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ANALYSIS: Good luck everyone else as Penrith have way To'o much power - but Storm did everything to help them

22nd September, 2023
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22nd September, 2023
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If anyone stops the threepeat, it will be a miracle. Penrith advance to the Grand Final with a 38-4 dismantling of the Storm at Accor Stadium, further enhancing their credentials as the best team in the NRL, and likely, the best of the NRL era. As if that were necessary.

Melbourne didn’t help themselves at all, dropping the ball constantly on a night where they had to be at their best to stand a chance. 

Even so, they could have played perfectly and still lost. Penrith are that good. Nathan Cleary is that good. This was the biggest margin in a Preliminary Final in the NRL era. That good.

The halfback had been in the wars in the week, but produced another virtuoso showing to end the contest by half time.

He scored in the 54th minute, but by then, a try was about the only mark he hadn’t hit. There were trysaving plays, superb kicks and, of course, attacking creativity everywhere. 

Jarome Luai, who had been the big fitness question coming in, eased into the game but was given an easy ride by the Melbourne attack, who failed to spot him up in defence, before producing a few trademark moments to help blow the Storm away after the break. He got his mark just before the hour.

Though the focus is always on the halves, this was a pure team performance that will give Ivan Cleary more confidence going into next week’s Grand Final. Every cog is working.

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Singling players out seems a little unfair on those not mentioned, such was the collective effort, but Brian To’o’s hat trick and Stephen Crichton’s silky hands were particularly impressive.

Only Izack Tago, who suffered a little in defence on his return after one game in two months, was less than perfect, and he will improve for the run.

Craig Bellamy was at his demonstrative best in the coaches’ box during the first half, dumbfounded at how his team invited so much pressure on themselves. Their completion rate in the first half wouldn’t beat many teams in the NRL, and certainly wasn’t going to beat Penrith.

“We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot, we blew our foot off,” he said.

“We had opportunities in the first half, but we didn’t nail them, we didn’t complete well and we know what Penrith do. They’ll just strangle you.

“At half time, they were 100% and we were 57% – you’re not going to beat them doing that.”

Ivan Cleary, however, will reflect on perhaps the best manifestation yet of what he wants his team to be. Good luck next week, everyone else.

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“For this group and this year and the season we’ve had, to be able to go out and deliver that sort of performance – it wasn’t all perfect by any stretch but we just worked it out and found a way,” said the Panthers coach.

“I’m very, very proud of everyone at the club, particularly the players, and I’m really looking forward to next week.”

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Melbourne don’t give themselves a chance

Any pretence that Melbourne had to keep it tight lasted precisely two sets. Marion Seve leaned on a little too much in the ruck, with Adam Gee pinging him for the penalty. 

The Panthers then rolled straight into one of the best sets of the year. They kept everything central, using forwards to maneuvre into position, before a smart piece of ball-playing from Isaah Yeo got Moses Leota’s nose through a ruck.

With the slightest of advantages, they immediately hit right, ending with Brian To’o at the corner. 

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It was everything that we have come to expect: the slightest error punished through ruthless efficiency. An inch given, a yard taken.

Though the Storm did get one back through Olam, they wasted a further opportunity when the Kumuls centre dropped one dead with the line begging, and continued to offer chances.

A forward pass invited the Panthers in and Melbourne were lucky to get away with just a penalty goal against. They didn’t learn: Seve forced an offload that wasn’t there and To’o was back in the corner within 60 seconds.

It was a brutal exhibition in what Penrith do, and indeed, how not to play them. Melbourne had to be perfect, but chucked one of their few chances and then presented the Panthers with a few of their own. They are rarely profligate. 

In order to stand a chance here, the Storm had to be perfect, especially in generating then keeping field position. They also had to take their chances when they arose.

There’s an alternative universe where Olam takes his second chance and makes the score 10-4 to the Storm after 13 minutes. They still might not have won, but they’d certainly have given them a chance.

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So was this poor execution, or something else? Bellamy is one of the best around, but this didn’t require a master coach to work out a plan. He wasn’t ever going to go full Bazball, as Anthony Seibold attempted a few weeks back, either.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The mind wandered back to last year’s Preliminary Final, when the Panthers defeated Souths side who had been pretty good in the first half but lost anyway.

“The competitor in me wants to hate Penrith, I really do,” he said. “But the coach in me is so respectful of what they do.”

“Everyone has a plan, but to beat this team you’ve got to be able to stay at it for 80 minutes. You’ve got to be disciplined, you’ve got to be relentless, as relentless as they are.”

Bellamy might well find himself thinking the same 12 months later.

Nathan Cleary is a bit good

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There was one passage in the first half that showed what Nathan Cleary has become in the last month. 

Melbourne were pushing and Harry Grant slid in a kick that Izack Tago did very well to return to the field of play. To’o grabbed a few more metres, and from the play the ball, Cleary jumped to dummy half to cover.

Instead of feeding a waiting Dylan Edwards, he snuck up the blind side, pinching more yards and winning a penalty. Penrith swept the field and, when the final pass was there in the opposite corner, there was Cleary again to feed Sunia Turuva.

It spoke to his growth in recent weeks to cover Jarome Luai. The halfback is doing all the halfback stuff, but also fair bulk of the five eighth’s job too.

In the last three games, he’s managed 196m, 148m, 194m – tonight wasn’t quite to that level, but he established that running threat early enough that he didn’t have to show it later on.

For context, he’d managed to hit 140m three times in his previous 20 matches, but has hit it in each of the last four.
Sometimes you’re just hot. It’s not like his father would be expecting him to make the sort of miracle defensive play he did in the first half to intercept a pass from a Harry Grant break.

He won’t expect him to be at 80% goalkicking from the left sideline either. These are just the fringe benefits of having the best player in the world, no question, in your side.

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