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Jubilant Panthers players.

For about a month after last year's agonising grand final defeat to the Storm, outgoing Panthers captain James Tamou couldn't bring himself to watch a replay.

Eventually, after some convincing from assistant coach Cameron Ciraldo, the current Wests Tigers prop relived the 26-20 loss.

"It sort of put me at ease, watching it," Tamou, who led Penrith to a historic 17 straight wins and the minor premiership, told

"But there was a while there where I couldn't look at anything rugby league-related. When you lose, you sort of look at yourself and the things you did wrong and the negative things."

As Ciraldo told Tamou, the grand final display was "not as bad as you think". And as they prepare to face Melbourne in Saturday's prelim final, Tamou believes his old team can exact revenge.

Extended Highlights: Panthers v Storm

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"Penrith will be better for last year's experience," said Tamou, who is still fond of the Panthers and will be supporting them.

"They deserve another shot [at winning the premiership]. Once they get that other shot, they'll take it with both hands."

The burgeoning rivals have met twice this year with the Panthers winning a round-three thriller 12-10 before the Storm dismantled their injury-hit opponents with a 37-10 romp in round 20.

However, Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary didn't play in either match and his precise general-play kicking - which Tamou said has "gone another level" in 2021 - could prove crucial.

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'That was an opportunity'

Considering the Storm held an imposing 22-0 lead by half-time of the 2020 decider, it's logical to think that it had been one-way traffic.

But as Tamou remembers, Penrith were on top at stages.

"I felt like we were in the grind, winning field position and we just couldn't [execute]," said Tamou, who started in the front row.

A Storm error from the kick-off handed Ivan Cleary's side a dream start, and aside from a fourth-minute penalty try to Melbourne centre Justin Olam, early momentum was with the Panthers.

After eight minutes, they had been tackled 11 times inside the opposition's 20-metre zone compared to Melbourne's twice. But the weight of attacking possession reaped few rewards.

Penrith winger Josh Mansour crossed in the seventh minute but the try was disallowed due to an obstruction by Stephen Crichton, who was then held up over the line in the 17th minute.

Nathan Cleary, the 2020 Dally M Halfback of the Year, wasn't quite landing his attacking kicks with their usual accuracy.

Cleary 'would love to have the game again tomorrow'

Retired Melbourne captain Cameron Smith said on Channel Nine last week that Bellamy had focused extensively on nullifying Cleary's boot.

Bellamy said on Friday that shutting down the NSW Origin general would again be high on their priority list.

"If he gets his own way, [Cleary's kicks] are going to be hard to catch and that's not what we want to do to our back three," Bellamy said.

"Any game we're obviously trying to put pressure on the kicker, but because of Nathan's ability to make them hard to catch, we've practised that [kick pressure] a bit this week.

"And we want to make sure we give him as little time as possible to pick his spot and hit them how he wants to hit them."

Knights Immortal Andrew Johns believes Cleary's kicking game could get them home.

"The big thing for the halves going into both Melbourne games was that your kicking game has to be perfect and you have to jag a try or two from kicks," Johns said on Freddy and the Eighth.

"Jagging some tries from kicks is going to be the challenge for Nathan. Those big bombs up against Papenhuyzen.

"Papenhuyzen has had a patchy year but he’s back to his best. But it’s how he contends with those floating bombs.

James Tamou at the 2020 grand final.
James Tamou at the 2020 grand final. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"The big advantage for Penrith is also that it’s a day game so you can move the ball well."

Tamou reckons Cleary has "taken last year's grand final personally" and used it as motivation to become an even deadlier kicker.

"If there was anything he's looked at and gone, 'Jeez, I need to work on something here', he's worked on his kicking," Tamou said.

"Some of the stuff he's doing this year – kicking at the posts, the high up-and-unders – is just crazy. He's gone to another level."

Back to the grand final. Smith slotted penalty goals in the 22nd and 26th minutes, but it wasn't until Suliasi Vunivalu intercepted a Cleary pass that Melbourne truly asserted dominance after half an hour.

A fortuitous Smith try on stroke of the break after Api Koroisau knocked the ball from his rival hooker's hands blew out the margin.

Even still, the Panthers - for whom winning had become a habit - believed they could mount a comeback, according to Tamou.

"We'd been in that position plenty of times before," he said.

Storm v Panthers - Preliminary final

The captain urged the team to "think about through your whole life when you're a kid, when you're coming through, you want to be in this position. Try and muster every ounce of energy to go into this next 40 minutes."

"And it kind of worked, but obviously not quite. I was still confident. I knew the Panthers last year, we could score points," he added.

"It's not always easy when you're up at half-time. If you were up, you kind of walk out in the second half going, 'This is going to be easy'. Next thing you know, you get pipped.

"We were kind of hoping Melbourne would be feeling like that, that they'd sort of be looking at the 80-minute mark and not the next 40."

When Clive Churchill Medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen broke clear from a scrum to touch down in the 45th minute, the Storm seemed home.

