The Penrith Panthers underlined their status as the best team of this NRL era with an astonishing 38-4 victory over the Melbourne Storm in the preliminary final.
Melbourne were their own worst enemies, but Penrith’s quality shone through on another dizzyingly impressive performance as the Panthers won their eighth-straight finals match to reach a fourth-straight grand final.
Here’s the five quick hits from the Panthers’ dominant victory.
- Blog: Look back at how all the action unfolded in our match wrap and blog
- Analysis: One more win and Penrith can lay claim to being the greatest team in rugby league’s history
1. Panthers start the way they mean to go on
The Storm might have lost their two previous matches against the Panthers this season, but on both occasions they started best and scored the opening try.
It should have been an ominous warning then when the Panthers opened the try scoring with consummate ease after just three minutes of game time.
Storm centre Marion Seve gave away a penalty — the first of nine they coughed up on the night — to give the Panthers field position.
They didn’t waste time in scoring once they were down in Storm territory.
Nathan Cleary took the ball to the line, delayed his pass to Dylan Edwards, who passed on to Brian To’o who dived over in the corner.
The right-edge attack exposed the Storm’s left defence badly.
Justin Olam — who has been in and out the side, playing just 16 games this year — was exposed, his Jekyll and Hyde season exemplified by his poor positioning for that try.
It was a mistake that the Panthers exposed again and again and again throughout the game as To’o scored a hat-trick.
2. ‘Dr Jekyll’ Olam levels it up
Back in the early throes of this match there was every indication that we had a contest on our hands.
Despite being culpable defensively for the Panthers’ opening try, Olam showed the other side of his personality with a rampaging run that got the Storm back on level terms.
All the focus pre-game had been on the shoulder injury to Jarome Luai and how it would cope if the Storm’s big runners targeted him — but very little had been made of centre Izack Tago’s pectoral injury that had ruled him out of the Panthers’ opening finals match win the Warriors.
And yet the way the Papua New Guinean centre breezed through the Panthers’ centre’s weak attempt in the 11th minute to barge over raised a lot of questions about Tago’s strength.
Olam’s injury and form woes this year saw him expecting to miss out on playing in the finals this time around.
But after a shaky start, he had got the Storm on the board.
3. Olam’s ‘Mr Hyde’ embodies the Storm’s malaise
In truth, this error should not be laid entirely at the feet of Olam.
The ball was spun to the left after a rare Panthers mistake gave the Storm another set of six following their equalising try.
Olam was out on the left side and should have been full of confidence as the ball worked its way along the line towards him.
But a loose pass from second row Trent Loiero that went fractionally behind Olam went to ground.
It was one of 14 errors the Storm committed in the match — seven in each half.
“We did it to ourselves, we gave away too much ball,” Storm fullback Nick Meaney told ABC Sport.
“[You] Can’t do that against a side like Penrith.”
The Panthers, meanwhile, made just two in the first half and eight overall.
4. ‘The line is in the sand’
After that error, the Panthers engaged in a little bit of a scuffle led by Liam Martin, who gave Olam an entirely unnecessary clip on the back of the head for his troubles.
That set the temperature up to simmer. It didn’t take long for it to boil over.
The Storm made another error out of defence, a flat pass called forward, and were then called offside in defence.
The Panthers threatened the line again so Nelson Asofa-Solomona came out the line and gave Nathan Cleary a late push after he passed the ball to Martin on the inside.
In truth there was little in the push, but a subsequent shove from a well-out-of-his-weight-class Tago sparked a huge all-in.
Adam Gee needed to lay down the law, and that’s exactly what he did.
“The line is in the sand,” referee Gee told Asofa-Solomona and Jahrome Hughes.
“We just had that down there … If we get any more, I won’t hesitate.
“If we keep getting a push and shove. Blokes go.”
Consider yourself warned.
5. Jarome Luai tests his shoulder, and gets an early mark
Just 29 days before this prelim, Luai was being shepherded off the field gingerly holding his left arm having dislocated his shoulder.
Now, he was back playing first grade — but was he at his best?
Pre-game, Panthers coach Ivan Cleary told Channel 9 that Luai had “ticked every box” following the injury — but I bet even he held his breath when the five-eighth went down to make his first tackle of the match on Seve.
It was a good one though and he got through the game unscathed.
In fact, he only needed to get through 57 minutes before he was taken from the field early.
“[We were] Pretty blessed with the score, so the coach brought me off a bit early,” Luai told ABC Sport, adding that the shoulder was “all good”.
Good news for the Panthers given how crucial he will be in the grand final, whoever Penrith end up meeting.
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-09-23/five-quick-hits-penrith-panthers-smash-melbourne-storm-nrl/102892426 Five quick hits — Penrith Panthers smash misfiring Melbourne Storm to reach NRL grand final after a ‘line in the sand’ moment