With every hour that ticked down to the hotly anticipated game between the table-topping Melbourne Storm and reigning premiers Penrith, it seemed another big name was out.
Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen was the big onecut down in perhaps the best form of his career, with center Reimis Smith’s injury causing a complete backline reshuffle.
Then Cleary was a matchday scratching. Mercifully, though, it was coach Ivan rather than his son.
Then, a few hours before kick-off, Storm halfback Jahrome Hughes succumbed to a calf strain.
In a couple of strokes of red pen, what was supposed to be a game between two star-studded teams in their pomp was once again reduced to a case of one full-strength team going up against a near-unrecognisable group.
It may sound like an exaggeration to suggest one or two injuries can have that sort of impact on a team like the Storm, but there was a clear ripple effect.
Papenhuyzen’s injury meant an initial shuffle of Nick Meaney going from the wing to fullback, meaning Dean Ieremia and Marion Seve would have to form a brand new wing-center combination.
Perhaps fearing the Panthers would score 300 points down that wing, coach Craig Bellamy reshuffled again, with substitute hooker Tyran Wishart channeling his father Rod and sliding to a custodial role, leaving Meaney in number two.
Hughes would have been a natural candidate to fill in at the back, but his injury put paid to that idea, as well as the idea of moving Cameron Munster back there, because the Storm needed at least one experienced head in the halves.
Bellamy also split up the experienced outside backs, with Justin Olam on the left and Xavier Coates on the right, but it mattered a little.
In the opening 10 minutes, Seve had been targeted for two Panthers tries and the makeshift fullback had knocked on a relatively simple support run, which led directly to the second of those.
Jarome Luai’s try to start the second-half scoring was also a result of targeting Seve’s corridor, and Wishart’s confidence looked dead and buried by the end of a horror night under high balls, low balls, fast balls, sliders, off-speed pitches and anything else the Panthers felt like throwing at him.
Storm fans needn’t despair too much – the same thing happened in the other direction in round 20 last year.
The 2020 grand finalists faced off a bit more than a month out from finals, but Penrith was being captained by Dylan Edwards, which should tell you something about how little they resembled themselves.
No Cleary (Nathan this time), Isaah Yeo, Brian To’o, Kurt Capewell or James Fisher-Harris led to a 37-10 win for the Storm; a far cry from the 10-6 loss to Penrith in the preliminary final nine weeks later.
So what can we really glean from these games?
The Panthers are the new kings of ‘next man up’
Give Melbourne an off-season and they can turn anyone into a top-flight NRL player. They’ve done it for the better part of two decades now.
But in Penrith, it barely takes them a week.
Every time one of their top guys goes down, there’s another flyer or bullocking ball-runner ready and waiting.
We’ve seen it this season, with Taylan May making such an impression stepping in for Brian To’o that he forced Charlie Staines out of the side.
He or Stephen Crichton could be the best fullback in plenty of sides, but the Panthers have Dylan Edwards.
Sean O’Sullivan started the season looking like a player worth $ 700,000 a year, before making way for Cleary to return.
The Storm, meanwhile, are realizing their seemingly endless run of developing stars is, not necessarily coming to an end, but in an ebb.
Ryan Papenhuyzen is now THE guy at the back. It’s possible Bellamy tried to get a bit too cute in putting Wishart back there to replace him, because Cleary gave him hell under rainy skies.
The step down from Jahrome Hughes to Cooper Johns was noticeable, to put it mildly.
And the Harry Grant-Brandon Smith combo is no longer a double-barrelled dummy-half luxury; they need Grant at his best at hooker and Smith peaking as a fringe ball-runner.
Injuries to any of them, or God forbid two of them, and suddenly the Storm are looking a little thin.
How to fight the Penrith momentum
If an opposing team manages to put a Penrith player on their back with any sort of regularity, there should be a parade.
If you’ve ever watched the Panthers roll up the field in the blink of an eye and wondered how they do it, a series of intentional powerful faceplants is how.
Every tackle is a battle between the player with the ball trying to land on their belly and spring up as quickly as possible, and a defense trying to land them on their back and keep them there for as long as possible.
The Panthers almost always win that battle. Not only do they make good, fast meters, when they are finally brought to ground they’re back on their feet and playing the ball before you know it.
Stopping that from happening is nigh impossible, but responding in kind is almost certainly necessary.
If you want to make meters on them, you have to catch the defense back-tracking and that likely means take the risk of trying to play the ball before your body is really ready.
The risk is you make a mistake, give the ball back to the Panthers and they maul you, but those are the stakes when you play against the best.
When you’re the best, you make your own rules
There is a certain rhythm to NRL games, even when very good rugby league teams are involved. But not as far as Penrith is concerned.
There is not a moment, on either side of the ball, that you truly know what is going to happen.
Offloads and clever plays are one thing, but when the play breaks down, no team (maybe ever) is more dangerous.
All across the park – from To’o to Tago, Crichton to Cleary, Koroisau to Kikau, and Luai all on his own – if the ball goes to ground, they can wreck the sudden frozen or relaxed defense at will.
It’s part of why teams get so frustrated against them – ‘I passed the test, I shut you down, why won’t you just stop?’.
In defense it’s a similar story.
Attackers are supposed to have a couple of tackles to truck it off their own tryline. Maybe they don’t get as far as they want to, but that’s usually it.
When Penrith is defending, they attack. There’s no spot too far away from the tryline that they can’t drag you back into the in-goal. There’s nowhere within 20 minutes of the sideline that you’re not under threat of being lobbed into touch.
Fall asleep for one second, think you’ve got things in hand for a moment and that’s when they pounce.
Cameron Munster is still Melbourne’s north star
Without Papenhuyzen and Hughes, it was left up to Munster to embody the title of “pivot” more than ever before. And he did his level best.
His swirling kick-off found the grass, then he forced a knock-on from Jarome Luai, and launched a torpedo bomb that again bamboozled the Panthers’ back three.
Later, he found the in-goal with another uncatchable bomb, and when Taylan May Houdini’d his way past four would-be Storm tacklers and out of danger, Munster took it upon himself to rip the ball out of Dylan Edwards’s hands.
He got the ball soon after and chipped over the top for Nick Meaney and the Storm’s only try of the night.
Late in the first half he somehow stared down a rampaging Stephen Crichton and held him up basically all on his own.
It all ended up being for nought – fighting Penrith while undermanned is like fighting the tide with a handful of sand – but his performance showed how hard he is willing to fight for this side and what he can do.
If only he had a little more support we might have had something close to a contest.
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