The top two sides in the NRL left Round 19 with victories. Melbourne Storm beat the North Queensland Cowboys 20-16, while the Penrith Panthers edged past the Brisbane Broncos 18-12. However, both teams’ performances were surprisingly lackluster given the quality of opposition. A rare off-day adds more spice to the upcoming season-defining match in Round 20. Who can gain the momentum and a psychological upper hand with the finals insight?
Melbourne’s win on Friday was their 15th consecutive in the NRL. This is the first time the Storm have won 15 in a row in the same season. Despite their form, it wasn’t plain sailing at the Queensland Country Bank stadium. An early Josh Addo-Carr try could have opened the floodgates. However, a series of errors left the score tight at 10-6 on the half-time hooter. Kyle Feldt scored his 100th NRL try to give the Cowboys an unbelievable lead. Coincidentally, soon after Addo-Carr scored his second of the match and his 100th in the NRL. Reimis Smith then went over to ensure the Storm took the two points.
Speaking post-match, Storm coach Craig Bellamy was proud of his side’s record, “this one is pretty special. I am proud of them…to do what they’ve done has been quite remarkable.” He was less effusive about their performance in Townsville, warning “we’re going to have to (play better) or we’ll be making up the numbers at the end of the season.”
Penrith’s home-game-in-name-only against the Broncos was a battle. Already missing key players, the Panthers lost captain Isaah Yeo in the 8th minute after a high tackle from Tom Flegler. Flegler was sin-binned rather than sent off, to the dismay of boss Ivan Cleary. “It’s an illegal act…I don’t know what you’ve got to do to get sent off,” the Panthers boss said at full time. Penrith could not score a try and only led 4-0 at halftime despite a man advantage. The deadlock was broken in the second 40; Brian To’o, Charlie Staines, and Stephen Crichton all going over to score. Penrith missed a season-high 66 tackles and this sloppiness almost cost them. Late tries from Kobe Hetherington and Ethan Bullemor put the margin within one converted try. Cleary acknowledged this, “we’ve got some things to work on. We were behind in the possession stakes tonight.”
Melbourne and Penrith march on
Following their victory over Brisbane, Ivan Cleary suggested that fatigue was a factor in his side’s poor second half: “I think we had a lot of boys pretty tired out there.” This will be music to the ears of Melbourne fans. The Storm were able to rest Cameron Munster, Felise Kaufusi, and Dale Finucane off the back of State of Origin. This is not a luxury afforded to Penrith. Star halfback Nathan Cleary was injured rather than rested, and captain Yeo is now a concussion doubt. In addition to these major blows, James Fisher-Harris, many pundits’ forward of the year, has left the Queensland bubble to attend the birth of his first child.
The game could well be decided in the 5/8th position. Jarome Luai and Cameron Munster recently faced off as Origin rivals. It is impossible to argue Luai didn’t come out on top given the Blues dominance, and if Penrith stands a chance of victory he will have to outshine Munster once again. The 24-year-old looked rusty on his return from a knee injury against the Broncos, but there is no room for error on Saturday. This applies defensively too. Penrith have conceded fewer points than anyone in 2021 but recent games have seen errors creep in. Writing for NRL.com, Premiership winning half-back Jamie Soward said, “if they miss 60 tackles again, they’ll leak 50 points.”
The mood in the Melbourne squad is far brighter than their rivals. On Monday, Craig Bellamy pledged his future to the reigning premiers, extending his stay in Victoria for a 20th season. The Storm are also unbeaten in 26 games on Queensland soil. Plus, they welcomed back Ryan Papenhuyzen after nine weeks out following a serious concussion. The star fullback won the Clive Churchill Medal in the 2020 Grand Final victory over Penrith and will look to have a similar influence this time around.
The teams are locked at the top of the table: 34 points and 16 wins apiece. The winner of this game may be Minor Premiers. Penrith beat Melbourne 14-12 in a phenomenal match earlier this season and will look to replicate the fast running and tactical kicking that saw them emerge on top in Round 3. Despite that result, is hard to look past the Melbourne juggernaut. The Storm have fresh talismanic players back in, and a buoyant mood around their familiar Sunshine Coast camp. The reigning premiers could put down a marker on Saturday night.
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