The Death Of A Grand Final. Melbourne-Penrith: The Grand Final That Should Have Been.

As this season progressed the more certain I became of the outcome: Melbourne and Penrith – the dominant and most exhilarating teams of the past two years – to again take their rightful places in the Grand Final.

This article was originally going to be about that game. And what a game it promised to be. Penrith hell-bent on revenge and Melbourne seeking back-to-back titles that would establish them as one of the great outfits of all time.

We now know that game will not take place. In sport, as with world events, things can change very quickly.

In the compelling documentary Oswald’s Ghost an historian asks: “How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?”

JFK’s motorcade departed Love Field Airport at 11.55pm. The youthful smiling President of the United States and his popular endearing wife in their Lincoln open convertible cruised the streets of Dallas. The route was lined with adoring families and office workers; tantalisingly close to the most powerful man in the world. At 12.30pm amateur film footage – probably the most famous in history – shows Kennedy emerging from behind a street sign in distress from a sniper’s bullet through the neck. Seconds later, another removes the top of his head. By mid-afternoon there was a new President.

A fortnight ago, without warning and against the odds, Wayne Bennett delivered a bullet to the throat of the Panthers’ premiership hopes. The shot wasn’t fatal, not yet. Last Saturday, bleeding out and gasping for breath, they managed to hold out a gallant Parramatta.

By sending Penrith to Storm’s side of the draw Bennett’s masterful ambush also ended the prospect of there being the grand final that many expected, and wanted most.

And this is not to denigrate a grand final containing South Sydney or Manly. The resurrection of Des Hasler, the only current coach with a winning record against Bellamy, has been a wonderful story and Bennett has again shown his ability to change the course of events. A grand final involving either of these two eccentric masters and their tough resilient teams will be great viewing.

But love them or hate them, Melbourne and Penrith are special.

There are striking similarities between Penrith of 2020 and Melbourne of 2006; precocious youngsters who came from nowhere to win the Minor Premiership only to be beaten by almost the same margin (Panthers by 6, Storm by 7) in nail-biting grand finals.

Their success is a testament to the importance of player development rather than star recruitment. There is the famous photo of the boyish Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk at the Norths Devils and more recently the one of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai together in their junior Panthers days. Penrith have cultivated their Western nursey and Storm have always found fertile ground in Queensland and on Sydney’s NRL garbage tips.

They are wonderful teams to watch in attack and defence and the players appear to have a genuine affection for each other and their club. At the Storm the glowing tributes are from new arrivals (Reimis Smith: “The move to Melbourne has been the best decision of my life”) those re-signing (Papenhuyzen: “I’m excited and pumped because I love everything about this club.”) and those leaving (Addo-Carr: “I’m super blessed to be a part of this team and this organisation. They’ve changed my life around and it’s a special journey I’ve been on”).

The stories and changing fortunes of these two teams throughout this regular season was succinctly documented by Jamie Soward in his Power Rankings for NRL.com. South Sydney, Parramatta and later Manly would hover over proceedings but essentially it was about the Big Two.

At the beginning, Soward had Melbourne tentatively at number one and Penrith at two. After Storm’s tight losses in Round 2 and 3 to Parramatta and the Panthers he swapped the numbers but he was really just nit-picking: “The only thing that will stop Penrith is themselves..” and on Melbourne: “What a performance, what a club… they’re on another grand final collision course with Penrith”.

With a comparatively easy first half to the draw the Panthers purred along. A defining moment came in Round 14 when the Storm finally knocked them off the top of the ladder after consecutive losses without their Origin players. And Soward had this to say of Melbourne: “Clinical, so professional. They get the job done; it doesn’t matter who they’re playing. This is a side that understands who they are. I think the Panthers are looking over their shoulder a little bit now and realising that Melbourne might be their kryptonite”.  

But in another twist Melbourne begin to show signs of fatigue as they approach the all-time record of consecutive wins, and lose to Parramatta for a second time.  

