© Provided by The GuardianPhotograph: Dave Hunt/AAP
Fairytale finishes in rugby league are rare but as the NRL prepares for its latest grand final, hope springs eternal for one of the most memorable finishes to a season in the long and storied history of the game.
Cameron Smith has not announced his retirement but after waving to Suncorp Stadium and being chaired off by teammates, it would appear he is set to play his last game in Sunday's title decider. A premiership-winning exit is well and truly on the cards.
On the opposite side are Penrith, chasing history and looking to cap off a truly incredible season during which they not only claimed the minor premiership but have also put together the longest winning streak of the NRL era and the second longest in the history of the competition.
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Smith's refusal to announce his intentions has driven some to distraction and could be seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to troll those who have for many months call on him to publicly make a call. The Melbourne skipper seems certain to retire, a view apparently shared by his teammates.
The Storm played like a team possessed against Canberra, blowing the Raiders off the paddock and out of the premiership hunt in an opening 10-minute blitz. Melbourne ran in three tries inside nine minutes to jump to a 16-0 lead. Craig Bellamy's team do not blow leads and they never came close to getting headed in a comfortable 30-10 win. © Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAPWill he, won't he? Cameron Smith has yet to confirm Sunday's NRL grand final will be his last before retirement.
Melbourne have long been revered for a defensive stoutness that has regularly seen them rank in the top two for the last 15 seasons, but in 2020 it is their ability to score quickly and score from anywhere that has them favoured to win their sixth decider. No team has scored more tries from inside their own half with Melbourne willing to attack from anywhere on the park. No team has more pace or more skill across the park.
There was not a bad performer on the paddock for the Storm. Halfback Jahrome Hughes showed his transformation into a halfback in complete with arguably his best performance in the No 7 jersey. Ryan Papenhuyzen can lay claim to being one of the best players in the game. Smith has lost nothing even at the age of 37 - his try-saving tackle on Nick Cotric on the back of a 60-metre chase was testament to that.
The Storm have a better sense of game management across the board than any team. They know when to put the foot down on either the accelerator or the throat. They can stun or stifle and they know when each is required.
Penrith were notably less impressive. Their win over South Sydney was scrappy and opportunistic, but the Panthers seized on chances presented and understood the value of the moment.
When you have won a remarkable 17 straight games though, winning ugly is as important as winning pretty. Penrith made 13 handling errors, had just 45% of the ball and missed 27 tackles but they were far better at leaping on opportunities. Only the fabled 1975-75 Eastern Suburbs Roosters hold a longer winning streak than the 2020 Panthers.
Reaching the club's first grand final in 17 years is a remarkable achievement for Ivan Cleary and the Panthers following a 10th-placed finish in 2019.
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For the beaten brigade, there will no doubt be disappointment, though both the Raiders and Rabbitohs were rolled by superior teams who had performed better throughout the season.
Canberra certainly got hot over the backend of the season but never seemed to get everything together. Injuries played their part but the main problem with Canberra was a complete lack of depth among their outside backs that was painfully exposed by the Storm. Coach Ricky Stuart did himself few favours by persisting with Jordan Rapana - who had a finals horror show for the ages, prompting comparisons with Paul Carige and Steve Mavin - at centre or keeping livewire rake Tom Starling on the bench until well into the second stanza.
Souths have now lost three straight preliminary finals but they were big outsiders in each and have arguably overachieved over that time. The Bunnies managed to score points in bunches over the backend of the season but in a preliminary final where the match is played tighter and the whistle is typically in the back pocket of the referee, the Bunnies just could not follow the path to victory they have become accustomed to.
Grand finals do not always produce fairytale finishes. In 2020, we will get one. Whether it is Cameron Smith lifting the trophy or Penrith continuing their amazing win streak, the finale to a strange and spectacular season will be one for the ages.