PRELIMINARY FINAL: Melbourne Storm v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium, 25/9/21, 10-4)

Penrith’s Grand Final heartache has propelled them through the dislocations of 2021, and they came full circle tonight with a stunning win over the Storm to complete their short-term comeback from their shock loss to the Bunnies in the Qualifying Final as well. They’d only scored two tries in the last two weeks, and only conceded three, and tonight’s game was equally low-scoring, with two tries doing the job as Melbourne only managed to nab a single converted try in the final quarter, thanks to a clutch congealment of their spine on the line.

The mountain men have one of the best defensive records of all time – less than twelve points a game – and they summoned that mountain as well here, mounting a wall that Melbourne just couldn’t work their way around, forcing them to build their only try on a Munster kick. With 16 Grand Final wins and 16 Grand Final losses behind them, this felt like a monumental moment in the future evolution of the club – a tribute to the power of belief, especially given their defensive determination and sheer courage in overcoming Parra during the eliminator.

They had the benefit of Brian To’o back on the park for one of their two tries, while the Storm copped a big blow when Christian Welch left in the first quarter, and Brandon Smith followed him after executing a 20/40 that very nearly turned the game around. Yet the night was all Cleary, whose kick assist from the crossbars out to Crichton may have been the best moment of his career. As Cooper Cronk said in the post-game commentary, this is the kind of play that only comes from hours and hours of practice – from preparing for every possible eventuality.

Dale Finucane launched himself into Fisher-Harris as soon as he got a chance, on the second tackle, and Christian Welch took two tackles to get Hughes to his first kick, just outside the Melbourne forty. On the other side of the Steeden, To’o got stuck in right away by taking this first high ball, and the Panthers got a restart a play later, while Isaah Yeo made the first offload to Tevita Pangai Junior and Jarome Luai took a massive Felise Kaufusi tackle without flinching.

George Jennings fumbled the first Melbourne high ball, the Panthers swept right, and the Storm called out to stop play on tackle two after Welch ricocheted away from a Matt Burton hit. Penrith were just getting into first gear now, yet Welch didn’t go off after prompting a pause at such a critical moment, while the mountain men didn’t lose a beat when play resumed – or Nathan Cleary didn’t lose a beat, booting an absolutely perfect kick from right in front of the posts, surrounded by the markers, to find Stephen Crichton clean on the chest.

Crichton was totally unmarked on the right edge, since all the play was centred on the crossbars, and nobody was expecting Cleary to kick at all, let alone to send it horizontally across the field and split the difference between a bomb and a cut-out pass. It was a cut-out kick, and one of the most prodigious moments in Cleary’s career – in other words, precisely the way he needed to start this game, putting his men over a point per minute with the extras.

This was pure football intuition, a reminder that, at his best, Cleary has a more instinctive taste for the game than any player on the Melbourne side. Pangai stuck an elbow into Welch’s face for good measure to begin the restart, and Josh Ado-Carr delivered his first kick return to get his team back on the front foot again. Justin Olam barraged into a wall of Penrith jerseys, but Jennings started to make up for his fumble under the high ball with decent post-contact metres, before Dylan Edwards was confronted with a damaging Cam Munster kick.

It landed about ten metres out, but careened back at a crazy angle, meaning that Edwards had to tap it over the try line and dead ball line with one hand, and hope that Ado-Carr didn’t get to it first. Melbourne had the first dropout, and they were inside the ten by tackle three, sweeping right for what would have been an untouched try of their own on the right wing, with To’o drawn inside, and a beautiful cut-out assist from Hughes, if Jennings hadn’t made his second mistake of the night by dropping the ball cold, as Welch finally headed to the sheds.

Jennings’ first mistake had enabled Penrith’s try, and he’d botched a try of his own, so Craig Bellamy was ropeable in the sheds – and probably even more so when Hughes took out his frustration with a swinging arm on Liam Martin. Viliame Kikau now joined the fray, and Kurt Capewell accelerated up the right edge, where he was halted by Ryan Papenhuyzen, but this time Cleary couldn’t get the sweep right, forcing Fish to do a bit of grunt work before the Panthers shifted it left to Luai. Cleary opted to run it instead of kick this time, and the set concluded with an absolute belter of a tackle from Kenny Bromwich to turn Edwards around.

Things got worse from Edwards at the end of the next set, when he let a Smith kick roll over the sideline without even considering that the cult hooker had booted it from within his own twenty, making this the first 20/40 of the year. Penrith got the ball back pretty quickly but this was still a good sign for the Storm, who just needed to summon a few more individual plays like this to get back in control. Cleary’s next kick put Paps right on the line, and they kept Jennings inside the ten and Reimis Smith inside the twenty, so Hughes kicked 25 metres out.

