The two best defensive teams in the competition face-off in a Friday night blockbuster that will no doubt provide an early preview of September football.
Both sides have played 15 games this season, won 10 matches and lost five. Their attacking records are strikingly similar, but there’s one statistic that splits them considerably: defence. Penrith have conceded just 188 points this season, while Melbourne has leaked 273 points.
In some ways, Craig Bellamy’s side has gone under the radar this year. Some early inconsistencies, injuries and blowout scorelines had people thinking their time had finally come. After all, this is a side that lost games to the Bulldogs, Titans and Sea Eagles in the first two months of the competition.
Fast forward to Round 18 and here they are, sitting equal first on the competition table and getting plenty right at the perfect time of the year.
Perhaps the 45-20 loss to the Cowboys in Townsville earlier this month was the circuit breaker for the Storm. The season could have spiralled out of control from there, but it has instead got perfectly back on track with big wins over the Sharks, Tigers and Sea Eagles.
Meantime, the Panthers continue to go about their business, defying the critics to sit on top of the ladder after 17 rounds, a spot they’ve occupied more often than not over the past three years.
The next man up mentality the club has focused on over the past few seasons, and the systems Ivan Cleary has put in place, are definitely delivering – exemplified perfectly against the Knights last weekend.
Penrith completed at a remarkable 90 per cent, barely giving the Knights a chance as they dominated possession and every important statistic.
Sure, they lacked a little bit of polish at times, but that’s to be expected with the amount of talent on the sidelines.
While Cleary had always had it in the back of his mind to rest his Origin players for the Knights game, the decision was locked in when his replacement troops went down in Golden Point to the Cowboys in Townsville. He believed those players deserved the opportunity to right the wrongs of that night – putting extraordinary faith in them at a crucial time of the season. It’s the squad mentality the Panthers have and it’s why no matter who wears a Penrith jersey, you can expect a professional performance and for them to do everything they can to repay the faith put in them.
There is no question that both Melbourne and Penrith have great finishers, from Xavier Coates and Will Warbrick to Brian To’o and Izack Tago. But the real work is done up front, and it is the forward battle that not surprisingly will dominate all the talk heading into this one.
The power games of Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris up against the brute strength of Christian Welch and Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who would run through a brick wall with ease if it was in his way. His try against the Sea Eagles last Saturday night was evidence of that. It doesn’t matter what number he wears on his back, he delivers a demolition derby.
I really like Penrith’s bench over Melbourne’s, especially with Spencer Leniu coming on at some stage to inject some extra grunt into the contest, but there’s no doubt it’s evened out by Melbourne’s halves combination of a returning Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes, who has been in great form.
Jarome Luai is back in the team for Penrith but with Nathan Cleary still out injured, it’ll be up to Jack Cogger to step up a gear and guide Penrith around in enemy territory – there’s no question it is his biggest task to date in a Penrith jersey.
I’m expecting a low-scoring, tight tussle that might not be decided until the final minutes of play.
Hard to see more than one try in it.
Tip: Panthers by 4.
Penrith and Melbourne play at Marvel Stadium on Friday, June 30 at 8pm. The game is live on Fox Sports and Channel Nine.
Troy Dodds is the Weekender’s Managing Editor and Breaking News Reporter. He has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working with some of Australia’s leading media organisations. In 2023, he was named Editor of the Year at the Mumbrella Publish Awards.