Almanac Rugby League – 2020 NRL and NRLW Grand Finals preview: From a fan’s perspective

In the lead-up to this weekend’s NRL Grand Final between the Penrith Panthers and the Melbourne Storm, The Footy Almanac is happy to provide previews of the game by a dedicated fan from each club. ‘Smokie’ Dawson (Melbourne Storm) is well known to Almanac readers as one of our regular columnists; Alan Whiticker (Penrith Panthers) is one of the most prolific authors on rugby league in Australia. The NRLW preview is provided by our rugby league editor, Ian Hauser.




Alan Whiticker was born and bred in Penrith and when the Panthers joined the NSWRL about 10 years later, they were a natural fit for his footy allegiance. Alan was a teacher in western Sydney for a number of years before branching into publishing where he built a successful career at New Holland. He has numerous rugby league publications to his name as well as a swathe of fiction and non-fiction titles covering music, crime, films and even a take on Homer’s Iliad! But, underneath it all, he’s a true Panthers fan.


A Penrith fan’s preview of the 2020 Grand Final


As a lifelong Penrith Panthers fan who attended his first game of rugby league way back in 1968 when the club was lucky to win the toss, I’m sitting back this week savouring the build up to the NRL Grand Final in the local community.


And why not? Success in the toughest rugby league competition in the world does not come around every year – especially for a club that has often shot itself in the foot … reckless overspending, player misbehaviour, surprise exits and the sacking of coaches.


Yes, being a Penrith fan is an exercise in patience and humility. I am a big believer that following a footy team is like living under the old ‘residential qualification rule’ … spending my entire life in Penrith and going to school and Uni here, it wasn’t as if I was going to support Saints or Souths – or, god forbid, Manly –just because they were ‘winners’ in the 1970s when I was growing up.


It was tough being a Penrith supporter … long hard winters, often with little to show for it. It took 18 years from the club’s inception in 1967 to just make the semi-finals. It was not until 1986 that the Panthers produced its first Test player, NSW Country hooker Royce Simmons. It was 25 years before Penrith won its first premiership – not as long a wait as Parramatta (34 years) or Cronulla (50 years), but a relative lifetime compared to Melbourne (2 years), Newcastle (9 years) or even the Cowboys (10 years).


Then it was another 12 years until the Panthers won a second title premiership, in 2003, and it’s been another 17 years since then so it’s definitely time. With the NRL salary cap evening out the talent pool across 16 teams, it’s not unreasonable for your club to taste Grand Final success at least once every 10 years or so. Surely, it’s Penrith’s turn!


And there lies the secret to this year’s success for the club … a new generation of young players who have been winners in junior league competitions have infused the club with an infectiously positive attitude. Seventeen wins in succession, a minor premiership and a hard-won a Grand Final appearance is testimony to that.


What has changed then?


It’s no secret that Penrith’s 1991 success was built on a generation of Test-class juniors who came through the club’s lower grades – Greg Alexander, Brad Fittler, Mark Geyer and John Cartwright. In 2003, the club benefitted from locals Craig Gower, Luke Lewis, Luke Rooney, Trent Waterhouse, Joel Clinton, Tony Peletua, Shane Rodney and Luke Swain, not to mention Ryan Girdler who played most of his first grade career with the club.


This year it’s a tsunami of local talent – Nathan Cleary, Jerome Luai, Brian To’o, Dylan Edwards, Stephen Crichton, Tyrone May, James Fisher-Harris, and Moses Leota are all Penrith juniors. And that’s leaving out bush talent like Isaiah Yeo, Liam Martin, Brent Naden, Matt Burton and Charlie Staines who have come through Penrith’s junior pathways system.


