To'o good! Panthers power past Storm into fourth straight decider

Defending premiers Penrith booked a date with destiny at Accor Stadium next Sunday courtesy of a 38-4 win over the Melbourne Storm in Friday night’s preliminary final.

Looking to emulate the legendary Eels outfit that won three premierships in a row from 1981-83, the Panthers now await the winner of the second preliminary final between the Broncos and Warriors.

With Brian To'o bagging a hat-trick and Nathan Cleary at his clinical best, the Panthers marched into a fourth consecutive grand final, avenging their loss to Melbourne in the first of those deciders in 2020.

The Storm conceded an early penalty when Marion Seve was pinged for a ruck infringement and the Panthers marched down field to open their account after just four minutes through To'o.

A penalty against Storm centre Justin Olam for a crusher tackle invited the Panthers into the red zone again by Seve was safe under a Cleary high ball and the visitors came away with a seven-tackle set.

Just two minutes later Olam made a statement when he burned Izack Tago on the outside and powered across the line for Melbourne's first try. Nick Meaney's conversion attempt hit the upright and the score remained 4-4.

Come the 14th minute and the Storm should have had a second four-pointer but a poor pass by Trent Loiero that went behind Olam saw the opportunity go begging.

A late shot by Nelson Asofa-Solomona on Cleary after the Panthers No.7 had passed the ball led to a penalty and the Panthers took a 6-4 lead.

Another error by Seve put the heat on the Storm again and it was To'o who made it a double after slick hands from Dylan Edwards and Tago. With Cleary's conversion the Panthers led 12-4 after 23 minutes.

Returning Panthers five-eighth Jarome Luai then chipped in on the left side with a quick ball to Cleary who found Sunia Turuva for a try in the corner and when Cleary piloted the conversion from touch the premiers had a 14-point lead.

With five minutes remaining in the half the Storm broke clear through hooker Harry Grant but his attempt to find support was shut down by Cleary with a timely intercept.

A spilled bomb by To'o handed the Storm a late shot at points but another poor pass by Meaney to Reimis Smith resulted in Melbourne's seventh error of the half.

Another powerful run by To'o in the 47th minute led to Cleary forcing a line dropout with a clever grubber but the Storm went short and Isaah Yeo touched the ball before it had travelled 10 metres and Melbourne had a penalty.

The Panthers' World Cup winning back-rower Liam Martin was next to impose himself on the game when he brushed past Cameron Munster and found Cleary backing up on the inside for a 24-4 lead.

When Edwards finished off brilliant lead-up work by Stephen Crichton and Turuva in the 56th minute the game was as good as over and Panthers coach Ivan Cleary took the opportunity to give Luai an early mark in his return from a dislocated shoulder.

With 10 minutes to play the Panthers were in party mode when To'o crossed for his third of the night courtesy of good hands from Tago on the inside.

As the clock wound down the Storm's frustration came out when Seve hit Spencer Leniu with a shoulder charge and the resulting penalty goal to Cleary made it 38-4.

The 34-point margin signalled the biggest win by a team in a preliminary final in the NRL era and sounded an ominous warning for ahead of their tilt at history next week.

Match Snapshot

  • Harry Grant again started on the bench for the Storm and entered the contest in the 18th minute.
  • Panthers winger Brian To'o has scored 21 tries this season. His previous best try tally was 15 in 2021.
  • Panthers prop James Fisher-Harris set the tone with 84 metres from 10 runs in his opening stint of 32 minutes.
  • The Panthers completed 22 of 23 sets at 95 per cent in the opening 40 minutes. The Storm were 11 of 17 at 64 per cent.
  • Panthers skipper Isaah Yeo had a huge night with 22 runs for 188 metres and 34 tackles.
  • Storm back-rowers Josh King, Trent Loiero and Eliesa Katoa made 116 tackles between them.
  • The Panthers have now won eight consecutive finals games and conceded just 66 points in the process.
  • Panthers winger Brian To'o had four line breaks, 11 tackle breaks and 164 run metres to go with his two tries.
  • Storm forward Josh King was placed on report in the 60th minute for high contact on Nathan Cleary.
  • Storm prop Christian Welch left the field for a HIA in the 51st minute which he passed, returning to the field in the 64th minute.
  • The Panthers have won five of their past six games against the Storm.
  • The Panthers had 53 tackle breaks for the game compared to 25 by Melbourne.
  • A crowd of 35,578 was on hand at Accor Stadium.

Play of the Game 
Renowned for his ability to come up with big tries in finals, Panthers centre Stephen Crichton turned provider in the 56th minute when he produced a magical flick pass to Sunia Turuva who found the ever present Dylan Edwards backing up for the premiers' second try in the space of two minutes. Game over.


What They Said 
"It's so hard to make any grand final... for this group, this year, the season we've had, just to be able to go out and deliver that sort of performance. It wasn't all perfect by any stretch but we just found a way and I'm just very, very proud of everyone at the club and really looking forward to next week. I was confident we would play well but I knew it would be a tough game against such a great club and I didn't even feel like the scoreline was that big in the second half until I looked at the scoreboard, which was nice." - Panthers coach Ivan Cleary 

"We didn't give ourselves a chance, we shot ourselves in the foot. We had some opportunities in the first half but we didn't nail them, we didn't ice them. We didn't complete well and Penrith just strangle you. If you make mistakes and put pressure on yourself they will hammer you. It's really disappointing for us to finish that way. I think it took us a little while to know what our best footy was this year and the finals series was basically what our season has been - up and down, up and down." - Storm coach Craig Bellamy

What's Next
The Panthers are into a fourth straight grand final and get their shot at an historic three-peat while the Storm can put their feet up and reflect on another top-four finish that ultimately came up just short of another grand final appearance.


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Martin Lenehan, NRL Senior Journalist