Penrith’s dream of a NRL premiership three-peat is 80 minutes away from becoming a reality after they downed Melbourne 38-4 to book their spot in the grand final.
The Panthers are through to their fourth consecutive decider – becoming just the fifth side to do so – after crushing a rudderless Storm outfit in front of 35,578 at Accor Stadium.
It would take a brave soul to bet against Ivan Cleary’s men repeating the same feat on Sunday week, with the winner of Saturday’s preliminary final between Brisbane and the Warriors their opponents.
“It’s so hard to make any grand final but there are so many people who’ve had such an input into us,” Cleary said.
“To be able to go out and deliver that performance, it wasn’t all perfect but we worked it out and found a way.”
If that wasn’t enough to concern Penrith’s grand final opponents, livewire five-eighth Jarome Luai was given an early mark after emerging unscathed in his first game back since suffering a dislocated shoulder.
“I had to check myself because of what everyone else was saying,” Cleary said.
“He went at 100 per cent in everything and that certainly helped him to be able to play like he did tonight.”
At times on Friday night, Penrith barely got out of second gear and made light work of a Storm as they registered the biggest preliminary final win in the NRL era.
Any hope Melbourne had as $5 outsiders relied on them being disciplined and faultless to stop Penrith from getting into their groove.
Their patience lasted a little over two minutes, Marion Seve giving away a penalty which allowed the Panthers to attack and finish their set with Brian To’o going over in the corner.
Justin Olam hit back for the Storm before the first of several skirmishes with Melbourne brute Nelson Asofa-Solomona front and centre of it all.
Asofa-Solomona was happy to throw his weight around and, when he took Nathan Cleary out off the ball in the 15th minute, a further melee kicked off and led to Craig Bellamy benching the prop.
“He was looking for a rest so we gave him a rest,” Bellamy said.
Cleary kicked a penalty goal and Isaah Yeo, who was a standout for Penrith, guided his side into the right areas with To’o adding a second and Sunia Turuva crossing to give the Panthers an 18-4 lead at halftime.
“We shot ourselves in the foot, well we blew our foot off actually,” said Bellamy.
“We know what Penrith do and they just strangle you, if you’re going to make mistakes and put pressure on yourself they’ll hammer you and they did that tonight.
“That’s what they’ve been like for three years and our game was a small example of what we’ve been dishing up all year.”
Melbourne mustered a fight for the early part of the second half but their lack of respect for the ball cost them once more, Cleary and Dylan Edwards going over in a four-minute salvo to knock the wind out of any Storm fightback.
To’o crossed for his second career hat-trick and Cleary nudged over a penalty late in the game to twist the knife even further and give the Panthers a unique shot at history.
No team has won three successive titles in 40 years, but on the evidence this season there is a every indication Penrith will end that wait.