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Storm and Panthers will sprinkle some premiership magic on Magic Round

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Roar Guru
10th May, 2022
6

In recent years Magic Round has become the biggest highlight on the NRL calendar, and this year’s edition promises to be massive.

Saturday night features a potential grand final preview between the two most recent premiers, Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers.

While the Storm have been the benchmark club for over a decade, as evidenced by three premierships from five grand final appearances since the salary cap drama of 2010, the Panthers have emerged as the team to beat since the turn of the decade.

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The mountain men emerged from a disappointing 2019 season to top the standings in 2020, winning 18 of 20 regular season matches as well as stringing together a 17-match winning streak before going down to the Storm by 26-20 in the decider at Stadium Australia.

All of Sydney had got behind the Panthers as they sought to bring the title back to the foot of the mountains for the first time in 17 years, but it was the Storm’s experience that proved telling, as they took out their third title in nine years and their fourth overall.

This came despite Craig Bellamy’s side having to set up camp on the Sunshine Coast in the second half of the season when an escalation of COVID-19 cases in Victoria made everyday life pretty much non-existent as the state endured over three months in lockdown.

That heartbreak fuelled Ivan Cleary’s side to go one better in 2021, finishing second behind the southerners and exacting revenge on them in the preliminary final before going all the way for the first time since 2003, defeating the Rabbitohs in the grand final at Suncorp Stadium.

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Cleary and his son Nathan thus became the first father-son pair to win a title together since the Panthers’ previous title, when Martin Lang played as a prop forward under John Lang in their upset win over the Sydney Roosters.

The Panthers celebrate with the NRL Premiership Trophy

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Despite preseason suggestions of a premiership hangover at the foot of the mountains, the Panthers won their first eight matches before falling to the Parramatta Eels by 22-20 last Friday night, suffering their first loss at home since July 2019.

The defeat was shrouded by controversy, however, as it was revealed that an Eels trainer had run across the in-goal area while Nathan Cleary was lining up a conversion. He missed, which ultimately proved to be the difference.

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That, coupled with the Storm’s crushing 42-6 win over the Dragons last Sunday, saw the mountain men lose top spot on the ladder to the Victorian club, who have the superior for-and-against record.

Over the first nine rounds, Craig Bellamy’s side have scored 335 points, the most by any side after nine rounds since 1935, and conceded just 110, equal with the Panthers for the least points coughed up so far this season.

This therefore sets up what promises to be an epic battle of defences, with both sides keen to test each other out, not least the Panthers, who will be keen to put last Friday night’s heartbreaking loss to the Eels behind them.

Like the Panthers, their solitary defeat came at the hands of the blue-and-golds in golden point at home in Round 3. Were it not for those losses, both clubs could so easily have been undefeated entering Magic Round this weekend.

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BALLARAT, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 27: Cameron Munster of the Storm passes the ball during the NRL Trial Match between the Melbourne Storm and the Newcastle Knights at Mars Stadium on February 27, 2022 in Ballarat, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

The Storm will be tested over the next few months, with 2020 Clive Churchill Medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen set to miss up to six weeks with a knee injury, while Reimis Smith faces three months on the sidelines due to a pectoral tear.

The Panthers, meantime, have a mostly clean bill of health apart from illness keeping Scott Sorensen out of their loss to the Eels.

Saturday night’s match at Suncorp Stadium is the final game of a massive Saturday triple-header which is already sold out, and it will be the first match for either side in the sunshine state this season.

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For the Panthers it is a return to where they achieved the ultimate glory last year after 13 clubs were forced to evacuate north in July when a dramatic escalation of COVID-19 cases smothered the southern states.

It will also be the first time the Storm and Panthers go toe-to-toe since last year’s preliminary final, in which the mountain men overturned the previous year’s grand final loss with a 10-6 victory that saw them through to a second consecutive decider.

Apart from two losses at the tail-end of last season, the Storm have otherwise enjoyed a strong record at Suncorp – and their record in Queensland combined with their venture into the Sunshine Coast market have seen them adopted as the sunshine state’s ‘fourth team’.

Such is the excitement and intrigue surrounding this match that Channel Nine in Melbourne will show it on its main channel rather than on 9Gem, pitting it head-to-head with the AFL match between Sydney and Essendon on Channel Seven.

With the likelihood that Lance Franklin will again put on a show for the Swans against a side he has tormented for over 17 years, the battle for television ratings in Victoria will also be a subplot this weekend.

If the Storm and Panthers continue on their winning ways this season, it would not surprise if they again meet in the showpiece match at the end of the season, where the former side could shoot for a fourth title in 11 years and the latter back-to-back titles for the first time.

As for this Saturday night, bring it on.

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