SYDNEY: Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy have combined — with almost 100 years of rugby league royalty between them — as the oldest player and coach to win a premiership in the game’s history.
Rarely has that wealth of experience proven quite so definitive as their third title and ninth grand final together.
The Storm simply blew an overawed Panthers outfit off the paddock for almost an hour to lead 26-0, Penrith eventually finding their feet and their way back into it for the last stanza.
As a side with 17 straight triumphs to their name, the Panthers refused to wilt.
They found themselves up against 11 men to finish when first Jahrome Hughes (71st minute), then Brandon Smith (80th minute) was given an early breather.
Nathan Cleary even set up one last frantic, fantastic crack at going to golden point, with a superb solo effort in the final minute.
Yet as with all the Storm do, Smith, 37, marshalled his men with aplomb.
Ryan Papenhuyzen was a Clive Churchill medallist none in the 37,303-strong could argue.
But following the same lead their skipper has struck through 430 NRL outings, Melbourne were ruthless whenever given half a sniff.
If this is his last as many expect, it truly is a perfect Storm send-off.
For 123 days now, this club has lived out of home and out of state, keeping both their season and the NRL alive as their home town went through lockdown.
The graft and grit that has characterised their entire campaign, and every one of Bellamy’s 61 years, was right there as Penrith piled on the pressure from a mountain of early possession.
That Melbourne led 10-0 after defending their line for five sets midway through the first half, said it all.
Ultimately, the final say came after just half an hour.
For all of Melbourne’s big-game experience, it was Penrith’s own marquee man Cleary with the play that told the tale of a definitive opening half.
Nigh on two decades of professionalism up against the impetuousness of a young side still on their way up.
With the Panthers pressing and already chasing that double-figure lead, Cleary rolled out a looping, loping long ball in search of vacant pastures for his outside men.
Waiting and watching was Suliasi Vunivalu. Swooping then stumbling, then striding and finally streaking away.
What could have been six points at one end was a turnaround of 12 at the other.
A 16-0 lead loomed large five seconds before halftime. Smith, as has always been his wont, duly slipped the knife in.
A similarly desperate play to Cleary’s, this time from Api Koroisau, saw the ball fall from Smith’s hands on Penrith’s line. – NRL