Round 3: Panthers v Storm preview
Grand Final re-match highlights contrasting fortunes
While there might conjecture in the mind of former Panthers boss Phil Gould about who won the 2020 decider at Stadium Australia five months ago, there's no doubt that the Melbourne Storm have the Provan-Summons Trophy firmly in their cabinet at AAMI Park.
Similarly, there's little doubt Penrith are full of passion and commitment to go one better in 2021 and wrestle that title away from their Victorian rivals.
And that's where Thursday's big Grand Final re-match comes in. Two rounds into the new season and the Panthers are unbeaten from both starts - although admittedly they've only faced lowly North Queensland and Canterbury. Still - an impressive fortnight of performances means they're yet to concede a single point through their inpenetrable defensive line.
By contrast Melbourne had a fast start against South Sydney in Round 1, before their opponents came back with fervour. They held on to win - but weren't as lucky a week later when Parramatta overcame them with a late try.
For all Penrith's defending, they need to find more points. 24-0 and 28-0 are solid results and not worth scoffing at, but coach Ivan Cleary will probably be wanting a little more with ball-in-hand from the Mountain Men this week.
Melbourne's issue is clearly closing out a contest and playing the full 80 minutes. Granted, they're still missing some key forwards and their bench depth is looking paper-thin at the moment, but they've also had formidable opponents to contest with.
In team news the Panthers are unchanged after losing Api Koroisau the day of their contest with Canterbury - he was replaced at hooker by Mitch Kenny on the day, and it is Kenny who'll don the 9 this week. On Wednesday morning the club then confirmed halfback Nathan Cleary would miss the match as a precaution following concussion concerns in Saturday's win over Canterbury.
Melbourne have had some forced changes. Felise Kaufusi's suspension for dangerous contact in last week's loss to the Eels means Tom Eisenhuth earns promotion to the starting back row, while Tyson Smoothy drops off the bench, allowing Nicho Hynes to come in. Aaron Pene is also named on the interchange. On Wednesday afternoon the club also confirmed the omission of Ryan Papenhuyzen, which will present challenges at the back for the visitors.
Last meeting: Grand Final 2020 - Panthers 20 Storm 26
Who to watch: Penrith centre Stephen Crichton was a tryscoring revelation in his breakout season last year, but so far in two rounds is yet to trouble the goalline with ball in hand. He'll be hungry not only for a four-pointer (or two), but to exact revenge on the Storm for last year's Grand Final loss.
His opposite number Justin Olam has had no such trouble, bagging four-pointers in each of the Storm's matches so far. Superb on inside balls and an imposing figure on Melbourne's right edge, Olam should keep Penrith's edge defence very busy - but they'll also need to watch him coming back toward the centre of the field too.
The favourite: Despite the home-ground advantage and 2-0 start, the Panthers losing Nathan Cleary 36 hours from kickoff means Melbourne go in as favourites, although the omission of Ryan Papenhuyzen means the Storm are only favoured by a slim margin.
My tip: With key players missing from both sides, I'm leaning toward the Storm. They'll be fired up after being pipped late by Parramatta last week, and should be able to better account for their missing star. It'll be bloody close though. Melbourne by 2.