With the fortuitous late season recruitment of Pangai Jr. and the return of Cleary and To’o from injury, and Fisher-Harris from leave, the vibe from the Panthers changes. Soward announces : “This is Penrith’s time now. It’s been Melbourne all year, but looking at the Panthers, they’ve got a bee in their bonnet. They’re fresh, they’re young – they might be ready to go.” On Melbourne: “A bit less confident in the Storm than I have been all year. Josh Addo-Carr has a hamstring injury and there are doubts about Cameron Munster’s fitness.”

And yet a week later the Storm demolish a confident Manly in their Qualifying Final: “The first week of the finals showed that you’re the champs until you’re the champs no more.. the Storm reaffirmed their standing as the best team in the competition”. And on the Rabbitoh’s ambush of Penrith: “I think this is the lowest I’ve had Penrith in the past two years. Really disappointed with what they showed.”

Throughout the year the premiership betting markets had Penrith and Melbourne as clear favourites on near equal footing but after the Panthers’ Qualifying Final loss suddenly the odds changed. On Wednesday the Storm were at $1.80 and the Panthers at $5.00, just 50c from the encroaching Rabbitohs.

Finals are often referred to as “a different competition”. If that is true, should they even exist as the defining moment of the original competition? Surely the best team, even with the inconsistencies of the regular season draw and the influence of injuries, luck and that  mystifying phenomenon known as ‘form’, is the minor premier.

But, of course, the allure of the Grand Final is unquestionable because it reduces the test as to who is the best to a single 80-minute contest.

In the great ones it can come down to the final seconds.

When the final siren of the 2015 Grand Final between Brisbane and North Queensland sounded the Broncos were ahead 16-12. The records tell us they lost 16-17. What happened in the final moments that cost them the premiership?

There was Thurston receiving a tired pass from Granville that could easily have been knocked on, he looks to go down the blindside but turns back to the middle. Adam Blair tries to end it with a brutal hit but overreaches. McCullough gets his hands to Thurston but is shrugged off and can only watch as the helmeted maestro sends Morgan on a diagonal run that draws several defenders and with a backhand offload puts Feldt over the try line as the siren struggles to be heard above the screams of joy and despair. Thurston’s missed conversion added further status to this legendary game but the overriding image was the one of poor Ben Hunt bowed and on his haunches after dropping the Golden Point kick off. He knows it’s all over and that he’s cost his team the premiership (and remember he had also given away a late penalty and had been stripped of the ball, which led to the Cowboys’ final try).

At that moment he was probably hoping there was a sniper lurking in the upper tiers of ANZ Stadium who would put an end to his misery.

As the other Cowboys players celebrated the error James Tamou, in a touching gesture, lent down – just as Jacqueline Kennedy had done for her doomed husband – to offer him comfort.

It’s a shame Melbourne and Penrith won’t have the opportunity to provide such a grand final. Let’s hope their preliminary final comes close. Up against a refreshed and full-strength Storm, a ruthless attacking and defensive juggernaut with the greatest points differential in history, the weary looking Panthers are in the cross-hairs. 

With all the talk recently of Ivan Cleary’s unenviable record of having coached the second most games without a premiership it hasn’t been mentioned that as the Warriors coach he engineered two devastating finals losses for the Storm when they were minor premiers. The first was the 2008 Qualifying Final when his eighth placed team scored the match winning try with 2 minutes remaining, forcing the Storm into a do-or-die semi-final with Brisbane. Melbourne snatched that in what is one of the all-time great matches but a Grand Final mauling at the hands of Manly awaited them. The second was the 2011 Preliminary Final.

Melbourne appears to be cruising along the road to successive titles but perhaps on Saturday afternoon Cleary can deliver a fatal headshot of his own.

Originally published in edited form on The Roar as: An Obituary for the Storm-Panthers Grand Final We Can’t Have” https://www.theroar.com.au/2021/09/24/an-obituary-for-the-storm-panthers-grand-final-we-cant-have/

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