This was a pretty good long-range effort too, but the bounce worked well for To’o. The Panthers were unlucky not to get a restart on tackle two, but they got it on tackle four, off a ruck error from Tui Kamikamica, clearing up space for Edwards to make metres up the left where Olam got the ball back as play paused for Smith to get attention after his arm was crushed under a Crichton run. He left the field a moment later, as Finucane channelled him with the next big enterprising play – sticking a boot into the scrum to regain the footy again.

The Storm now had the scrum, as Harry Grant trotted onto the park, and drove it hard up the middle, forcing Penrith into some of their most physical defence so far – and they delivered, before elasticising with a series of wide balls early in the next set that brought Kikau into the centres, where he kept things rolling with some deft second-phase play. Melbourne again struggled to get out of their own end, until Olam popped an offload to the Foxx for more metres, but even so Hughes had to boot it outside his thirty, and sent it well over the sideline.

This was a prime chance for Penrith to find more points, and while Jennings turned Kikau head over heels, Fish got a deft offload away to Koroisau, who shifted it left for Kikau to take an even more dangerous run into the wing, where Hughes became the next man to hold him up. Big Billy got one more chance when Burton leaped up to tap back Cleary’s kick, and he came up with the best play of this set – a no-look offload out to To’o, who could have secured a dropout here, but booted it much too hard, conceding seven as Cleary barked his frustration.

His rage continued into the next set, when he was put on report for dumping Kenny Bromwich on his back – his most aggressive moment of the year – as Nelson Asofa-Solomona came off the bench and word came down that Welch wouldn’t be returning to the park, despite the six minutes that had elapsed between the contact with Burton and the subsequent interchange. NAS wasted no time charging at the line, and Kamikamica nearly bounced through the front line, as Cleary and Edwards came in for a heroic Davids-on-Goliath tackle to hold him short.

Two plays later, NAS smashed over beneath the posts, and the try was denied immediately due to a Finucane obstruction on Scott Sorensen, making this the second bombed try from the Storm, who really should have been twelve ahead rather than six behind. Luckily for Melbourne, the Panthers didn’t do much on their next set, despite a promising run up the right from Cleary that meant Luai had to take the kick to the other wing, while Hughes came up with the best post-contact metres so far before Munster booted it from inside the forty.

Penrith were in good position now, but the pressure was starting to get to Cleary, who followed his uncharacteristic report with an equally unlikely cough-up – a cold drop off a Yeo pass. NAS got his men rolling with a great late offload to Grant, but Capewell prevented Papanhuyzen doing much with the subsequent left drive, meaning Melbourne had to rely on Munster to revise his earlier formula with a left grubber that Edwards had to clean up again.

This time Papenhuyzen got his metres up the left edge, thanks to a superb Kenny Bromwich offload, which he mirrored with some third phase play to get Olam in goal. Yet this just activated Penrith’s goal line defence at its best, as Capewell and Crichton held up Olam over the line, and Burton did the same to Hughes on the other side of the park, after the Storm got a restart. The set quietened down a bit in the middle, before Kenny resumed the left edge momentum with a grubber that Cleary followed Edwards by cleaning up deep in the corner.

Still, Kenny’s grubber was a concession of sorts – a recognition that the Storm simply weren’t going to get through on this set, and that they needed the additional pressure of a dropout to have a shot at breaking the Penrith wall. NAS barged through contact up the middle, and yet all this accumulated Melbourne position ended with Reimis flicking the foot forward into To’o, who absorbed all the energy of the best goal line defence in the game into the next set.

On average, Melbourne have scored every seven tackles in the opposition twenty in 2021, but they’d had twelve now, and three dropouts, with nothing to show for it, so staunchly had the Panthers maintained their line. Yet they faltered ever so slightly with their next chase, permitting Ado-Carr to make his best run of the night, and getting Olam onto the line on play four, after he busted through three successive tackles. This was the time for a Munster assist, with Penrith exhausted and Edwards out of position, but instead he booted it much too far.

Seven tackles were just what the Panthers needed to regroup and regather, so it was impressive that they accelerated immediately – until the speed got ahead of Luai, who lost the footy for what was deemed a loose carry, despite Cleary clamouring for a high shot. He had a point, since while Luai had slipped into Munster, who had no intention to come in high, this still technically constituted illegal contact. Penrith had seven tackles, their best burst of position in a while, but instead they lost Luai to the sheds and conceded a scrum to the Storm.

Munster got the kick right this time, and Edwards took it on the full, as the game reached a new level of volatility with a condensed period of play – Fish twisting through NAS and Munster before offloading back to Munster, and Koroisau bouncing back by slapping the Steeden out of Olam’s grasp on play one, only to knock on in the process. Melbourne got the ball back, Penrith survived the set, and consolidated for To’o to take it to the line on the left.

