2020 Grand Final Preview - Panthers v Storm

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Penrith Panthers v Melbourne Storm Sunday 7:30pm at Stadium Australia

Young guns take on old heads in premiership decider

In a year unlike any other in the history of rugby league, the Penrith Panthers will take on the Melbourne Storm for the right to be crowned NRL premiers on Sunday evening.

Returning to the grand final stage for the first time in 17 years, the Penrith Panthers have enjoyed a remarkable campaign with 20 wins, a draw and a single loss from 22 matches.

Finishing the regular season as minor premiers with the best defence and second-best attack, coach Ivan Cleary has worked wonders with a team predominantly made up of players developed through the club's junior pathways mixed in with a sprinkling of established stars.

Winning their past 17 matches in a row, beginning with a win over the Storm back in June, the Panthers will be hoping to replicate the heroics of their 1991 and 2003 forefathers by using the momentum of finishing first to claim the premiership.

Welcoming back strike second rower Viliame Kikau from a one-match suspension, Brent Naden has been named to start in the centres despite being overlooked in favour of utility Tyrone May during last week's 20-12 preliminary final victory over the Rabbitohs.

In his final match for the club before joining the Wests Tigers next season, premiership-winning front-rower James Tamou will captain the side.

Qualifying for their fourth grand final in five years, the Melbourne Storm will be determined to reward their loyal supporters following the most challenging year for the club since the salary cap scandal a decade ago.

Forced to relocate to the Sunshine Coast due to the impact of COVID-19 in Victoria, the unwavering resilience instilled by coach Craig Bellamy has seen the side finish in second position with 18 wins from 22 matches.

Ranked second in defence and third in attack, the Storm will be hoping to claim their fourth premiership title with a squad containing 11 members of the team that went down to the Roosters in the grand final two years ago.

Retaining the same team that defeated the Raiders 30-10 last Friday, Nelson Asofa-Solomona will start at lock with Dale Finucane remaining on the bench after a successful return from injury.

Sunday evening will be the final appearance for Suliasi Vunivalu (Rugby Union) and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui (Titans) in Storm colours. Cameron Smith and Josh Addo-Carr have yet to make formal decisions on their futures despite months of media speculation.

Last meeting: Round 6 2020 - Panthers 21 Storm 14

Last Finals meeting: Never met in finals

Who to watch

As one of only three players in the Panthers' ranks with grand final experience, Apisai Koroisau shapes as a key figure in the club's bid to go all the way in 2020. Earning an unexpected grand final call-up as a rookie six years ago, the 27-year-old hooker has played a pivotal role in unlocking the side's attacking potential during his second stint at the club, while instilling a stronger defensive resolve with 50 tackles on average. Hoping to replicate the heroics of Royce Simmons and Luke Priddis by scoring a try in the biggest match of the year, expect Koroisau to have a big impact on the result as the Panthers strive to claim their third premiership title.

Having won just about every major accolade in rugby league over the course of 19 seasons in the top grade, Cameron Smith will be hoping to add the Clive Churchill Medal to his illustrious resume. Shrugging off months of media speculation over his future, the 37-year-old hooker remains as influential as ever for the Storm with 15 try-assists, 36 tackles each week and a goal-kicking strike rate of 84 per cent. Destined to become an immortal given his status as the most-capped player in the game's history, the Melbourne captain will line up for his eighth grand final on Sunday evening determined to restore hope to his adopted home and wider Victoria following a challenging year.

Key stats

  • Nathan Cleary will make his 100th first grade appearance for Penrith. He made his debut against Melbourne back in 2016.
  • Brent Naden, Dylan Edwards, Tyrone May, Jarome Luai, Moses Leota and James Fisher-Harris all played in the Panthers 2015 NYC Premiership team.
  • The Panthers have played in three grand finals for two wins.
  • James Tamou, Apisai Koroisau and Zane Tetevano have played in grand finals previously. Kurt Capewell was 18th man for the Sharks in 2016.
  • Stephen Crichton (20) will become the youngest player since Brad Fittler (18) in 1990 to play in a grand final for Penrith.
  • Ryan Papenhuyzen, Brenko Lee, Justin Olam, Jahrome Hughes, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Nico Hynes will play in their first grand final.
  • Christian Welch will be hoping to win a grand final in his third attempt after playing in the losing 2016 and 2018 teams.
  • The Storm have played in nine grand finals for five wins* (the 2007 and 2009 titles were stripped for salary cap breaches).
  • Cameron Smith (37) will mark his eighth grand final appearance as the oldest player on the field.
  • This is the first meeting between the two teams at ANZ Stadium.
  • James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Zane Tetevano and Christian Welch have yet to score a try this season.
  • Melbourne have won 26 out of 35 clashes against Penrith since 1998.
  • Only five teams in the NRL era have come from behind at halftime to win the grand final. The Storm in 1999 produced the biggest comeback (14-0).
  • Halfbacks have won the Clive Churchill Medal on six occasions - the most of any position. A winger, centre or interchange player has never won the award.

The favourite

Despite finishing the regular season below their opponents on the premiership ladder, Melbourne's big match experience is expected to be the difference.

My tip

In a year that many - including this writer - initially dismissed as being tarred with an asterisk, the resilience and professionalism of both teams has been outstanding. Looking to become only the second team in history to record 18 consecutive wins, the chance to make history should get the enthusiastic Panthers over the line.

Margin: Panthers by 10
Clive Churchill Medallist: Isaah Yeo
First Tryscorer: Josh Addo-Carr

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Josh Mansour 14. Tyrone May 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. James Tamou 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 3. Brent Naden 15. Kurt Capewell 16. Moses Leota 17. Zane Tetevano

1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Brenko Lee 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 14. Brandon Smith 15. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui 16. Dale Finucane 17. Nicholas Hynes

Referees: Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials: Todd Smith, Chris Butler; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy;

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