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Stage set for epic encounter between NRL's best

The Storm have lost their home ground advantage and the Panthers have lost four of their biggest stars but the latest chapter in their epic rivalry at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday has lost none of its appeal for fans who've had this one pencilled in for months.

After a late Kurt Capewell try and a miraculous Viliame Kikau try-saver gave Penrith bragging rights in round three at BlueBet Stadium, the Storm were scheduled to host the rematch at AAMI Park but with COVID-19 forcing the relocation of all teams to Queensland, last year's grand finalists meet in Brisbane.

That nailbiting win back in March made it three in a row for Penrith to start the season and they rolled on for nine more rounds before finally suffering their first defeat at the hands of Wests Tigers when Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Brian To'o, Isaah Yeo, Api Koroisau, Liam Martin and Capewell were away on Origin duty.

Koroisau and Martin returned to face the Sharks the following week but it wasn't enough to get the Panthers home, going down 19-18 after recovering from 18-0 down at the break.

Wins over the Roosters, Eels, Warriors and Broncos have steadied the ship in the past month but with Cleary sidelined by a shoulder injury since Origin II the Panthers have lacked the fluency and poise that was such a feature of their stunning 17-game winning run in 2020 and their 12-0 start this season.

Storm v Panthers - Round 20

Cleary's return is tentatively slated for round 22 and joining him in the casualty ward this week are enforcer James Fisher-Harris, ball-playing back-rower Yeo and wing sensation To'o, while livewire hooker Koroisau is serving a suspension for a biosecurity breach.

As the Panthers battled the physical and mental strain of the Origin period, the Storm juggernaut was rolling on, even with Cameron Munster, Dale Finucane, Felise Kaufusi, Christian Welch and Josh Addo-Carr away on rep duty and fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen battling to recover from concussion.

Since that loss to Penrith in round three, the Storm have won 15 games on the trot, piling on a ridiculous 604 points and conceding just 168.

In stark contrast to Ivan Cleary's battered and bruised squad, the defending champs enter the heavyweight showdown at the peak of their powers with Munster, Finucane and Kaufusi back from a post-Origin rest and Papenhuyzen getting more miles in his legs after a seven-game lay-off.

With Munster and Hughes at the controls and the game's most improved player Nicho Hynes dishing off try assists at the same rate as Manly gun Tom Trbojevic and Roosters whiz kid Sam Walker, the Storm look almost invincible.

In 2020 it was the youthful Panthers striking fear in the hearts of rivals as they obliterated the previous club record of eight successive wins, set in their last premiership year of 2003.

Try as they might, the likes of Souths, Parramatta and the Roosters have been unable to break the stranglehold Penrith and Melbourne have had during the past two seasons.

Since the start of 2020, Cleary's men have won 36 of 41 matches with one draw and four losses. The Storm are 35-6 in the same period, with the sweetest victory of all coming on grand final night last year when a first-half blitz and a liberal dose of Papenhuyzen magic set up a 26-20 win over the Panthers.

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Although nothing can ever make up for coming up short in the big one, Penrith took a modicum of revenge in front of a raucous home crowd in March and they'll take comfort from the fact that they are one of only two teams to beat Melbourne this season.

The next instalment plays out on neutral territory on Saturday, with the Storm heavy favourites on the strength of their mounting win tally and Penrith's mounting injury toll.

Having equalled their own club record win streak of 15 last week, the Storm would love nothing better than making their great rivals the 16th notch on their belt and setting sail for September with a spring in their step and bragging rights in their kit bag.


The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.







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