2020 was a NRL season like no other, and in many ways it felt incredible enough to arrive at such a galvanising grand final after the lockdown earlier in the year. Nathan Cleary was celebrating his 100th game as he steeled himself and the 2020 minor premiers to chase down their first grand final win since 2003, while Melbourne were keen to show that Cam Smith was as good as ever in what might well be his last finals appearance.
The Storm had to scramble in the early minutes, as Cleary’s first kick was almost ricocheted over the sideline by Jahrome Hughes, and Brenko Lee was dragged over the sideline as he cleaned it up, popping it back in time to avoid a handover, only for Felise Kaufusi to knock on while trying to retrieve it. One minute in, and Penrith had their first scrum from the ten, but the Storm quickly regathered, cleaning up a series of big runs before Kenny Bromwich defused Cleary’s kick on the last.
Two minutes in, and the Storm had their first set, playing it safe to steady the ship, and only really flexing their muscles when an Apisai Koroisau cough-up got them another set on the Penrith line. They headed left on play two, and while Josh Ado-Carr didn’t have quite enough space to cross over, he still managed to lob the footy back in field as Brian To’o dragged him into touch.
Justin Olam came up with it, and burrowed down between Dylan Edwards and Tyrone May, who stuck out a boot to kick the footy free, making the first try a penalty try – the first in a grand final since Jamie Lyon in 2013. James Tamou wasn’t happy, but the replay showed that May had clearly played at the ball – an even better outcome for Melbourne than a regular four-pointer, since it set up Smith to pop it through from right in front.
This should have been consolidation time for the visitors, but instead Olam fumbled the footy early in the restart, gifting Penrith their second scrum of the match. They got the first six again a play later, and crossed over on their own left edge, where a cut-out pass from Jarome Luai and a short ball from Viliame Kikau sent Josh Mansour across. Yet the try was denied due an obstruction from Stephen Crichton on Brenko Lee.
Olam must have been pretty relieved as the game settled into the first real set-for-set sequence all night, with both teams going bomb for bomb, ferrying the footy from one end to the other with all the clinical precision you’d expect from 1 against 2. The kicks got longer and higher, and the pace faster, until what initially looked like a superb late offload from Kikau turned into a penalty for passing on the ground after Kaufusi and Christian Welch had completed the tackle.
Nevertheless, Kenny Bromwich lost it a second later, and the Panthers got another scrum. Melbourne bunched them in at the start, but they soon elasticized on the right edge, and then on the left, before the ball falconed off Olam on the second last play. From there, Penrith got a restart, and then another right in front of the posts, making this the best sustained field position for either team so far.
Isaah Yeoh slammed at the line, May offloaded to Edwards for a run on the right edge, Cleary shifted the play left again to Kikau, and Crichton followed Mansour with another frustrated effort in the corner. Tunneling through Olam, Hughes and Suliasi Vunivalu, he got the ball down just before the chalk but was unable to ground it through the maelstrom of Melbourne jerseys on the other side of the line.
Penrith had one tackle left as Welch left the park for an HIA – replaced by Dane Finucane – and suffered the first of two more agonising close calls on the left side of the field. Cleary started it all with a deft kick to the posts, where Liam Martin climbed over the defenders to tap it back to Luai, who shifted it on to Cleary. The no. 7 lobbed it off the left side of his boot, halfway between a grubber and chip, to Crichton, who tried to kick for himself along the sideline, but sent it on to Hughes instead.
The mountain men were now close to 65% of possession, so the scoreline was a testament to Melbourne’s defence – and to Penrith’s inability to capitalise when they had the chance. Two penalty kicks from Smith now made it a ten point lead – the first after Kikau was called offside, and the second when James Fisher-Harris was put on report for a late tackle – and yet a ruck error from Finucane and hand in the ruck from Tino Faasuamalueai gave Penrith one more big chance in the final ten minutes.
Instead, they got their most heartbreaking left edge frustration this half, as Cleary soared a harbour bridge ball out to Crichton. This was the right play – there were acres of space on that side of the park – but instead Vunivalu leaped up to collect the footy, busted through a tackle from Edwards, outran Edwards and To’o, and finally danced over a last-ditch ankle tap from Luai to slam down the first long-range try of the night.
This was the first genuinely Storm-like play, and one of the best takes under a high ball all year – albeit unconventional. It was also incredible to see, in slow motion, how quickly Vunivalu got to his feet after the collision with Crichton – a single play that amped up the entire match, especially once Smith added his second conversion, and his fourth kick, to make it sixteen unanswered points on the board for the purple army.
Penrith had also looked set to score before Vunivalu got there, so this was effectively a twelve-point turnaround, marking the start of a sharp decline for Penrith as the siren approached. With successive errors from Kikau and May, and then a leg pull from Crichton, it was paramount that the mountain men just get to the sheds and regather before Melbourne could put down another try.
Instead, the first half couldn’t have ended worse for Panthers, as NAS stormed over the line in the last ten seconds. He was held up by a pack effort spearheaded by Yeoh, but still managed to get away a quick play-the-ball to set up a total masterclass for Cameron Smith, who recovered the footy after Koroisau knocked it from his grasp, ducked under Moses Leota and smashed it down under the posts as the half time siren rang out.
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny Smith’s football genius – it’s kind of incredible that he’s still playing so well with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk out of both the Storm and the NRL – and this was a perfect way to cement his legacy, especially since the original call was no try, only for the replay to show that Koroisau had played at the ball, meaning it wasn’t a loose carry from Smith as originally suspected.
