OPINION

Experience will see Melbourne weather grand final storm, says Laurie Daley

In skipper Cameron Smith, the Storm have arguably the most influential player ever. Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Image
In skipper Cameron Smith, the Storm have arguably the most influential player ever. Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Image

If I had to pick a rugby league team to play for my life, it would be Melbourne Storm.

With Melbourne, you know what you're going to get, week in, week out, every game of the season.

And with that in mind, I can't go past the Storm as my tip for Sunday's grand final against Penrith, although without doubt, the Panthers are more than capable of winning it.

Any team who has won 17 games in a row, as Penrith did, obviously have plenty going for them.

Not many expected much from Ivan Cleary's men at the start of the season, given that they didn't feature in the play-offs last year.

It wasn't as if they went out and signed a heap of players. In fact, given that James Maloney left at the end of last year to go and ply his trade in France, they had lost one of the NRL's most experienced playmakers, which left Nathan Cleary in the hot seat.

Who was going to be Cleary's partner in the halves?

There was talk about Tyrone May, or even Matt Burton, lining up at five-eighth.

Instead, Jarome Luai has settled in there to re-establish a combination that dates back to their days in Penrith's junior system.

With Cleary and Luai steering the ship, the Panthers have taken their game to a level few teams in rugby league history have reached.

To think they've lost only one game all season, despite all the restrictions and challenges of the coronavirus protocols, it's pretty mind-boggling.

Some people have queried if Penrith has had a "soft" run in terms of the draw and scheduling, but if you look back over their season, they managed to beat every team in the competition except Newcastle, with whom they had a 14-all draw first game back after the competition hiatus.

Along the way, they beat defending two-time premiers Sydney Roosters twice, and they also knocked off Melbourne 21-14 back in round five.

They've shown they can beat quality teams and, while they have earned rave reviews for their attacking flair, their defence possibly hasn't received the accolades it deserves.

Penrith scored 537 points in the regular season, three more than Melbourne and second-best only to the Roosters (552).

But defensively, they were the best team in the competition, conceding 238 points, ahead of Melbourne (276) and Parramatta (288).

To be conceding only 12 points a game, on average, during a season in which new rules have advantaged attacking teams, is truly remarkable.

In fact, in both their play-offs so far - a 29-28 win against the Roosters and last week's 20-16 victory over South Sydney - it has been defence that got Penrith over the line.

They can definitely win it on Sunday, but my only concern is I'm not quite sure what to expect from them on the biggest day of the year.

Their squad has a lot of young players and not a great deal of big-game experience.

That's in stark contrast to Melbourne, the vast majority of whom have been involved at the business end of the season on a number of occasions.

In skipper Cameron Smith, they have arguably the most influential player ever.

Smithy is yet to announce whether he will be playing on next season but, at 37, it seems the smart money is on him to retire at some point after Sunday's grand final.

Certainly, if the Storm were to win, it would allow the former Queensland and Test captain to complete an outstanding career in fairytale fashion.

I'm sure Melbourne players will draw on that as motivation this week, although it might not be something they even have spent much time discussing.

I just remember how, back in 1994, at Canberra, we had a similar situation with Mal Meninga announcing it would be his last season.

It was there in the back of our minds that Mal deserved to go out on top.

We owed it to him. Most of our players had come into the club as rookies, and Mal was a role model and mentor who had a huge impact on our careers. It is the same with Smithy at Melbourne.

It seems hard to believe he debuted for them way back in 2002.

Since then, the club has evolved into one of the most dominant in rugby league history, which is incredible when you think they are based in an AFL heartland and have such a comparatively small junior nursery.

That they have continued to enjoy success after losing superstars like Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Greg Inglis and Israel Folau is a tribute to Smith and Storm coach Craig Bellamy.

I played a lot of footy with Craig in Canberra and you won't meet a better bloke, nor a more humble one. He was a good player, Craig, but he's become a legendary coach.

Somehow, despite spending months in isolation on the Sunshine Coast, he's pulled this group of players together and they have grown stronger with each passing week.

He'll have devised a game plan for Sunday that his players will stick to ruthlessly. If it rains, as forecast, I doubt the Storm will be complaining, because it should advantage them even more.

One way or the other, it shapes as a cracker of a grand final - a game we'll remember for many, many years to come. I can't wait.