This looked like a certain try – To’o with the footy and five metres of open space, but instead Jennings made up for his two costly mistakes with the best trysaver of the first stanza, wrapping himself around Bizza’s right leg as Hughes came in on top to force the footy free and back, for Papenhuyzen to clean up. Hughes broke into space up the right on the last Storm set before the break, for the most soaring purple run of the night, and Sorensen held him up as Penrith finally reached the bottom of their tank, and Sorensen offered even more contact.

Everything came together on the right wing, where Reimis Smith knocked on with seven seconds on the clock. The Storm had outscored their opponents by 58 points in the first halves of their last four finals fixtures but Penrith had kept them scoreless here, begging the question of whether a single try might be enough for them to win again after their 8-6 victory over Parra last week. That said, Melbourne have won every game this year when they’ve trailed at the break, while they’ve lost the games when the scoreline is equal on the cusp of the sheds.  

Luai was back on the park as Fish took the first run of the second half, and Penrith settled themselves with a methodical set. NAS tried to get more flamboyant on Melbourne’s first carry, and while he got the offload away, Olam made the tenth purple error of the game a moment later, clearing up space for To’o to get his try after all. This was like a revised version of the attempt before the break, and a culmination of Kikau’s left edge energy, as he built on a pair of wide balls from Yeo, who drove in deep, and Edwards, who fed it to him on a dime.

All it took was the briefest of hesitations from Jennings for Kikau to flick a no-look assist to his man on the wing, and yet Cleary’s kick wasn’t up to the try – a poor strike that sailed the footy in front of the posts. Nevertheless, Melbourne had spent the first forty trying to bounce back from a single Penrith try, and now had ten points to contend with as Fish commenced the restart. Jennings was having an especially tough night, since despite the sublime trysaver towards the end of the first forty, he’d enabled, lost and now effectively conceded a try here.

To his credit, he was staunch under Cleary’s spiralling bomb, ushering Melbourne into one of their toughest sets so far – until they left a bouncing pass open for Koroisau to dive on and clean up. This was a pretty vertiginous shift from speed to vulnerability, and especially disorienting coming from the purple army, so they had to produce something special on the next set, which started with Ado-Carr collecting another Cleary bomb. Instead, Papenhuyzen coughed up a well-telegraphed Munster pass in the face of a looming charge from Capewell.

Amazing as it sounds, with about thirty minutes on the clock, it felt like Penrith were really starting to dent Melbourne’s self-belief, summoning their best attack so far to keep them trapped in their red zone for most of the next set. Munster booted it on the cusp of the thirty, and play paused shortly after when Kenny Bromwich copped a head clash and then a trainer’s finger in his eye on the back of a barnstorming carry from Spencer Leniu straight off the bench.

Nicho Hynes was on too as Melbourne continued this set, getting his men a much-needed six again off his first run. Olam built on his momentum by dashing away from a few tackles to make another charge up the left edge, where he was skittled by a monster Crichton hit before Burton got away with a knock-on in goal as a pack from both sides converged on the other wing. Still, the pressure of this sequence spilled into Cleary’s next kick at the thirty, which rivalled Hughes for metres over the side – the chance Melbourne needed to get back into it.

Again, Papenhuyzen and Olam couldn’t get through on the left, so the Storm swept right, where Burton read Kaufusi well, forcing Grant to send it back inside again. Paps dummied and tried to break through, and was then shut down by Martin after Hynes and Kenny briefly opened up the line with second and third phase play respectively. This was a Penrith wall that couldn’t be breached – with 23 tackles in the twenty, Melbourne should have had three tries by now – so the Storm needed augmented field position, and got it the start of their next set.

Edwards was pinged for holding down, the set slowed briefly as the Storm looked for a restart they didn’t get, and Edwards bookended it by taking Munster’s bomb on the full, never taking his eyes off the footy as the chase stormed in. In one sequence, the Penrith fullback had showed how seamlessly the mountain men could regather from their brief slipups, while Melbourne got a terrifying moment at the back end of Cleary’s next kick, when Luai leaped a metre and a half off the ground for the most epic take under the high ball of his whole season.

Good as this collect was, though, Luai was offside when he leaped up to take it, and while the Storm got the ball back, the pause was probably good for both teams, since the signs of exhaustion were really starting to show now. Penrith’s defence had been sublime but Melbourne had started to win the battle of field position over the last ten minutes too, so this had the potential to be a tipping-point if they just played it right. What they didn’t need was a Kamikamica knock-on during the very first tackle to concede Penrith seven in their own end.

Yet the messiness was contagious, since Kikau lost the footy almost as quickly, and Melbourne packed the scrum, as Olam’s opening run brought the two teams exactly level for post-contact metres. Finucane was at the thirty by play four, but Yeo prevented Grant doing much with it, while Capewell took Hughes’ kick despite Reimis Smith clawing at Edwards’ face in the air, and To’o got the Panthers rolling again with his 27th run of the evening. We were now in the last quarter of the game, and Melbourne didn’t have a single point to show for their season.