Smith added the conversion after the siren, and Ivan Cleary made it clear during his half time interview that Penrith couldn’t afford to concede the next try, so it was troubling for the home crowd when Melbourne came back just as strong – that is, until they aborted a midfield left sweep when Olam missed a pass from Munster, leaving Ado-Carr to try and clean it up on the sideline, where he eventually knocked on.
This was the opening Penrith needed, but instead they wasted their Captain’s Challenge trying to contest a Leota knock-on a tackle later. Even worse, the Storm now showed the mountain men how to do it out of the scrum, as Papenhuyzen collected the footy from Smith, broke through Cleary and May, and scored as clinically and effortlessly as if it had been a scrum from the ten.
Cleary and May didn’t even get a hand to him, and nobody else came close – even Mansour, who could only muster up a parallel run about fifteen metres back in field. Smith missed his first conversion, but this was still a huge surge for the Storm – the perfect combination of their earlier short-range and longe-range efforts – and a pivotal moment in Papenhuyzen’s evolution in the role defined for so many years by Slater
With Kikau fumbling the play-the-ball a minute later, the Panthers were now sitting at ten errors to Melbourne’s six, and had sunk down to 49% of possession for the first time all night, conceding even more position to the Storm with a ruck error from Kikau and then a grapple from Luai. This was almost the death knell for Panthers, as Olam nearly broke through the line and offloaded to Kenny Bromwich on the first, and Hughes put it on a string for Vunivalu on the last.
The replay showed that Vunivalu had bounced the ball, but his determination to get there ahead of Mansour was galvanising, although that made it even more impressive when Penrith built on a Hughes penalty to score the weirdest try of the night. It all started with a kick from Yeoh that was so horizontal it was almost a pass, as the big second-rower realised he’d run behind Kurt Capewell, and so had to get ball to boot as quickly as possible.
This seemed like a pretty clear-cut obstruction, but instead the Bunker came up with the ambiguous call that Yeoh had “kicked the ball not clearly on the inside of the defender.” With the play cleared for the last part, we followed the Bunker footage of To’o as he chased down Ado-Carr and ground the footy on the very cusp of tumbling into touch, before Cleary added his first conversion to make it a twenty point game.
For the first time in a while we glimpsed a chink in Melbourne’s armour, as Dale Finucane found himself with the Steeden at the end of the next set, but managed a pretty good kick to Ado-Carr, only for Hughes to spearhead a pack effort to lift and carry To’o over the try line a play later, getting himself a second effort penalty for his troubles, as Craig Bellamy started to blow up in the coaches’ box
The Panthers got their next chance with a hand in the ruck from Smith, but Papenhuyzen responded with one of the biggest one-man plays of the night, leaping two metres over the sideline and two metres in the air to lob the Steeden back in the field of play. Yet for the first time Penrith fought back immediately, sweeping left on the second play of their subsequent set, until Crichton ducked under Lee and stormed through Hughes and Papenhuyzen for his 17th try of the 2020 season.
Finally, Penrith had made good on their left edge attack – and done it so cleanly and clinically that it felt like we might be getting one of the sublime comebacks that made them so deadly in the back end of games in 2018 and 2019. Cleary booted through a beautiful sideline conversion to make it a fourteen point game, and the Panthers accelerated again on the restart, despite an unnecessary pause after Kaufusi barged into Tamou on the first tackle.
Papenhuyzen cleaned up the kick, but not without Hughes stepping into Kikau for a professional foul, leaving Melbourne with twelve defenders nine minutes out from the end. Penrith capitalised immediately, as Luai sent a beautiful harbour bridge ball over to Mansour, who curved around and slammed it down untouched with his right hand, narrowing the deficit to ten after Cleary missed his first conversion of the night.
You could tell that the Storm were spooked by this sudden shift, especially since Penrith had been the stronger team on the park during the first half, when the purple army had done their most sustained pointscoring – not unlike the rhythm of their elimination final against the Raiders last Friday night. With three minutes on the clock, and a scrum feed at the Melbourne ten, the mountain men had to score two converted tries to get their grand final glory.
A huge Lee-on-Luai tackle quashed some of their momentum, and while Kikau’s kick on the last forced Papenhuyzen to concede a dropout, there wasn’t enough time left in the match for Penrith to make the most of it, as Smith used up every second of the shot clock before getting the kick away. The Panthers got six again, Brandon Smith was sin binned nineteen seconds before the end, and Cleary crossed over with what could have been the turning-point with even a minute more on the clock.
Receiving the footy at the ten, Cleary got away from Smith, Papenhuyzen, Kaufusi and Faasuamelaui to get it down on the line, opting to sacrifice the conversion with only three seconds left. The siren rang out as Edwards collected the kick, and for a moment it looked like we might be in for the greatest team try of the decade, starting with a Fisher-Harris harbour bridge ball out to Luai.
From there, he shifted it back into Crichton, who offloaded for Kikau to send another harbour bridge ball out to Cleary, before Fish got it for a second time, but it all ended with a Kaufusi intercept that gave Melbourne the win, despite a 20-4 scoreline to Penrith during the second half. As with their match against the Raiders last week, the Storm’s early surge was the difference, while the Panthers will be looking to regroup and continue building on this historic year of footy when they return in 2021.