NRL Grand Final Preview: Smith’s swansong or Penrith’s coming of age

The Grand Final could potentially mark the end of possibly the greatest career of all time, or the end of a 17-match winning streak.

Cameron Smith is yet to officially confirm whether he will retire after the Grand Final. He still says he doesn’t know, but if one were to read into the scenes after the Preliminary Final in Brisbane, the 27-year-old is more than likely going to be stepping out on to the field for the final time on Sunday.

Melbourne have played in nine Grand Finals prior to this week and Cameron Smith has been in the squad for eight of them and to put that in context, the Panthers have only played in three Grand Finals in their history.

So to have a captain with so much big-game experience shaping how his team plays from hooker gives Melbourne a huge advantage, and we saw that perfectly in the Storm’s Preliminary Final win over the Raiders. They blew them out of the park after Smith had issued a rallying call to his players prior to the game and after 25 minutes, there was nothing Canberra could do to wrestle control of the game as Smith and his side starved them of crucial possession and territory.

That is what the Storm will have to do to stop the runaway freight train that is Penrith Panthers.

It’s been an incredible season for this young Panthers side who are led by their own talismanic star Nathan Cleary, but he was still in short trousers when Smith first took to a Grand Final pitch in 2006. Cleary has plenty of big-match experience after playing in two Origin series for New South Wales and his kicking and passing game have given the Panthers a real edge this year.

Panthers fans won’t want it pointing out that winning streaks longer than theirs have come to an end on the big stage. Back in 2008, St Helens’ undefeated run of 23 games, including one draw, was ended by Leeds Rhinos in the Super League Grand Final. Ivan Cleary’s men will be doing everything in their power to avoid such a horrible end to the season. 22 games and only one defeat, to Parramatta Eels, early on in the season but it could all be for nothing come the weekend.

Penrith overcame a very tough challenge from the in-form Rabbitohs in their Preliminary Final last week. They were without Viliame Kikau, who is set to return from suspension for the final, and the Rabbitohs have looked formidable in the last few months of the season. In the end, the difference was Cleary’s kicking as Adam Reynolds missed a penalty and a conversion for Souths, leaving them four points short.

There did look to be a few nerves from some of the younger players against the Rabbitohs and if they are to stand any chance of completing their brilliant season, those will have to be dealt with slightly better. Hopefully, the saying “You’ve got to lose one to win one” won’t come true from the Panthers’ point of view.

The last time Penrith graced the Grand Final was back in 2003. They were victorious against Sydney Roosters with their other victory coming back in 1991 against Canberra Raiders. On both occasions the Panthers were coming into the game as Minor Premiers, as they are this time, also.

Their team is looking as strong as ever. As already mentioned, Kikau is back and he gives them a huge amount of strike on the left with his partnership with Jarome Luai who has to go down as the most improved player in the competition. At the beginning of the season, it was touch and go whether Luai or Matt Burton would be starting next to Cleary but heading into the final, Luai has his spot nailed down thanks to his brilliant running and passing game which compliments Cleary so well.
Elsewhere, both James Fisher-Harris and Zane Tetevano have avoided suspensions after they were put on report for high tackles against the Rabbitohs.

Ivan Cleary’s big selection headache is at right centre. Tyrone May has been brilliant since his inclusion in the match day 17 and he earned a place in the starting team with Brent Naden making way but the latter has been named in the centres once again but that doesn’t mean that his coach won’t make a late change come game day.

Kurt Capewell has been moved to the bench for Kikau with Spencer Leniu in the 21-man squad alongside Burton, Dean Whare and hooker Mitch Kenny.

Melbourne came through their game last weekend unscathed which will please their fans with both Cameron Munster and Dale Finucane returning from nasty injuries. The latter could take up a place in the starting 13 after he was brought into the game from the bench against Canberra but for now has been named amongst the interchanges.

Meanwhile, Bellamy will have to make up his mind who he has on his bench. Nicho Hynes has been a popular choice of late as he provides plenty of utility value.

It’s hard to call a winner when you have such contrasting opponents but what is easy to predict is that we’ll have one hell of a game to look forward to on Sunday and the winners will be more than deserving victors.

Certainly from Penrith’s point of view, even if they lose this first Grand Final as a side, they’ll be back more for more next year while the Storm always seem to bring through the next crop of stars so even if this turns out to be Cameron Smith’s swansong, they have Brandon Smith, a New Zealand international hooker ready and waiting as well as Harry Grant who has been exceptional for Wests Tigers this year on loan.

Penrith 19-man squad: Edwards, Mansour, Naden, Crichton, To’o, Luai, Cleary, Tamou, Koroisau, Fisher-Harris, Kikau, Martin, Yeo; Interchanges: May, Capewell, Leota, Tetevano; Reserves: Kenny, Burton.

Melbourne 19-man squad: Papenhuyzen, Vunivalu, Lee, Olam, Addo-Carr, Munster, Hughes, J Bromwich, C Smith, Welch, Kaufusi, K Bromwich, Asofa-Solomona; Interchanges: B Smith, Faasuamaleaui, Finucane, Hynes; Reserves: Eisenhuth, Momirovski.

Melbourne Storm
Previous Grand Finals
2018 Lost (v Sydney Roosters, 21-6)
(at ANZ Stadium)
2017 Won (v North Queensland Cowboys, 34-6)
(at ANZ Stadium)
2016 Lost (v Cronulla Sharks, 14-12)
(at ANZ Stadium)
2012 Won (v Canterbury Bulldogs, 14-4)
(at ANZ Stadium)
2009 Won (v Parramatta Eels, 23-16)*
(at ANZ Stadium)
2008 Lost (v Manly Sea Eagles, 40-0)
(at ANZ Stadium)
2007 Won (v Manly Sea Eagles, 34-8)*
(at ANZ Stadium)
2006 Lost (v Brisbane Broncos, 15-8)
(at ANZ Stadium)
1999 Won (v St George Illawarra Dragons, 20-18)
(at ANZ Stadium)
*Subsequently annulled due to salary cap breaches

Penrith Panthers
Previous Grand Finals
1990 Lost (v Canberra Raiders, 18-14)
(at Sydney Football Stadium)
1991 Won (v Canberra Raiders, 19-12)
(at Sydney Football Stadium)
2003 Won (v Sydney Roosters, 18-6)
(at ANZ Stadium)

Played 35
Melbourne 26
Penrith 9

Last ten meetings
Penrith 21, Melbourne 14 (NRLR6, 19/6/20)
(at Campbelltown Stadium)
Penrith 2, Melbourne 32 (NRLR3, 30/3/19)
(at Warrington Park, Bathurst)
Melbourne 16, Penrith 22 (NRLR25, 31/8/18)
Melbourne 28, Penrith 6 (NRLR5, 1/4/17)
Melbourne 24, Penrith 6 (NRLR13, 4/6/16)
Melbourne 52, Penrith 10 (NRLR19, 17/7/15)
Penrith 0, Melbourne 20 (NRLR13, 6/6/15)
Penrith 10, Melbourne 24 (NRLR24, 25/8/14)
Melbourne 18, Penrith 17 (NRLR2, 15/3/14)
Penrith 12, Melbourne 10 (NRLR9, 12/5/13)

Monday’s edition of League Express will feature a full report of and comment on this season’s NRL Grand Final. Get the printed edition from newsagents, or subscribe to the printed or digital edition of League Express at