Otago Daily Times

Pan­thers on a roll for date with Mel­bourne

RUGBY LEAGUE

- Sports · Rugby · National Rugby League · Rugby League · Melbourne Storm · Canberra Raiders · Canberra · Queensland · Sydney Roosters · South Sydney Rabbitohs · Penrith Panthers · Cameron Smith · Olympic Stadium of Montreal · Craig Bellamy

SYD­NEY: The Pen­rith Pan­thers will ride a 17­match win­ning streak into the Na­tional Rugby League fi­nal this week­end, look­ing to bag a first ti­tle since 2003 and ruin what might be the last out­ing for Mel­bourne Storm skip­per Cameron Smith.

The 2020 sea­son will come to a cli­max in front of 40,000 fans at Syd­ney’s Olympic Sta­dium in a ‘‘grand fi­nal’’ that matches the two best teams from the novel coro­n­avirus­dis­rupted cam­paign in what will be Smith’s record­ex­tend­ing 430th NRL game.

Smith is con­sid­ered one of the great­est play­ers to have graced the game and although he is yet to con­firm his re­tire­ment, there have been signs that his glit­ter­ing 19­year ca­reer will come to an end to­mor­row night.

The hooker was ‘‘chaired off’’ the pitch by his team­mates at Lang Park after the 30­10 thrash­ing of the Can­berra Raiders that earned the Mel­bourne club a place in its 10th ti­tle de­cider in 23 sea­sons of ex­is­tence.

De­spite its suc­cess, the Storm re­mains largely unloved out­side its fan­base. Cre­ated by a me­dia group in an Aus­tralian Rule­sob­sessed city, the team has had two of its five ti­tles stripped for fla­grant salary­cap breaches.

Smith and 18­year coach Craig Bel­lamy have al­ways em­braced a siege men­tal­ity but par­tic­u­larly dur­ing this cam­paign after they were forced into ex­ile in Queens­land be­cause of the

Covid­19 bourne.

‘‘That is cer­tainly not a mo­ti­va­tion at all in our mind­set, what opin­ions other peo­ple have of us as a club or in­di­vid­u­als,’’ Smith said this week.

‘‘We’re not out for any type of ac­knowl­edge­ment this week other than want­ing to play well ...’’

Ranged against Smith and Bel­lamy to­mor­row will be the father­and­son team of Ivan and Nathan Cleary, who have driven the re­vival of a club based in the shadow of the Blue Moun­tains, which mark the west­ern lim­its of Syd­ney.

They have done it in some style, play­ing an ef­fer­ves­cent brand of rugby league that has of­ten over­whelmed their op­po­nents, in­clud­ing dou­ble de­fend­ing cham­pion the Syd­ney Roost­ers and the South Syd­ney Rab­bitohs in the play­offs.

Half­back Nathan Cleary has en­joyed the best sea­son of his ca­reer un­der the tute­lage of his coach father, or­ches­trat­ing the at­tack with strong run­ning, deft pass­ing and ac­cu­rate kicking from both hand and tee.

Even if he will be com­ing up against the supreme on­field com­man­der in Smith to­mor­row, he is de­ter­mined to en­joy his first ti­tle de­cider.

‘‘I’ve al­ways wanted to play in a grand fi­nal. To be able to do it with Dad, it’s pretty spe­cial,’’ he said. — Reuters

lock­down

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 ?? PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES ?? Glit­ter­ing ca­reer . . . Cameron Smith, cap­tain of the Mel­bourne Storm.
PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES Glit­ter­ing ca­reer . . . Cameron Smith, cap­tain of the Mel­bourne Storm.

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