More often than not, a rivalry can define an era.
As far as the NRL is concerned, we’re firmly in the era of the Penrith Panthers, the dominant team of the last three seasons and on Thursday night they’ll crash headlong into the Melbourne Storm, the dominant team of the last two decades .
It should be the latest chapter in an old story, where two great teams meet in a game that has room for only one winner, but since Penrith’s ascension in 2020 their battles with Melbourne have become the great rivalry that’s never quite happened.
All the ingredients are there. There are two great sides who can play tough and tight or fast and loose depending on which need arises.
Both teams have big names who can be heroes or villains depending on how you look at it, and there’s been enough shared history for there to be some heat whenever they meet.
Melbourne pulled off the ambush in the 2020 grand final, with their experience and cunning combining with an uncharacteristically nervous and uncertain display from the Panthers.
Penrith saw disrespect in the Storm’s celebrations, which fueled their upset win in the preliminary final the following season.
There’s been a light war of words over wrestling and grapple tackles and arrogance in the lead up to this latest clash – who’s right or wrong isn’t as important as the prospect of the next meeting between the two sides to carry some serious edge.
All the pieces are in place for Penrith and Melbourne to become what Parramatta and Canterbury was in the 1980s, or what Brisbane and North Queensland was in the 2010s – the kind of headlong collision that reverberates through time because it grows in the telling.
But for a rivalry to catch fire and live forever there needs to be epic battles on a regular basis, games that make the ground shake and the heavens tremble, the kind of games from which there are fewer winners than there are survivors, games that forever change the men who played and the people who watched it.
It’s been 40 years since the 80s, but we still talk about the Bulldogs and the Eels. It’ll be the same when we tell stories about the Broncos and Cowboys going down to the wire over and over again.
Penrith and Melbourne just haven’t had the chance to meet each other fully loaded often enough to have those kinds of matches that last forever.
There’s been some beauties, certainly – like Penrith’s last-minute win early in 2021, or their epic finals victory over the Storm later that year, a match which remains the club’s finest hour since they became one of the league’s blue-bloods. Those matches can be the bedrock on which a great rivalry is built.
But all too often, through circumstances beyond anyone’s control, when Penrith and Melbourne have met it’s been on less than full terms, like it will be on Thursday night when both sides go in vastly undermanned.
It was a similar story in the two club’s first clash earlier this year, when they were to meet at Magic Round boasting identical 8-1 records in what everybody and their mother was tipping as a grand final preview, only for Ryan Papenhuyzen and Jahrome Hughes to cop injuries during the week.
The result was a 32-6 Penrith win that is still prized and valuable – both teams are the kind of side where it’s an important win whenever their colors are lowered, no matter how depleted they may be – but hardly the stuff of legend.
It’s in Hughes and Nathan Cleary, so different in style as halfbacks but both unquestionably among the NRL’s top playmakers, that we can see just how timing has abandoned both sides.
The two have only met head-to-head twice since the start of 2020, robbing the league of what should be the greatest halfback duel of this era. Both will be missing again on Thursday night, along with a host of other stars from both sides.
Having said that, neither side will accept that as an excuse for defeat, a quality Penrith hooker Api Koroisau says the Panthers learned from their rivals to the south.
“They’re the ultimate competitors, they’re never down and out and even if they’re missing people they show up each and every week,” Koroisau said.
“They built that reputation themselves, they can still be incredible when players are missing. They’ve earned that, and you want to play against the best.”
The Panthers are in a holding pattern until Cleary returns from suspension and Jarome Luai from injury, but they had just enough of their old selves to handle the Raiders last week.
Halfback Sean O’Sullivan’s cunning as a playmaker stood out, and five-eighth Jaeman Salmon grew in stature as the game went on.
After a rough start, the Panthers found the trust they needed in their back-up halves to put a dagger in Canberra’s hearts and steady the ship after Cleary’s shock send off in the loss to Parramatta the week before.
“Our shape and what we do stays the same all year. The older boys have to trust the guys are going to come in and do their job – if you try and take too much responsibility it can hurt the chemistry of the team,” Koroisau said.
“That’s the main point, being certain. A lot of things can happen in a season, we’ve had players missing before and we’ve tried to do too much and it’s put us off our game. We have so much faith in the guys who come in.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, we knew Canberra would come out hard and they really did. It showed how much we wanted it, how much we wanted these combos to work.”
That absolute belief and total understanding of what’s required and when it’s required is exactly how Melbourne have managed to stretch their dominance of the competition across two full decades, regardless of who wears the jersey or how many stars leave Victoria.
It’s an art the Panthers are beginning to master, which makes it easy to see a future where Cleary and Luai will return to lead a finals charge, and Penrith will instantly roar back to their full and terrible might, and team after team will throw themselves in front of the great winning machine in an effort to clog the tracks.
Perhaps the Storm, who have steadied their feet a little with two straight wins after staggering around copping shots through a four-match losing streak, can be one of those teams.
Given their history they might be one of the few teams who could stand to look the Panthers in the eye and go for their throat, and we could yet get another classic meeting between the two superpowers.
But Papenhuyzen is gone until 2023, as is Christian Welch, and Melbourne’s depth isn’t quite what it used to be. It’s hard to see them truly challenging for the premiership this time around.
Next season isn’t guaranteed either. With Brandon Smith, the Bromwich brothers and Felise Kaufusi all leaving at the end of the year, the Storm will have to rebuild their roster a little.
They won’t bottom out – the Storm never do – but they could drop just a little from the lofty heights they’ve enjoyed with Penrith, and their next few meetings might not be a clash of true equals but that of a champion against a contender.
And when the history of this time and this era is written, there’s every chance Penrith and Melbourne are remembered as two great sides that overlapped and played a few good games, not as a rivalry that endures through the decades.
Both teams have done all they can to make it happen, but sometimes ships just pass in the night instead of crashing into each other.