So, there are many positive signs for the club on Sunday given what happened in 1991 and 2003. In all three years, the Panthers finished on top of the table and duly qualified for the Grand Final. All three teams were run by champion halfbacks – Alexander, Gower and now 22-year-old Nathan Cleary – and quality players like that certainly don’t come around every year! And the successful ‘father-son’ relationship between coach Ivan Cleary and son Nathan has a winning precedent with John and Martin Lang back in 2003. Karma? Maybe.


And so, for the third time in 30 years, minor premiers Penrith will be the underdogs on rugby league’s greatest day. The Sydney media have a habit of writing off the ‘Westies’, and the Panthers have a history of causing the upset … the 19-12 win over Canberra in 1991 and the 18-6 drubbing of the Roosters in 2003 are evidence of that!


So, take a bow James Tamou, great to see you back at the club Apisai Koroisau, good on you Josh Mansour for sticking with it after so many injuries, and thanks to Kurt Capewell and Zane Tetevano who have brought so much energy off the bench. Look out for Viliame Kikau to have the match of his life.


The Melbourne Storm will be hard – they have been the benchmark for NRL success for so long now – but write off the young Panthers team at your own peril. Either way, I doubt we’ll be waiting another 17 years for the club to taste success.


Melbourne-based Darren ‘Smokie’ Dawson is a regular Almanac columnist and helps out the site as a part-time  editor on Tuesday nights. Big, bold, brash and blunt, ‘Smokie’ also has a deft touch with words and a sense of the moment that allows him to smell the roses as well as cut to the chase. He’s a keen Melbourne Storm supporter.


The Melbourne Storm – a model of consistency, culture and professionalism


Thirty years ago, had someone suggested to us Melburnians that we would be spending the best part of the year 2020 confined to our houses due to a virulent global pandemic, we would have laughed at the incredulity of such a proposition. Equally preposterous in 1990 would have been the suggestion that Melbourne would be home to a rugby league club whose consistency would be the envy of the NRL.


For let’s face it, behind the bleating of those up north over the Storm’s tactics, beneath the lack of respect for the greatest player to have ever played the game, just below the thin-skinned surface of the carping Sydney media, and buried from view by a fury that a team from the southern capital is a perennial title-contender, lies a jealousy as deep as Sydney Harbour itself. Consider these facts just for starters: since the infamous salary-cap scandal of 2010, the Storm has reached the play-offs in every subsequent season. During this period, the club has won two premierships (2012, 2017) and been runner-up twice (2016, 2018), as well as being crowned the minor premiers on a further two occasions (2011, 2019). Really, what’s not be envious of?


But what is it that makes the Melbourne Storm such a model of consistency, culture and professionalism? What makes the Storm so good? A line of champion players sure has helped, as has the master coach Craig Bellamy, expertly pulling the strings for 18 seasons. But it is more, much more, than what is obvious to those merely looking in from the outside. From the early days, the Storm recognised that it would be a waste of time attempting to go head-to-head with the AFL in its heartland, acknowledging that the club would hold a niche place in the Melbourne sporting market. In doing so, the Storm set about encouraging AFL supporters of all teams to adopt Melbourne as their NRL team. And so, over time, the Melbourne Storm became our club.


Widely underappreciated is the Melbourne Storm organisation’s uncanny ability to unearth young talent and then develop that talent into NRL players. It happens too regularly for it be coincidental. Cameron Smith, Israel Folau, Greg Inglis, Will Chambers, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater, Nelson Asofa-Solomana; these are just some of the names who started their NRL careers with the Storm after being identified as youngsters. Justin Olam’s rise to prominence this year is yet another feather in the cap of the recruitment personnel. Club insiders are proud of the fact that although only twenty-two years old, the Storm cherishes its heritage, highlighted by the respect paid to its past players in the form of past-player functions, ambassadorial and game-development roles. There is a belief also that the value of members is not just in income, it is in having thousands of engaged and passionate rugby league supporters. It is about the culture. The club.


