PREVIEW-Rugby League-Penrith power meets Melbourne guile in NRL final

Penrith Panthers will ride a 17-match 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.

By Nick Mulvenney

SYDNEY, Oct 23 (Reuters) - Penrith Panthers will ride a 17-match 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 coronavirus-disrupted campaign in what will be Smith's record-extending 430th NRL game.

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

The hooker was 'chaired off' the pitch by his team mates at Lang Park after the 30-10 thrashing of Canberra Raiders that earned the Melbourne club a place in their 10th title decider in 23 seasons of existence.

Despite their success, the Storm remain largely unloved outside their fan-base. Created by a media group in an Australian Rules-obsessed city, the team have had two of their five titles stripped for flagrant salary cap breaches.

Smith and 18-year 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 COVID-19 lockdown in Melbourne.

"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 on Monday.

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

Ranged against Smith and Bellamy on Sunday will be the father-and-son 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 which has often overwhelmed their opponents, including the double defending champion Sydney Roosters and 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 on-field commander in Smith on Sunday, 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.

(Editing by Peter Rutherford )

((Nick.Mulvenney@tr.com; +61 2 9321 8190;))

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