I can’t help but glance back to the 2021 Finals when I think about Friday night’s game between Penrith and Melbourne.
These same two clubs did battle in a Preliminary Final, with the Storm short-priced favourites to topple Penrith, who were forced to go the long way around after a first-up Finals loss.
Like Penrith this year, the Storm were Minor Premiers in the 2021 season and appeared destined for the title. And like Melbourne this year, the Panthers were battered with injuries and limping towards the end of the year.
We all know what happened on that Saturday afternoon: The Panthers pulled off a remarkable upset, on the back of a couple of smart set plays and a whole heap of defensive desire.
It’s why I don’t go into this Friday night’s clash at Accor Stadium brimming with confidence or cockiness. I’m a firm believer that anything can happen in a Preliminary Final, and all of the possible Grand Final scenarios are not out of the question heading into this weekend.
The Panthers are understandably red hot favourites. Not only were they dominant against the Warriors a fortnight ago, but they welcome back Jarome Luai to strengthen the spine, and will be refreshed after a week off.
The Storm meanwhile lost to the Broncos in the opening weekend of the Finals, and were two minutes away from going out in straight sets before a Hail Mary bomb came off against the Roosters.
But we all know that Melbourne, inspired by coach Craig Bellamy, do this time of year better than most.
They just know how to win Finals games, and experience is not an issue.
Penrith now know a thing or two about Finals too, and they remember that afternoon back in 2021 and would hopefully realise the motivation the Storm just may take from that kind of performance. It proved the impossible was possible, and the Storm are certainly trying to achieve the impossible on Friday.
Some have mentioned the 2020 Grand Final as playing a part in this rivalry but the reality is it serves only as a passing of the baton moment in terms of competition dominance. The Storm were at the end of their incredible reign, with Cameron Smith bowing out, while the Panthers were at the start of theirs, caught up in the occasion. I doubt there is very little either side would take out of 2020 now.
Defence for me is the key here. Penrith conceded just 268 points in the regular season, while the Storm conceded 421 – the worst of any of the top four sides. When one side’s points differential is 178 points better than the others, it’s not hard to see why one is a clear favourite.
Melbourne have named halfback Jahrome Hughes to return from injury, but there’d have to be some doubt over him – which certainly would have impacted their preparation.
The Panthers too aren’t necessarily fighting fit. Doubts over Luai and centre Izack Tago remain, though both were named to start and seem right to go.
In the end, I think Penrith will get the job done – but like last year’s Preliminary Final against Souths, I think it might take some pretty hard work, and even a comeback. The Storm will throw everything at this – and Penrith will need to produce one of their best performances of the season to stop them.
Tip: Panthers by 6.
The Panthers and Storm play at Accor Stadium on Friday, September 22 at 7.50pm. The game is live on Nine and Fox Sports.
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.