Penrith’s dream of a three-peat NRL premiership is 80 minutes away from becoming a reality after they beat Melbourne 34-8 to book their place in the grand final.
The Panthers have reached their fourth straight playoff, becoming only the fifth team to do so, after defeating a rudderless Storm team in front of 35,578 spectators at Accor Stadium.
You’d have to be brave to bet on Ivan Cleary’s men repeating the same feat on Sunday, with the winner of Saturday’s preliminary final between Brisbane and the Warriors their opponents.
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“It’s so hard to get to a grand final but there are so many people who have had such an influence on us,” Cleary said.
“It wasn’t all perfect to go out and have this performance, but we did it and found a way.”
As if that wasn’t enough to worry Penrith’s grand final opponents, livewire five-eighth Jarome Luai received an early grade after coming through his first game back from his shoulder injury unscathed.
“I had to check myself because everyone else was saying something,” Cleary said.
“He gave 100 percent in everything and that certainly helped him to be able to play like he did tonight.”
Barely out of second gear at times on Friday night, Penrith made light work of a Storm as they recorded their biggest preliminary final victory in the NRL era.
Any hope Melbourne had as $5 underdogs rested on them being disciplined and error-free to stop Penrith getting into their rhythm.
Their patience lasted just over two minutes when Marion Seve gave away a penalty that allowed the Panthers to attack and end their set with Brian To’o heading into the corner.
Justin Olam hit back for the Storm before the first of several skirmishes with Melbourne lad Nelson Asofa-Solomona front and center.
Asofa-Solomona was happy to throw his weight behind it and when he took Nathan Cleary off the ball in the 15th minute, another scuffle ensued which resulted in Craig Bellamy putting the prop on the bench.
“He was looking for a break, so we gave him a break,” Bellamy said.
Cleary scored a penalty goal and Isaah Yeo, outstanding for Penrith, led his side in the right areas, with To’o scoring a second and Sunia Turuva crossing to give the Panthers an 18-4 lead at half-time.
“We shot ourselves in the foot, well, we actually tore our own foot off,” Bellamy said.
“We know what Penrith does and they just strangle you. If you make mistakes and put yourself under pressure they will beat you up and they did that tonight.
“They’ve been like that for three years and our game was a small example of what we’ve been doing all year.”
Melbourne put up a fight early in the second half, but their lack of respect for the ball cost them another win when Cleary and Dylan Edwards went over in a four-minute volley that knocked the wind out of Storm’s defense.
To’o crossed for his second career hat-trick and Cleary kicked away a penalty late in the game to twist the knife even further and give the Panthers a unique chance at history.
No team has won three titles in a row in 40 years, but the evidence this season suggests Penrith will end that wait.