On their day nobody can touch the Panthers

By the time a Mexican wave rang out around Stadium Australia on Friday night with 15 minutes to go, the only point of intrigue was whether or not the Panthers could inflict the ultimate humiliation on the Storm in the form of a half-century.

Whatever your thoughts on the wave, and whether or not it has a place in any sport other than cricket, you could hardly blame Penrith fans for wanting to start the party a bit early.

The expectations in regards to Melbourne's ability to pull off an upset were pretty clear all week, when the main talking point leading into the game wasn't about the on-field action, but rather about how many fans would be there to witness it. In the end it was just over 35,000.

The Penrith Panthers as we know them, are the best rugby league team of all time. There is no stretch in the professional era that comes close, no sign of it slowing down, and a level of inevitability about them in big games that we have never seen before.

There was a hint of intrigue, the slightest, faintest sniff of an upset for all of two minutes, but it faded away with a foolish penalty, and out of sight thanks to a bombed try and more poor discipline from the Storm.

To win, Melbourne were going to have to be close to perfect - the attritional nature of Finals Footy is a science that was practically perfected by Craig Bellamy and his troops.

They were more physical in the opening exchanges, and kept the Panthers well behind halfway in both of their first two sets, only for a needless penalty late in the count to undo their hard work.

It's the trap that South Sydney fell into last year - even with a 12-0 lead late in the first half, they still felt the need to push the envelope and take risks, as though they were the team trailing. The result? 12-12 at the interval followed by one-way traffic in the second half.

Make no mistake, risks are absolutely necessary against a team as good as Penrith. But it wasn't so much that the Storm chanced their arm too much as it was that they were unable to execute routine plays.

Every point Penrith scored in the first half came directly after a penalty, bar the try which immediately followed Marion Seve's ill-advised offload in his own half. On top of that, what should have been a simple draw and pass to take the lead at 4-4 was bombed, when Trent Loiero's pass went behind Justin Olam who couldn't haul it in.

None of this is to take anything away from the Panthers, who are in the midst of the most-dominant run we have ever seen in this great game - and much like they did last year, were completely untouchable as the game dragged on. But the lopsided result highlights one thing above everything else. If Penrith are on their game, it doesn't really matter what approach you take, you're going to lose.

Melbourne were taking it to that vaunted Penrith pack right up until Nelson Asofa-Solomona went off. The rest of the Storm pack are solid first graders, but none have the impact that their star man provides. The contrast is that when the Panthers' own double-barrelled dynamo, James Fisher-Harris, goes off, he's replaced by the equally terrifying Spencer Leniu.

Now the issue of how to deal with that has actually been solved; have Leniu sign with another team. But that only fixes that for 2024 and beyond, and Melbourne bore the full brunt of Penrith's middle as they got more tired and sloppy, and the Panthers' tails remained up.

Sport is cyclical and nothing lasts forever, but as those waves in the stands only broke to cheer for Penrith's last couple of tries, you couldn't help but get the feeling that if 'completing' a sport is possible, the Panthers are one more win from doing so.

+But what comes next?

It has felt for weeks, if not months, that the Broncos and Panthers were on a collision course to meet in the grand final, with the idea that if anyone could topple the top dogs, it would be Kevin Walters' upstarts, who've shown that they have the fearlessness, attacking skill and forward pack to pull it off.

With the utmost respect to the Warriors, and the tremendous season they've had, even with Shaun Johnson back, we would just be getting a repeat of week one of the finals.

You can't really call any game with Penrith in it a 'neutral's delight', such is their dominance, but if there's one team that can push them close it's these Broncos.

The element of the unknown can be a powerful thing. Basically all of the Panthers' big games in September and October throughout their run have been against three teams; the Storm, Rabbitohs, and Eels.

Even when the Broncos were making up the numbers at the bottom of the ladder while Penrith were becoming the juggernaut they are now, games between the two were still, for the most part, good contests.

If everything clicks for Brisbane next week, there's a world where they can pull off the unthinkable and go from outside the top eight in 2022 to knocking off the defending champs - but the flip side of that is of course if they overplay their hand and their stars have an off night, it'll be a repeat of this preliminary final, or last year's grand final.

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy, who's seen just about every contender for the 'best ever' team tag, conceded that the theory on how to beat Penrith - through a combination of enterprising attack and physical play - was easy. It's just doing it that's the hard part.

We've seen teams beat Penrith by getting into a grind and eking out a close one - but that's not how the Broncos are wired. We've seen very few teams try to beat Penrith in a shootout, and none succeed.

Brisbane could be the first, if all goes well. But again - it took an hour for Penrith to fail to complete a set tonight. On their day, nobody can touch them. And lately, those days seem to be any time the sun comes up.