At the end of a season like no other, the NRL finished with a result like every other year: no argument, not much of a contest until the dying minutes and definitely no asterisk.
The nomadic Melbourne Storm, a team living out of a suitcase for months and playing for a state in seemingly perpetual lockdown due to the Covid-19 crisis, cemented their status as the NRL’s best of the last decade with a pulsating 26-20 victory over minor premiers Penrith Panthers at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium.
In front of a 40,000-strong grand final crowd at only half-capacity with the eye barely able to see a patch of purple, coach Craig Bellamy and captain Cameron Smith put the exclamation mark on their magnificent careers despite their team finishing the match with two players in the sin bin.
The pair share a special bond, almost like a father and son, and their guile and experience proved too much for the upstart Panthers, led by coach Ivan and son Nathan.
Bellamy won’t have a greater triumph, even allowing for the 2012 title he won when his team was torn asunder by the salary cap scandal two years earlier. The grandfather will coach the Storm for one more season, but will struggle to top the feats of this season.
His heart might not be able to take much more, either. His team were in cruise control with 25 minutes left, but withstood a furious late rally from the Panthers, which included four unanswered tries, and sin binnings to Jahrome Hughes and Brandon Smith.
A coach’s intuition is always the best one, and when his team was told to escape Melbourne in June in the middle of the pandemic, Bellamy forecast they wouldn’t be returning home until the end of the season. Typically, the end of their season was grand final day.
The neutrals yearning for a contest were left flat for much of the grand final, Melbourne blasting to a 26-0 lead early in the second half thanks to the first penalty try in a grand final since 2013, an intercept and a little bit of luck for Smith before a remarkable finish.
Father Time has never been beaten, but in Smith there’s a rival who has taken him further than everyone else. Few really know Smith, an at-times complex man who yearns for a simple life.
Like most of his 430 NRL games, the grand final was played on terms which he largely dictated. Rival teams have rarely been able to read his genius, nor opposition fans really accept it.
On Sunday night, his name was greeted with thunderous boos during the pre-game introduction. He then went about systemically pulling apart the young Panthers, death by a few sideways glances and a thousand subtle passes.
There would barely be a rugby league player more acutely aware of big moments in matches, and with five seconds left before half-time Smith scored his first grand final try at the eighth time of asking.
There was more than a little luck involved, his opposite Api Koroisau slapping the ball out of his hands and the veteran No 9 picking it up and diving over to hand his team a 22-0 halftime lead. Smith had 14 of those points.
The scoreline was harsh on Penrith, which conceded a penalty try when Tyrone May was ruled to have kicked out at Justin Olam inside four minutes and lamented Suliasi Vunivalu’s 80-metre intercept when Nathan Cleary’s floating ball was plucked out of the night sky by the rugby union-bound Fijian.
It had been 17 years since Penrith had last played in a grand final, this time their spot sealed on the back of a remarkable 17-game winning run. Win No.18 was a bridge too far. Just like 2003, there was a father coaching his son, and it poured for most of the day.
But no one was going to rain on Smith’s parade, even if he wouldn’t declare it during the week.
At half-time, Smith’s wife, Barb, danced joyously in a poncho while the PA system blasted Ain’t No Mountain High Enough as the team her husband led climbed another.
For all the rub of the green which went against the Panthers in the first half, they arguably got it all back with a reply from Brian To’o after Ryan Papenhuyzen’s long-range try. Isaah Yeo ran around the back of Kurt Capewell and kicked for his winger to touch down. Bellamy blew a gasket in the coaching box, and no one could begrudge him.
Stephen Crichton gave them the faintest of faint hopes when he cut the margin to 14 points and the decibel levels went up when Josh Mansour scored immediately after Hughes was sin binned with nine minutes left. Cleary scored in the final seconds, but it wasn’t enough.
The most remarkable season finished with an unremarkable result, and no asterisk attached.
Melbourne Storm 26 (Suliasi Vunivalu, Cameron Smith, Ryan Papenhuyzen tries, penalty try; Smith 5 goals) Penrith Panthers 20 (Brian To’o, Stephen Crichton, Josh Mansour, Nathan Cleary tries; Cleary 2 goals). HT: 22-0.