The Melbourne Storm withstood a late Penrith Panthers challenge to hang on 26-20 in the NRL Grand Final at ANZ Stadium in Sydney on Sunday night.
Leading 22-0 at halftime via taking advantage of a host of Panthers errors, Melbourne won its first NRL premiership since 2017 and its fourth official league title in their 22-year history on the strength of tries from Justin Olam, Suliasi Vinuvalu and captain Cam Smith in the first half, and Clive Churchill Medal winner Ryan Papenhuyzen early in the second half.
Penrith, who had won 17 consecutive games entering the grand final, made matters interesting in the latter stages of the second half, aided and abetted by the Storm finishing the game with eleven players with Jahrome Hughes and Brandon Smith in the sin bin, with three tries in the last 12 minutes.
“It was a little bit frustrating in that second half, but I’m really happy for my guys. We’ve worked so hard in difficult situations, and no one’s blinked an eye, to be quite honest, and we’ve hung in there and our footy kept getting better by the end of the year,” said Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
“It’s a great feeling, even if we did it the hard way,” said Cam Smith, in skippering the Storm to his third premiership in eight grand finals.
“Penrith played the style of footy they’ve been playing all year, and they have been terrific. We’ve admired what they’ve done all year, to win 17 games in a row, it’s a special effort on top of what everyone’s been through this year.
“You have to give credit to Penrith, they fought to the end. We put forth a remarkable effort to win this game,” Smith added.
Olam scored the grand final’s opening try, and a penalty try at that, in the third minute when after a beautiful approach from Papenhuysen and Josh Addo-Carr, Panthers winger Apisai Koroisau illegally kicked the ball out of Olam’s grip – a play the officials had judged that Olam would have scored the try nonetheless.
Josh Mansour was denied an equaliser a minute later, as teammate Stephen Cricton was cited for an obstruction. And just after the quarter-hour, Cricton was stopped on the try line by a fifth-tackle convergence of Hughes, Brenko Lee and Vinuvalu.
While the Storm’s gang-tackling often involving no fewer than three players at a time were keeping the Panthers honest on their runs, Penrith’s mental and physical errors were costing them.
Such miscues none moreso with 22 minutes gone when Viliame Kikau was adjudged to be offside, a call which allowed Cam Smith to kick a penalty goal to extend the Storm’s lead to 8-0.
And the physical errors continued when James Fisher-Harris blasted Brandon Smith after the ball had gone, and as Brandon Smith went off on a suspected HIA, Cam Smith scored the Storm’s second penalty goal in a matter of minutes.
Up 10-0, the speed of Vinuvalu punished the Panthers on the half-hour.
Picking off a high, lazy pass from Nathan Cleary, the Fijian picked himself up and sprinted 80 metres to score the Storm’s second try – and as Cam Smith remained perfect on his kicks, Melbourne were up 16-0.
It was a first half where Penrith’s big-event jitters were on display to the point where you’d never guess they were the team that had won 17 games in a row entering the grand final.
And even when the Panthers thought they’d get a break just before halftime, the Storm – and none other than Cam Smith – would still make them pay.
With 30 seconds to go before the halftime siren, Koroisau punched the ball cleanly out of Cam Smith’s hands, only for it to bounce back up into his path to score a gift try.
Upon that, the luckless Panthers were down 22-0 at an intermission which they sorely needed.
But moreover, the Storm pounced to take advantage of the Panthers’ mistakes.
“Our first half, that was the most impressive performance I’ve seen from us this year. We just rode a wave of confidence from last week [against Canberra], to start well again, and that first half definitely gave us a platform,” said Papenhuyzen.
After the break, Papenhuyzen joined the try party. And did so, upon receiving the ball out of a scrum, caught three Panthers napping, splitting a run between them, rounding the corner and sprinting 60 metres to paydirt.
If Penrith needed to mount a challenge, the last thing they needed was for the Storm to score. And as quickly as they did through Papenhuyzen – five minutes into the second half – Melbourne’s poise and big-game experience was clearly on display.
“‘Big Nelson’ [Asofa-Solomona] drew a few defenders coming out of that pack, and I thought, ‘now they’re sucked in.’ But these are the opportunities you have to take advantage of,” Papenhuyzen said in recalling that vital try which wound up being the eventual difference.
Brian To’o scored a try in the 53rd minute to allow the Panthers to avoid being whitewashed, pinning down a kick from Isaah Yeo on a scoring play which had to be confirmed from video review. And as Cleary’s conversion ricocheted off the post and between the sticks, the Storm’s lead was reduced to 26-6.
Cricton, with 12 minutes to play, then scored the Panthers’ second try without reply, inducing Lee into a slipped tackle and beating Lee, Papenhuyzen and Hughes to the line.
Now trailing by 14 points, and with nine minutes to go, Penrith would show no quit in them, and boosted by a professional foul penalty which saw Hughes sin-binned for the remainder of the match, Mansour touched down in the corner to reduce the arrears to 26-16 with seven-and-a-half minutes to play.
For all of their first-half errors, the Panthers scrapped their way back into the match and with the two quick scores, had momentum on their side.
The Storm went down to eleven men when Brandon Smith was sin-binned with just over a minute to go, and Cleary took advantage on a solo run to touch down under the goal posts.
Yet even with eleven men, and when Felise Kafusi fell on a desperate Dylan Edwards lateral well after the final siren, Melbourne retained just enough composure to close the game out and run out deserved grand final winners.
“The whole game, you think you know what is going to happen, and I am so confident in our boys, but that comeback by the Panthers gave me the most butterflies I’ve ever had,” said Papenhuyzen.
“You always have to be on your toes against a team like Penrith, and we dug in, even with two in the bin,” said Storm five-eighth Cameron Munster.
And Bellamy, despite some nerve-wracking moments that saw him pacing in the coaches’ box and kicking chairs, praised his team’s efforts in winning another premiership.
“It’s certainly a different feel, this grand final, which makes it all the more special,” he said.
“All of our leaders care about the club and care about our teammates, and it’s more than about playing good footy – it’s about being quite grateful for what we got, and also about the fact that we are all representing something bigger,” added Bellamy.