[Photo Credit: ENews]
Defending premiers Penrith booked a date with destiny at Accor Stadium next Sunday courtesy of a 38-4 win over the Melbourne Storm in Friday night’s preliminary final.
Looking to emulate the legendary Eels outfit that won three premierships in a row from 1981-83, the Panthers now await the winner of the second preliminary final between the Broncos and Warriors.
With Brian To’o bagging a hat-trick and Nathan Cleary at his clinical best the Panthers marched into a fourth consecutive grand final, avenging their loss to Melbourne in the first of those deciders in 2020.
The Storm conceded an early penalty when Marion Seve was pinged for a ruck infringement and the Panthers marched downfield to open their account after just four minutes through To’o.
A penalty against Storm centre Justin Olam for a crusher tackle invited the Panthers into the red zone again by Seve was safe under a Cleary high ball and the visitors came away with a seven-tackle set.
Just two minutes later Olam made a statement when he burned Izack Tago on the outside and powered across the line for Melbourne’s first try. Nick Meaney’s conversion attempt hit the upright and the score remained 4-4.
Come the 14th minute and the Storm should have had a second four-pointer but a poor pass by Trent Loiero that went behind Olam saw the opportunity go begging.
A late shot by Nelson Asofa-Solomona on Cleary after the Panthers No.7 had passed the ball led to a penalty and the Panthers took a 6-4 lead.
Another error by Seve put the heat on the Storm again and it was To’o who made it a double after slick hands from Dylan Edwards and Tago. With Cleary’s conversion the Panthers led 12-4 after 23 minutes.
Returning Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai then chipped in on the left side with a quick ball to Cleary who found Sunia Turuva for a try in the corner and when Cleary piloted the conversion from touch the premiers had a 14-point lead.
With five minutes remaining in the half the Storm broke clear through hooker Harry Grant but his attempt to find support was shut down by Cleary with a timely intercept.
A spilled bomb by To’o handed the Storm a late shot at points but another poor pass by Meaney to Reimis Smith resulted in Melbourne’s seventh error of the half.
Another powerful run by To’o in the 47th minute led to Cleary forcing a line dropout with a clever grubber but the Storm went short and Isaah Yeo touched the ball before it had travelled 10 metres and Melbourne had a penalty.
The Panthers’ World Cup winning back-rower Liam Martin was next to impose himself on the game when he brushed past Cameron Munster and found Cleary backing up on the inside for a 24-4 lead.
When Edwards finished off brilliant lead-up work by Stephen Crichton and Turuva in the 56th minute the game was as good as over and Panthers coach Ivan Cleary took the opportunity to give Luai an early mark in his return from a dislocated shoulder.
With 10 minutes to play the Panthers were in party mode when To’o crossed for his third of the night courtesy of good hands from Tago on the inside.
As the clock wound down the Storm’s frustration came out when Seve hit Spencer Leniu with a shoulder charge and the resulting penalty goal to Cleary made it 38-4.
Match Highlights 🎥 – #NRLPanthersStorm
Defending premiers Penrith booked a date with destiny next Sunday courtesy of a dominant win over the Melbourne Storm! pic.twitter.com/5vfDWpQsOG
— NRL (@NRL) September 22, 2023