Round three’s opening game was an eagerly anticipated Grand Final rematch as the Penrith Panthers hosted the Champions, the Melbourne Storm.
The home side were slight pre-match favourites with the bookies but were without Nathan Cleary who suffered a head-knock last week, the half-back being replaced by Matt Burton. Melbourne suffered two injury blows and would be without the services of Ryan Papnhuyzen and Felise Kaufusi as Craig Bellamy’s side looked to repeat their Grand Final success against Ivan Cleary’s men.
The Panthers are yet to concede a point in 2021’s competition, having nilled both the Cowboys and the Bulldogs, the Storm began the match in ninth place with one win and one loss.
All the early pressure came from the Storm and the dam finally broke after ten minutes as Brandon Smith scooted from acting half back and went over from five metres out, unstoppable. One hundred and seventy minutes into the season and the Panthers had conceded their first try of the game. Cameron Munster added the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
The Panthers looked to be off the mark on twenty-five when Brian To’o looked like he’d gone over in the corner, but the touch judge referred the decision to the bunker who agree that a foot had been put in touch.
Four minutes later the Panthers were in, as they exploited the right wing. Paul Momirovski passed a delightful pass right with Charlie Staines clutching the ball to his chest and diving in. Stephen Crichton flirted with the post but managed to sneak inside the upright to level the scores.
With just over a minute on the clock the Strom had their second try of the game, a four-pointer from Justin Olam, denied by the bunker for an obstruction in the build-up. The final hooter sounded on a no-holes-barred blood-and-thunder opening forty.
A ball steal on fifty minutes Jahrome Hughes on Spencer Leniu gave Crichton the chance to give the Panthers the lead for the first time but he pulled his kick wide of the right upright, a poor miss for the stand in kicker.
Cameron Munster got within centimetres of the line on fifty-six, but the Panthers defence stood strong, despite conceding a goal line drop out.
The Storm were back in the front thanks to a flying Josh Addo-Carr strike down the left-hand side as he exploited a four on three overlap to take a Nicho Hynes pass and ground by the left corner flag. Munster pushed his kick wide of the right upright, the lead just four points.
It was a nail-biting finale, players dropping like flies. The Panthers rode their luck, collecting the ball after a weak grubber kick and two tackles later second-rower Kurt Capewell burrowed under the Storm defence to get over the line and slam the ball onto the ground. Crichton kicked the crucial conversion with under sixty seconds on the clock to seal a 12-10 win for Penrith.
The final hooter had sounded when the Storm appeared to have scored the winner, the ball being kept alive from right to left with Olam appearing to go in, but the bunker again ruled out the effort due to Viliame Kikau getting his hands under the ball to prevent the grounding.
Another top-drawer game from the NRL, and a win for the Panthers who’d trailed until the eighty-ninth minute of a scintillating game. The Panthers go top, and the Champions may find that they end the third round even further down the table. There really is some high quality rugby being played in the opening rounds down under.
Penrith Panthers: Edwards, Staines (T), Momirovski, Crichton (2G), To’o, Luai, Burton, Leota, Kenny, Fisher-Harris, Kikau, Capewell (T), Yeo. Subs: May, Leniu, Eisenhuth, Martin.
Melbourne Storm: Hynes, Jennings, Smith R, Olam, Addo-Carr (T), Munster (G), Hughes, Bromwich J, Smith B (T), Welch, Eisenhuth, Bromwich K, Kamikamica. Subs: Asofa-Solomona, Lewis, Schonig, Smoothy.
Referee: Grant Atkins.