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4:05pm Sun August 1, 2021
Round 20 - Suncorp Stadium

Round 20: Melbourne v Penrith preview

It was supposed to be the game of the year - the main event that everyone had been waiting for. 

Instead, fans will be treated to the second-largest blowout of the week, at least according to the betting markets.  

No one is giving the severely-weakened Panthers a hope on Sunday.

Nathan Cleary is not back from a shoulder injury as first hoped, Apisai Koroisau remains suspended while Brian To'o, Isaah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris and Tyrone May all join them on the sidelines. 

Melbourne, meanwhile, are almost full-strength with Harry Grant even a chance of returning after being named on the extended bench. 

In reality Penrith would be every chance of competing here had Cleary been fit. 

Luai's comments after the Brisbane win last week were telling, with the five-eighth admitting the team needed its star halfback. 

Instead, the Panthers will have to wait another week and instead embrace the underdog status. 

Penrith did look better when Matt Burton moved into the halves last Saturday and he will start there alongside Luai, with the pair hoping to steer the Panthers to another win over Melbourne sans Cleary. 

They did it in Round 3 with Kurt Capewell the hero that night and Koroisau was missing too while Dylan Edwards failed to return for the second half. 

Melbourne though was without four of their own so this is a far steeper hill for the Panthers to overcome. 

Both sides were less-than-convincing last week in scrappy wins over the Cowboys and Broncos.

Melbourne has opted to start Nicho Hynes once more at fullback as Ryan Papenhuyzen eases his way back while Cameron Munster and Dale Finucane return to the starting line-up. 

Last meeting: Round 3 2021 - Panthers 12 Storm 10

Who to watch: Brandon Smith is definitely the one to keep an eye out for Melbourne. The Panthers were exposed through the middle last week against Brisbane. Mitch Kenny gives every ounce of himself to this Penrith outfit but without reserve grade has not had the chance to build match fitness. It means he tires out as the game wears on and that was the case last week as he made 60 tackles in a tireless performance against Brisbane. Smith though is a bundle of energy and aggression who could prove crucial in giving Melbourne go-forward. He is more comfortable playing big minutes and even still could be given another reprieve by Hynes meaning the livewire will be a threat in the final quarter. 

While the loss of Cleary is big it is up front where Penrith could really struggle without Fisher-Harris. It means Liam Martin will have huge shoes to fill as he starts in the pack in place of the Kiwi international. Martin though has the aggression and firepower to deputise admirably, although he is used to doing so off the bench when the defence is already fatigued. The Temora product will need to assert himself early and really take it to the Melbourne pack and make this physical. Without dominance up front Penrith will have little chance of breaking the Storm defence given how clunky their attack has looked without Cleary and Koroisau.

The favourite: Any other week this is a flip of the coin but the raft of outs for Penrith has this heavily in Melbourne's favour.

My tip: The Panthers enter this game with no expectations and that could be dangerous but there is a reason so few are predicting an upset. This is a Melbourne side with strike across the park and the extension of coach Craig Bellamy will give them an extra energy boost. Penrith have to stick with it early or risk falling away quickly. Melbourne by 20.