The Melbourne Storm lifting the 2020 NRL Premiership trophy. (Screengrab: Channel Nine)

Storm survive late comeback in NRL Grand Final

With everything but a half-capacity crowd making for a decider much like past ones, the Melbourne Storm held off the fast-finishing Penrith Panthers to win the 2020 NRL Premiership.

The Storm stand alongside the women’s Brisbane Broncos as the two premiers of the NRL Grand Finals, closing out the season after nearly eight months, 20 rounds, and countless controversies.

The Broncos took home their third straight NRL Women’s trophy after defeating the Sydney Roosters 20-10 in the afternoon.

They flew in front almost immediately, as Tarryn Aiken carved up the Roosters defense to send Tamika Upton over the line. They followed up with a try to Amber Hall before the 30 minute mark.

Sydney refused to go down without a fight, with a passing frenzy down the right side sending Yasmin Meakes over for the Roosters’ first try.

They struck again with five minutes left in the first half to close the gap to two points at the break.

The second half was far more one-sided as the Broncos only extended their lead. Two more tries ensured the NRLW trophy would stay north of the Tweed for another year.

Hall earned the Kathryn Murphy Medal for her rampaging performance.

The men’s decider put Melbourne on the back foot after a fumble within the first thirty seconds, but they recovered quickly and successive errors by the Panthers resulted in Justin Olam going over the try line off a desperate Addo-Carr pass.

A Bunker decision found that the ball was unlawfully kicked out of Olam’s hands, constituting a penalty try that allowed a conversion from in front of the posts.

An Olam error at the other end allowed Josh Mansour to score, but No Try was ruled due to obstruction by Stephen Crichton.

The intense back-and-forth affair saw both sides largely unable to take full advantage of the errors and penalties that went their way, with consecutive sets of six not enough for Penrith to crack the desperate Storm defense in the first 20 minutes.

A penalty for offside by Viliame Kikau led to Cameron Smith, in what may have been the last game of his career, kicking the Storm just beyond a converted try margin.

The Panthers were wasteful with their attacking opportunities with Kikau and James Fisher-Harris among the worst error-makers and offenders. The latter went on report in the 27th minute for a late tackle, which granted Smith a second penalty goal.

Penrith looked dangerous in front of the try line again before Suliasi Vunivalu crushed the opportunity, intercepting a long Cleary pass and running 80m to put the Storm 16 up.

Penrith’s poor first-half discipline record would cruel them again just before the siren sounded – Api Koroisau knocked the ball out of Smith’s hands just in front of the try line before the Storm hooker recovered and scored under the posts.

The subsequent conversion resulted in a 22-0 scoreline heading into the break.

The Panthers’ woes continued into the second half, failing to turn a Storm error into points after Moses Leota fumbled the ball while tackled.

Penrith used their only captain’s challenge to contest the error on the basis of a strip, which went against them after it was found an attempt at one did not affect Leota’s handling of the ball.

Melbourne took advantage straight away as Ryan Papenhuyzen broke through the Panthers line for another long-distance try.

Nothing was going the Panthers’ way as they made further mistakes, carrying over from their first-half troubles.

Storm applied further pressure on the Panthers defense and Vunivalu went over in the corner, only to knock the ball on in the in-goal.

This gave the Panthers a 20m restart and they ran the ball down the length of the field, with an Isaah Yeo grubber leading to a Brian To’o try.

What followed was a lengthy and controversial Bunker process that cleared Kurt Capewell of obstructing the defense despite him running in front of the kick, thus handing the Panthers their first points of the game.

The video referees were quickly slammed for a “wrong” call.

The next ten minutes were again filled with errors by both sides, leading to some choice words about the Storm’s lack of smart play from both the skipper and the coach.

Soon, they attacked the Panthers line again and Brenko Lee dashed over in the 64th minute, only to be held up.

The penalty-ridden grudge match continued as Cameron Smith conceded one with a hand in the ruck.

But the Storm were able to take possession after some Papenhuyzen acrobatics prevented the kick for touch from making it over the sideline.

They failed to make anything of it and the Panthers soon hit back as Crichton smashed through multiple defenders to give them their second.

They came within reach of the try line again a minute later but couldn’t turn that into a four-pointer.

However, Jahrome Hughes was found to have committed a professional foul by impeding Kikau and sin binned for his trouble. This meant the Storm would be playing the final ten minutes of the game with just 12 on the field.

Penrith took advantage and Josh Mansour scored soon after, keeping alive their hopes of a miraculous comeback victory.

But a scoreless spell afterward as the Panthers tried desperately to get out of their own half would guarantee the Storm another trophy to add to their extensive cabinet.

Another sin bin (this time to Brandon Smith) restricted the Storm to eleven players and led to one last Penrith try that was too little too late.

With three seconds on the clock after Nathan Cleary declined to convert his own try, the Panthers desperately tried to muster up a play that would equalise the score.

But it was in vain as one last error sealed the 26-20 victory for the Storm, breaking the Panthers’ 17-game winning streak.

In his first ever grand final, Ryan Papenhuyzen was awarded the Clive Churchill Medal as the best player on ground.

All eyes had been on veteran hooker Cameron Smith throughout the week, as rumours about his playing future grew and grew. Smith, who has played a record 430 games as a one-club man, remains uncertain about whether he will retire this season.

But he looked like he could play on forever, in another shining performance alongside the players who make up the future of one of the most successful teams of the NRL era.