A confrontation between Melbourne and Penrith might not hold the same allure as a battle between old rivals like the Roosters and the Rabbitohs, but there is no doubting the intrigue these teams will bring to Sunday afternoon’s showdown at Centrebet Stadium.
There is intrigue in the coaching battle, where Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy has held an absolute domination over Matt Elliott ever since these two first went head-to-head in 2003. Bellamy’s teams hold a 14-0 winning record.
In Elliott’s defence, Bellamy’s teams were found to have exceeded the salary cap between 2006 and 2010, but nevertheless, such dominance by one coach over another is extremely rare across the NRL.
The Melbourne v Penrith record also provides bleak viewing for the Panthers, with no wins from their past seven matches against the Storm.
But if there is one statistic that will offer some optimism for the Panthers this Sunday it is Melbourne’s dismal record away from home. During Bellamy’s reign, his players have prided themselves on their ability to perform well on the road but at present the club is experiencing the worst losing run away from home its 13-year history.
Melbourne’s 34-6 capitulation to the Cowboys at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 3 was their seventh successive away loss. Admittedly much of the damage to the Storm’s travelling record occurred during their troubled 2010 campaign when they weren’t playing for competition points, but their performance against the Cowboys suggests they are not completely over their travelling woes.
As “new” as the rivalry is between these clubs, there have been some memorable battles between them since the Storm joined the NRL in 1998.
Few have matched their 2006 clash at Olympic Park for tension and drama. It was ultimately decided in the final minute of golden point extra-time when Storm halfback Cooper Cronk nailed a field goal attempt to break a 16-all deadlock.
There were six unsuccessful shots at a one-pointer before after the golden point period began and the vocal Melbourne crowd rode every one of them.
It was nip and tuck all the way. The Storm led 12-10 at halftime before Penrith snuck clear with a controversial try to winger Michael Gordon. Melbourne then levelled with a scintillating individual four-pointer to Greg Inglis, and extra-time beckoned when Cameron Smith’s conversion attempt swung wide of the posts.
Cronk’s 90th-minute field goal allowed Melbourne to maintain their share of the competition lead with eventual premiers, Brisbane.
In 2005 the Panthers scored a 28-14 victory at Olympic Park that grew in significance with hindsight. It was the last win by a visiting team to Melbourne for 14 months and was rated by Penrith coach John Lang as the club’s best win of an otherwise unremarkable season.
The win was achieved in a short period after halftime. The Panthers trailed 8-4 at the break and they would have been further behind had referee Shayne Hayne not recalled try-bound Melbourne fullback Billy Slater for a forward pass. Forwards Joel Clinton, Ben Ross and Trent Waterhouse stepped up for Penrith, who scored twice to turn a potential 14-4 deficit into a 16-8 lead. Five-eighth Preston Campbell capped a brilliant attacking exhibition with a 90-metre sprint to score a late try after taking an intercept.
“It could have been 'break' for us tonight, but it’s not necessarily 'make',” said Lang in a neat fulltime summation.
The Panthers felt the full fury of Melbourne’s attacking class at Olympic Park in 2004 when the Storm handed them a 66-14 belting. It was an 11-try mauling orchestrated by halves Matt Orford and Scott Hill and resulted in an all-time record loss by a defending premier. Former Panther Steve Turner led the charge with three tries while Orford kicked a club record 11 goals from 12 attempts.
Incredibly, Penrith led 10-0 early in the match and only trailed 18-10 at halftime.
Penrith’s record win against the Storm came late in the 2002 season when they thrashed the Mark Murray-coached outfit 36-16 at Penrith Football Stadium. Panthers’ favourite Ryan Girdler became the first player in premiership history to complete the career double of 100 tries and 500 goals with his personal contribution of 20 points.
The Panthers matched their 2002 effort when they downed the Storm by the same score early in 2005.
Only time will tell which record will fall this Sunday: will it be Bellamy’s unbeaten run against Elliott, the Storm’s winning streak against the Panthers or will Melbourne bring to an end their lengthy losing sequence away from home?