Forty thousand fans were allowed into the ANZ Stadium in Sydney for the 2020 Grand Final between the top two teams in the competition as the Penrith Panthers took on Melbourne Storm under leaden skies.
The game had been widely tipped as legend Cameron Smith’s last game for the Storm and with a more recent history in the end of season jamboree it was the Melbourne side who were tipped as favourites for the win despite ending the regular season five points behind the minor premiers on the league ladder.
This was the Storm’s tenth Grand Final of the modern era but only the third for the Panthers. The last Panthers win was in 2003, but Melbourne have played in three of the last four, last lifting the trophy in 2017 when the beat the Cowboys.
It was like a sensational start for Melbourne when on three minutes Justin Olam took a Josh Addo-Carr inside pass and dove for the line. The replays showed that Tyrone May’s foot dislodged the ball in the act of scoring, and as it was a kicking action, a penalty try was awarded. Cameron Smith added the conversion for 6-0.
Four minutes later a Josh Mansour try was ruled out for an obstruction in the build-up, the Panthers smarting from two video referee calls.
Penrith seemed to be motivated by the perceived injustices and took the game to the Storm. On sixteen Stephen Crichton had a try turned down by the referee for being short, and the defence held firm on the last tackle.
Cam Smith added a twenty-second minute penalty to extend the lead to eight and a late tackle from James Fisher-Harris, hitting the kicker after the ball had gone, gave Smith another penalty kick to make it 10-0.
Melbourne were starting to dominate on the half hour when a Nathan Cleary looping pass was intercepted by Suliasi Vunivalu who fell to the ground, regained his feet, and went eighty metres to dot down under the sticks. Smith added the goal and the Storm were easing out of sight of a frustrated Panthers.
Apisai Koroisau knocked the ball from Can Smith’s grasp as he went to pass from acting half back. The Storm skipper picked up the loose ball and went over to score under the sticks from five metres out. Smith converted his own try on the hooter for 22-0 at the interval, the captain getting fourteen of the Melbourne haul.
It was game over on fifty-five after Ryan Papenhuyzen dummied on his own twenty and sprinted eighty metres to outpace the chasing defenders to score. Smith couldn’t add the goal but now it was a matter of the size of the win rather than the winner.
Penrith avoided the nilling when Brian To’o grounded a cheeky Isaah Yeo kick to the corner. The referee sent it to the bunker as a ‘NO TRY’ but he pressed the green light, despite an obstruction prior to the kick. Nathan Cleary added the touchline conversion, in off the near post.
It was back-to-back tries for the Panthers on sixty-eight, Stephen Crichton crashing over the line after stepping off both feet and darting past three tacklers. Cleary added the conversion for 12-26, the score line starting to look more respectable than the Panthers really deserved.
Jahrome Hughes was sin-binned on seventy-one for a professional foul as Penrith sought a third try. Two tackles in, a long pass was caught above his head by Mansour who took advantage of the overlap to score one-handed in the corner. Cleary was unable to add the important extras, Penrith ten behind.
Brandon Smith was sin-binned on seventy-nine for another professional foul and on the next tackle Cleary went through five tackles to reach for the line and score. Cleary declined the kick with three seconds remaining but the clock beat Penrith, Melbourne winning by 26-22.
The Penrith fightback came too late after Melbourne dominated the opening fifty minutes. Winning the big prize from second place was a fitting finale to the career of Cameron Smith, should this turn out to be his last game. Penrith will be bitterly disappointed that they couldn’t win after dominating the ladder during the regular (or irregular) season but the Storm timed it perfectly to peak for the most important game of the season.
Penrith Panthers: Edwards, Mansour (T), Crichton (T), Naden, To’o (T), Luai, Cleary (T, 2G), Tamou, Koroisau, Fisher-Harris, Kikau, Martin, Yeo. Subs: May, Leota, Tetevano, Capewell. Reserves: Kenny, Burton.
Melbourne Storm: Papenhuyzen (T), Vunivalu (T), Lee, Olam (T), Addo-Carr, Munster, Hughes (SB on 71), Bromwich J, Smith C (T, 5G), Welch, Kaufusi, Bromwich K, Asofa-Solomona. Subs:Smith B, Faasuamaleaui, Finucane, Hynes . Reserves: Eisenhuth, Momirovski.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.
Half Time: 0-22.
Full Time: 20-26.
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney.