Panthers in box seat to prove critics wrong again

Stephen Crichton runs out onto ANZ Stadium in the Preliminary Final. Photo: NRL Images.
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First the critics said the Panthers wouldn’t make the top eight.

Then those same critics declared Penrith needed to lose before the Finals – that their long winning streak would be a hindrance, not a help.

Not content with striking out twice, they then declared Penrith had a soft draw and would be found out by an experienced outfit like the Roosters in the Finals. Wrong again.

Last week, convinced by three weeks of high scores and an in-form Cody Walker, those critics had Souths doing a number on Ivan Cleary’s side.
And now they say Melbourne have this Grand Final won.

The lesson here is to stop listening to those who think they know this team. They don’t, and the egg on their face from a year of wrong predictions proves it.

This is a 50/50 Grand Final – no doubt about it.

The Panthers celebrate Dylan Edwards’ try against Souths. Photo: NRL Images.

Melbourne has been on this stage before, and their experience in big games is second to none. The Storm also rarely lose milestone games, and with Cameron Smith’s retirement announcement likely to come soon after Grand Final day, there’s no hiding what will be motivating Craig Bellamy’s side on Sunday.

They were sensational against Canberra, firing out of the blocks and powering down the Green Machine after just 10 minutes of play at Suncorp Stadium.

Penrith did it tougher. They too could have put Souths away early but whether it was Nathan Cleary’s misguided pass to Brian To’o out wide, Jarome Luai’s kick instead of a pass on the inside to open players or Josh Mansour’s forward pass to Kurt Capewell, things just didn’t stick.

As has been the case all year, however, the Panthers found a way. They defended their hearts out, and thanks to Isaah Yeo and Api Koroisau, won the battle up the middle that eventually proved critical.

Api Koroisau at Panthers training this week. Photo: NRL Images.

A few things have to happen for Penrith to beat this powerhouse Melbourne side on Sunday night.

First, they need an even share of possession. You don’t beat Melbourne when you allow them to control the game, and Canberra were gone as soon as the Storm started to dominate time with the ball. Penrith have managed to win the possession battle throughout the season, topping the competition with an average of 54.6 per cent per game. Melbourne are second with 51.8 per cent.

Second, Isaah Yeo needs to play the full 80 minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if coach Ivan Cleary has had one eye on the Grand Final, managing Yeo’s time to ensure he plays the entire game. The Panthers lack some punch when he goes off the field and the side will need everything he’s got on Sunday.

Isaah Yeo was immense against Souths. Photo: NRL Images.

Cleary this week named Brent Naden at centre and Tyrone May on the bench, but the door is open for him to again roll the dice and move May into the starting side.

While Naden has had some brilliant moments in 2020 and emerged as a fan favourite, he missed six tackles against the Roosters in week one of the Finals and Cleary felt a safer option was needed.

If Naden does drop back to the bench, I doubt he’ll remain unused this week. His impact cannot be left out of the contest entirely.

While the Storm have been impressive for much of the season, there’s no question that their defence slipped from its usual standards towards the end of the year. In the final three rounds, they conceded 20 or more points – all against teams outside of the top eight. In week one of the Finals, Parramatta put 24 points on them too. It means there’s points to be scored if Penrith can ensure the passes stick and the panic button isn’t pushed.

The return of a fresh Viliame Kikau from suspension has the potential to be immense for Penrith. Kikau is a wrecking ball but has probably been a little off the pace in recent months – now is his chance to be unleashed in a season decider, and you get the feeling he could be the player to break the Grand Final wide open.

But for me, the deciding factor in this game is Dally M Halfback of the Year Nathan Cleary.

Nathan Cleary wrestles with Adam Reynolds. Photo: NRL Images.

His kicking game is the key to victory – and the stats back this up. He topped the competition in kick metres, all kicks and 40/20s – and if he can manage this match with that kicking game, it will give Penrith the best possible chance of being in front come full-time.

Do Melbourne deserve their favouritism for this one? Probably. But this Penrith side has made a habit of proving people wrong. It would be fitting to do it again on the grandest stage.

Tip: Panthers by 1.

The Panthers and Storm play at ANZ Stadium on Sunday, October 25 at 7.30pm.

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