Why the Penrith-Melbourne rivalry is yet to truly catch fire

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 and Penrith are the dominant teams of the past few years. (AAP: Dean Lewins)

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.

Johnathan Thurston reacts after his winning field goal for the Cowboys against the Broncos
For a while, Brisbane and North Queensland’s clashes became instant classics. (AAP: Dave Hunt )

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.

Ryan Papenhuyzen runs with his head down, a rugby ball tucked under one arm
Neither Melbourne nor Penrith can keep their best players on the field when they meet. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

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.

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