got up clutching at his right shoulder and proceeded to shuffle around the ground, his arm hanging at his side.
Eventually play was called off and a trainer tended to Smith. He stayed on for one more play before being taken from the field, another to have an early shower for failing a HIA.
So by the 15th minute, the Storm were down to just 15 men. It was to prove decisive.
However, having said that…
The Storm were just off
Before 20 minutes had elapsed, the Storm had let two tries go begging due to poor handling, while Hughes made a kick that was so far out on the full it almost ended up on the reserves bench.
It was a harbinger of what was to come. Melbourne were just off.
By halftime they had made nine errors and had a completion rate of 64 per cent – numbers that read 16 errors and 69 per cent completion rate at the end of proceedings.
These are decidedly un-Melbourne stats.
What was worse, though, was the lack of urgency after the errors. They’d drop the ball, then drop their heads or appeal to the ref, rather than just pounce on the loose pill. The result would then be zero tackle for the Panthers, giving them not only the ball but an added tackle to boot.
Credit obviously needs to go to the Panthers for their staunch defence, which absolutely contributed to the Storm’s wayward ball handling, but words like ‘errors’, ‘lack of control’ and ‘absence of urgency’ are rarely used when talking about a team coached by Craig Bellamy.
Their campaign is over, so you wonder if he’s got any real fury in him – the post-match presser suggested not, keeping his cool and summing it up as, “We got what we deserved and the Panthers got what they deserved.”
But if this had happened during the regular season, the great coach would have spontaneously combusted in the sheds after the match.
Issues with the interchange continue
In the early exchanges, Welch made a tackle on Matt Burton that resulted in a head clash from which the Storm prop appeared to come off worse.
However, it wasn’t until a minute or so later, when the Panthers were hammering the Storm’s try line, that a trainer called time off to assess Welch.
The big man was cleared as being fine to play on – surprise, surprise – and the game continued, with Welch on the field.
Yeah, that’s not on.
According to a rule brought in prior to the start of this season, specifically designed to “reduce the number of stoppages for minor injuries”, Welch needed to come from the field:
“In 2021, where a trainer asks a match official to stop the game for an injury, the injured player must be either interchanged or taken off the field for a period of two minutes of elapsed game time before he is permitted to resume his place on the field.”
On the one hand it made little difference, with Crichton making the match-opening score seconds later.
But on the other hand, it makes a huge difference given all the brouhaha we’ve been dealing with this week due to a Panthers trainer stopping play, seemingly just to give his team a breather and a chance to reset their line.
It’ll be complicated further due to the fact Welch passed his on-field HIA only to be taken from the field a few minutes later, where he failed his HIA, but the actual injury isn’t the issue, it’s the process.
It’s straightforward but the NRL have managed to botch it two weeks in a row.
The score should have been 12-6
Turns out Nathan Cleary’s boot isn’t infallible, the halfback just missing his second conversion attempt from the sideline.
But that’s not why the scoreline should have favoured the Panthers ever so slightly more.
Jarome Luai looked to have his mid-season spark back in this game and had just made a slashing run down the field late in the first half, going deep into Melbourne territory, when he was tackled by Harry Grant and Cameron Munster – and dropped the ball.
The Panthers’ five-eighth stayed down, looking decidedly groggy. Rather than your garden-variety knock-on, Munster had caught the falling Luai in the back of the head, leading to the dropped ball.
Now, it was an accident, the kind that has happened ever since rugby league has been played in this country since 1908.
But this season, particularly after Magic Round, a player who tackled a falling man high was penalised – and usually put on report.
For Munster, there was no such penalty.
I think it’s the right way for the game to be officiated – as I said, this has happened every season in the game’s history – but the Panthers would feel very stiff that they lost an Origin player to be assessed off-field for a HIA in an incident that has drawn a penalty all season but they got no such joy.
And it was in a position where Cleary would have slotted a penalty goal to get them up by eight instead of six.
Souths would have loved this game
We won’t know the full extent of these 80 minutes until teams for the grand final are named, but after putting the Sea Eagles to the sword on Friday night, Souths would have loved that the Panthers spent Saturday afternoon in a proper battle of attrition.
A scoreline that reads 10-6 tells you that this was a defence-oriented game and when you also factor in the desperation that comes with being the finals, you don’t need to have even seen it to know that this was a brutal match.
There will be a lot of sore bodies in the Penrith camp. James Fisher-Harris and Pangai both finished the game in varying states of distress, and while Brian To’o appeared fine, he was wearing jersey No.21 as he had been in doubt to play most of the week.
Perhaps the biggest concern for the Panthers will be Nathan Cleary.
It’s well known that he’s been managing a shoulder injury since Origin and it was brought to the fore as he made a tackle late in the game that left him clutching at his shoulder as he gingerly rejoined the defensive line.
Less of a concern but one that will still be hovering over the halfback, his team and his coach-dad will be that he was put on report for a lifting tackle on Kenny Bromwich. As I say, it’s not a great concern – there really didn’t seem to be much in it – but until Cleary’s given the all-clear, it’ll be buzzing around at the back of their minds.
A handy video for the game’s commentators
I saw this little chestnut this week – a video put out by the Panthers’ media unit earlier this year where the players give the correct pronunciations of their names.
Yeah, Channel Nine’s commentators would do well to give it a quick once-over. The fact former Panthers boss Phil Gould is in the commentary box really isn’t the cheat-sheet they seem to think it is on the FTA broadcaster, as evidenced by his ongoing mispronunciation of Isaah Yeo’s first name or occasionally calling their rep winger “Brian Two”.
Pronouncing people’s names correctly is an important part of the gig – especially when you claim that you’re entertaining and informing the public with your ‘inside’ knowledge.
Try harder, Nine.