In the first 25 minutes of last week’s Preliminary Final, the Storm put the Raiders to the sword, scoring four tries in an awesome display of attacking power and flair. In doing so, Melbourne highlighted the evolution from their defence-based game-plan. This Sunday evening, the Storm will face a sterner task in looking to end Penrith’s long and impressive winning streak. Will it be a full-stop or an exclamation mark which punctuates the end of the Cameron Smith era? I predict that we will all have the good fortunate to witness a Grand Final for the ages. And I expect the Storm to walk away victorious.


Despite the impending retirement of our superstar skipper, who is still at the top of his game at the age of 37, the Storm’s future – both on-field and off-field – is in good hands. My eyes will be on the exciting Ryan Papenhuyzen, and Cameron Munster, and Jahrome Hughes, for it is upon their broad shoulders that the Storm’s next era rests. Down south, we do not envy the Storm, we love them. Because they are ours. Like the big AFL clubs in this city, the Storm would enjoy being despised by their green-eyed rivals.


In a year of such jarring uncertainty, the Storm have been a familiar crutch on which we Melburnians have been able to lean. And for that alone, we cannot thank them enough.




Ian Hauser is the Almanac’s rugby league editor and one of the site’s day-to-day co-ordinating editors. A keen observer of the code for over 60 years, Ian is a strong supporter of the women’s code, admiring their skill, commitment and ‘let’s get on with the game, no-nonsense’ approach. Sure, he’s a Broncos supporter but that doesn’t stop him admiring the talents of players from other teams.


The Brisbane Broncos will start as favourites as they search for a hat-trick of premierships when they confront the Sydney Roosters in the NRLW Grand Final on Sunday afternoon. Brisbane has lost only once in eleven outings over three seasons in the NRLW while the Roosters have lost just once this season, going down to Brisbane in last weekend’s Round 3.


Both sides have a full roster of players to choose from, suggesting that we can look forward to a mighty clash. Brisbane’s strength has been its skill across the park, from classy fullback Tamika Upton right through to Millie Boyle in the front row, backed up by real depth on the bench where the likes of Annette Brander will be waiting to get onto the field. A surging backline led by Dally M winner Ali Brigginshaw is complemented by a rugged pack featuring Boyle, the rampaging Chelsea Lenarduzzi, and hard-working backorders Amber Hall, Tallisha Harden and Tarryn Aiken. It’s a complete unit.


The Roosters also boast a solid team featuring the attacking Corban McGregor, crafty Melanie Howard and creative Zahara Temara in the backs and powerful forwards in the form of Simaima Taufa, Vanessa Foliaki, Hannah Southwell and the wily Nita Maynard. To win, these are the players who will have to lead from the front.


Last week’s clash suggested that the Roosters have the creativity and speed to trouble Brisbane if they are given any room to move. Brisbane will rely on its strength through the middle and class in the halves to keep Sydney on the back foot and crowd their inside backs. In the end, I think that Tamika Upton is the key to this match. Given space, she will carve upon the defence with her speed, evasive skills, back-up and surprising strength. For Sydney, I think Zahara Temara is the key. With a keen eye to attack and a good kicking game, she just might stretch Brisbane’s wide defence to provide room for her outside support to flourish.


Top-flight referee Belinda Sharpe will be in charge. I’m tipping Brisbane by 6-10 points.


Sunday October 25th

NRLW Grand Final
Brisbane Broncos v Sydney Roosters
ANZ Stadium at 4.05pm


NRL Grand Final
Penrith Panthers v Melbourne Storm
ANZStadium at 7.30pm



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  1. Alan and ‘Smokie’, thanks for your thoughts ahead of the big one. I’m finding them hard to split. I think the bookies have the Storm as favourites – so much for the Panthers’ 17 in a row! Hardened experience v (comparatively) youthful exuberance. Speed everywhere; game breakers on both sides; solid defensive records shared. A Panther fairytale (Langs 2003, Clearys 2020) or a Storm steamroller? Less than 6 points in this one, I reckon.

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