The smoke from the fireworks thickened, and the rain eased, as the Panthers ran onto the ANZ Stadium turf for the club's first NRL Grand Final in 17 years. At the opposite end of the field, donning predominately white jerseys, were the Melbourne Storm, an admirably familiar fixture on this big day. At the end of the 80 minutes, that experience would prove to be instrumental in sending another premiership south to Victoria.
The game started with an uncharacteristic error from the Storm, allowing the kick-off to bounce before knocking it on. They weren't too happy with the call, but they had no problem with the majority of rulings for the next 15 minutes. Most decisions seemed to go their way, as they were awarded a penalty try, while the Panthers had one of their own disallowed for an obstruction call.
The Panthers started the game playing frantic football, perhaps fired up on the adrenaline racing through their bodies. They were awarded several six again calls, with the Storm struggling to slow them down, but the Panthers couldn't capitilise on the possession or the territory. There was plenty of dry-weather football being played in the slippery conditions, as the men in black swept from side to side probing for weaknesses. Both teams were hitting hard and scrambling well in defence, as the costly errors mounted for the Panthers.
The inexperienced Panthers were being frustrated into mistakes. Viliame Kikau passed off the ground; players knocked on; Nathan Cleary threw an intercept pass; players were offside on loose balls; forward passes were thrown. If it could go wrong for the Panthers, it did, and the Storm made the most of it all, running up a 22-0 score at halftime.
The halftime talk from Ivan Cleary included starting over, remaining calm and, most importantly, being the first to score in the second half. But Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen had other ideas and five minutes after the break he ran away from well inside his own half to score his team's fourth try.
The scoreboard pressure was now enormous and the Panthers had already tried catch-up footy and failed. Yet as the Storm tired, the Panthers surged, giving feint hope to the legions of frustrated fans who had made the trip to ANZ Stadium and all the others watching on at home. They scored the next three ties to get to 26-16 with Jahrome Hughes sent to the sin bin for the last nine minutes of the game.
Throughout the late Panthers rampage, the Storm's experience stood tall. Cameron Smith was barking at the referee when he sent Jahrome Hughes to the sin bin, giving his players time to reset, while other Storm players remained calm in defence and with the ball. A trainer managed to stop play before entering the field to assess a head knock to Felise Kaufusi. Every act was deliberate and measured and ultimately successful.
The Panthers had one last try in them, taking the score to 26-20. Cleary declined to take the shot at conversion in order to allow the Panthers 10 more seconds of possession. Throwing passes wildly in a desperate attempt to score again, the ball was ultimately intercepted and the game was over.
Ryan Papenhuyzen collected the Clive Churchill medal in his first NRL Grand Final, while Cameron Smith collected the premiership trophy after his eighth competition decider. The story of success continued for the Storm, with coach Craig Bellamy taking a lot of the credit for their consistency over the years.
The unprecedented pandemic-marred season had come to an end. The Storm players were more than happy to be finally out of their Sunshine Coast bubble. The players and support staff had spent months away from their own beds, away from their families, but the final destination had proven to be well worth the pain of the journey.