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But forced into playing expansively, the Panthers started to heat up. Five-eighth Jarome Luai found his groove as winger Brian To'o (52nd minute) and centre Crichton (68th) bagged tries.

As the Panthers ate into the margin, those adjacent to where Bellamy was sitting could hear his stress and frustration increasing.

Then, with nine minutes to go and the score at 26-12, Storm halfback Jahrome Hughes was sin-binned for taking out second-rower Viliame Kikau as he chased a Cleary grubber.

Mansour nabbed a four-pointer after the penalty and Hughes admitted in an interview this week that he "thought I'd lost my team a grand final" as he watched from the dressing room.

Twenty seconds from victory, Brandon Smith joined Hughes in the sin bin, leaving the Storm with 11 players to see out the match.

Cleary stepped his way to an individual try, but the Panthers couldn't tie the game with a last-play miracle from the restart.

Ultimately, the damage was done by half-time.

"I've said this before, and it's not having a dig at anyone, but Melbourne played the whole game really well," Tamou said.

"What I mean by that is they not only played the football game, they used the rules to help. There were a few head knocks there.

Jagging some tries from kicks is going to be the challenge for Nathan. Those big bombs up against Papenhuyzen

Immortal Andrew Johns on Nathan Cleary's kicking game

"They kind of knew they had to slow the game down, so that's what I mean. That's why I congratulate them - they played the whole game.

"It's a game kind of like Origin - the whole week leading up to the game, you've got to do that well. You can't just rise to the occasion on the day because you just fall to the level of your training.

"So you've got to train well, you've got to do everything well to have confidence. Melbourne did everything right to win that game."

But while he tips his cap to the Storm, Tamou can't help but think of what could have been.

"It was more the few days after, the week after where you look back at it and go, 'That was an opportunity'," he said.

'It came down to experience'

The well-worn cliche that you have to lose a grand final to win one has often been applied to the youthful Penrith side.

And despite falling to Souths in week one of the finals before hanging on against Parramatta, Tamou is backing them to beat the Storm at Suncorp Stadium and earn a shot at grand final redemption.

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It's a significant statement given Tamou's Wests Tigers felt the full wrath of the Storm in a 66-12 shellacking in round 15 this season.

"[Before the 2020 grand final] I was saying all week, 'It's just a normal game, we can’t get caught up in it'," Tamou said.

"But I think realising that you're in the grand final, you can [mentally] play your game earlier than what you're thinking.

"You kind of trip up there at the start and the game goes by you. I'm not saying that happened, I'm just saying Penrith will be better for last year's experience and know what they have to go through.

"We're all Panther fans here [in the Tamou household]," he added. "Obviously Tigers first, Panthers second. Jarome Luai, Brian To'o, Nathan Cleary – we all love them."

The Panthers will also know they have what it takes to topple the Storm having done it without Cleary at the start of the season.

A last-gasp Kurt Capewell try and Crichton goal put them in the lead before Kikau incredibly prevented Olam from scoring a match-winner, wedging his hand between the ball and the turf.

In the return bout in August, Melbourne were clinical but the Panthers didn't have stars Cleary, To'o, Koroisau or Isaah Yeo on deck.

Speaking earlier this week, playmaker Luai said he feels Penrith have become a better team than last season in "several areas".

"We've got a lot more big-game experience under our belt. Some of us have played Origin as well, so I think that helped us a bit in terms of leadership and stuff," the pivot said.

The NRL Telstra Premiership preliminary finals are here!

"We're still a young side, but we've got plenty of confidence in what we can do. We need to bring that against Melbourne.

"We all knew that to get a premiership Melbourne were going to be in our way any time down the track. We're facing them this week and we're pretty hype and ready to go."

Fullback Dylan Edwards said the Panthers won't reflect much on the grand final but acknowledged they must start fast.

"Having a taste of finals footy and what it's about will hopefully put us in good stead. But Melbourne have got a lot of experience as well, so it'll sort of offset it," the 25-year-old said.

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"Once you get into the game, you're just into it so you don't have too much time to think about that."

Cameron Smith is tipping the Storm to win well with a "blowout" on the cards after Penrith's physical match against the Eels.

"I just don't know how they'll recover from this game. If the Storm put it on them early, I just feel as though they're going to tire. As the game progresses, they will tire," Smith said on SEN Radio.

"The Storm, they've had a week off, they've had an opportunity to freshen up, Craig Bellamy rested a few of his stars in the last match of the year [in the regular season].

"They're coming into this game well-rested and they're going to be full of running and energy ... They just grind you into the ground until you've got nothing left. They'll score their points late."

Bellamy, however, said his troops are in for a fight and noted the continued development of Ivan Cleary's Panthers.

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"It's the experience of last year's finals and especially the grand final. They had such a great winning run and then after losing the grand final, they had another really good winning streak," Bellamy said.

"They're obviously a very, very talented side. I don't think they're doing a whole heap different to last year. They were certainly the dominant team last year up until they lost the grand final.

"I don't think they've had to change too much, they've tried to get better with the experience of their players.

"They've been one helluva side for two years."

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