Pangai and NAS now slotted back into the action, with Pangai conceding six again right away, and Hughes swivelled away from Kikau and broke into space a moment later, only for Edwards to bring him to ground with a sharp legs tackle. Hughes claimed there was a late twist, but Gerard Sutton didn’t agree, as the Storm faced the prospect of losing their halfback, after 167 run metres, on an evening where Munster hadn’t made his signature impact from the halves.

He stayed on the park, gingerly, and the spine congealed immediately around him, starting with a wide ball from Grant to Munster on the right edge. Munster grubbered, and Kikau would have probably caught it if he’d remained front on, but instead turned away to follow the path of the footy as Papenhuzyen snuck in to ground it with Pangai wrapped around him, and then slotted through the conversion as Pangai got attention behind the line. Just like that, we were back to a four-point game, in which Cleary’s missed conversion might prove critical.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was only the fourth try that Penrith had conceded all finals, so these last fifteen minutes would be football drama at its very best. Pangai got to his feet, NAS charged into Kikau to begin the restart, and Ado-Carr didn’t get a play at Hughes’ kick as it looped over the sideline, before Koroisau made twenty-five metres midway through the next set. Cleary booted it deep into the corner, Jennings caught it even better, and the Storm were back inside their ten metre zone, as Munster booted the kick in the red zone too.

Meanwhile, Cleary was staggering slightly after big contact with Kenny Bromwich, and yet couldn’t afford to come off now, since he wouldn’t be back on by the time the HIA was cleared. For a second straight set, Penrith kept Melbourne bunched on their goal line, and while Yeo caught Hughes high, the refs were fine with it, meaning the Storm had to rely on a sequence of punishing runs to bring them right to the halfway line for Munster’s next boot.

With ten minutes to go, Penrith could secure the game with one more try, and Luai’s next kick was a good start, as Jennings caught it between his legs, Sutton deemed it a knock-on, and Melbourne sent it upstairs for the biggest Captain’s Challenge of their season. The replay lasted an agonising time, before the Bunker found the angle to prove that Jennings had knocked on into Burton in the air before securing the Steeden himself. Bellamy looked grim in the coach’s box as Penrith packed this critical scrum ten metres out from the Storm’s line.

The suspense became unbearable when they got a restart inside the ten, as Cleary drove the footy into the right post. Penrith lost shape as Tyrone May took it up the middle, Olam rallied a pack to clean up Burton on the right, Luai couldn’t break through on the left, and it all came down to a pinpoint Cleary kick that Edwards knocked back, and Cleary himself collected, before the Storm shut him down. This had been the most desperate moment for Melbourne, and they’d stepped up with a wall of defenders that was Penrith-like in its verve and intensity.

There was adrenalin flowing all over the park now, and NAS harnessed it by almost breaking through the line and offloading right across the stadium to get his men six again. This was the chance Melbourne needed to dig deep into Penrith territory, and they were at the halfway line by tackle two, but couldn’t make much headway before Reimis Smith leaked the Storm’s fifteenth error to gift Penrith another seven tackles. Yet the purple army survived, and courageously worked it back from their own ten once again, taking more chances with it now.

Hynes tried to find space up the left, Edwards took Munster’s next kick on the full, and play paused when he copped a crusher from Grant, who was put on report for his troubles. The clock stopped with four to go, then Yeo tapped and took it over the halfway line, only for Capewell to lose it a moment later. Penrith sent it upstairs – why not? – and the replay confirmed that this was a cold drop, as everything now came down to the wire for Melbourne.

This had been Penrith’s best field position in a while, so a Storm scrum was a big turnaround. They got a penalty on play one, when Burton crowded NAS, as Hughes, Munster and Papenhuyzen held a brief conference before resuming the set in the Penrith red zone.  The first few tackles were underwhelming, Cleary stopped Kenny Bromwich on the left with a legs tackle, and Martin cleaned up Hynes inside, before Hughes ended with a chip to the right that Reimis Smith tapped back for Luai to dive on and bring his men a set closer to the Grand Final.

Crichton took a huge run with eighty seconds on the clock, Luai showed no signs of slowing down, and Cleary booted it all the way down field, where Papenhuyzen collected it with fifty seconds to go. They needed an individual play now, a sublime break, but Penrith held on, winning the Grand Final rematch to secure their berth against the Bunnies in the actual Grand Final – a Cleary-Reynolds stand-off that promises to be one of the best premierships in years, an all-Sydney showdown in Brisbane that will pit Ivan Cleary against Wayne Bennett to boot.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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