When I sat down to write the introduction to this piece, I focussed almost exclusively on the final regular season game of Melbourne fullback Billy Slater. Unfortunately, due to circumstances outside his control, he's unavailable and this contest is lesser for that.
The Storm have continued their grinding, methodical approach through the end of the season and they look set to enter the finals series as the heavy favourites to win yet another Premiership while the Penrith Panthers are limping into sudden-death footy in the midst of a media storm and with no form on the board whatsoever.
Since sacking Anthony Griffin with just four rounds left in the season, the Panthers have managed a less than impressive win over the Gold Coast Titans and two humbling defeats to the Newcastle Knights and New Zealand Warriors and despite welcoming back veteran playmaker James Maloney this week, it's tough to see where the positives are for the boys from Mulgoa Road.
2017 - Melbourne Storm 28 def. Penrith Panthers 6 at AAMI Park
2016 - Melbourne Storm 24 def. Penrith Panthers 6 at AAMI Park
2015 - Melbourne Storm 52 def. Penrith Panthers 10 at AAMI Park
2015 - Melbourne Storm 20 def. Penrith Panthers 0 at Panthers Stadium
2014 - Melbourne Storm 24 def, Penrith Panthers 10 at Panthers Stadium
Here's the long and short of the recent and ancient history between these two clubs; Melbourne almost always win.
The Storm has won the last six meetings between the pair and before a 2013 loss at Panthers Stadium, had won a further 11-straight games over the Panthers.
Penrith's 2013 win ranks amongst one of the most enjoyable nights the faithful have seen at Penrith Park with winger David Simmons bagging a memorable brace of four-pointers.
Overall, Penrith and Melbourne have met on 32 occasions in the NRL. The Storm have won 25 games, Penrith just seven games.
Long story short, Melbourne enjoy playing the Panthers.
|Melbourne Storm ||Penrith Panthers|
|1||Jahrome Hughes||Dallin Watene-Zelezniak|
|2||Justin Olam||Josh Mansour|
|3||Cheyse Blair||Waqa Blake|
|4||Curtis Scott||Tyrone Peachey|
|5||Josh Addo-Carr||Christian Crichton|
|6||Cameron Munster||James Maloney|
|7||Brodie Croft||Nathan Cleary|
|8||Jesse Bromwich||Trent Merrin|
|9||Cameron Smith||Wayde Egan|
|10||Tim Glasby||Reagan Campbell-Gillard|
|11||Felise Kaufusi||Viliame Kikau|
|12||Joe Stimson||Isaah Yeo|
|13||Dale Finucane||James Fisher-Harris|
|14||Kenneath Bromwich||Tyrone May|
|15||Christian Welch||Moses Leota|
|16/17||Tui Kamikamica||James Tamou|
|17/18||Sam Kasiano||Sione Katoa|
|18/19||Ryan Hoffman||Jack Hetherington|
|21/20||Ryley Jacks||Kaide Ellis|
The facts that matter
Unfortunately for the local fans, champion fullback Billy Slater will not be on hand to play his last regular season game in front of his adoring fans. Slater has been withdrawn from Melbourne's squad as he deals with a family illness.
That said, Melbournians will have one final chance to turn out and make their voices heard for a side that has done them proud once again and will play finals football again in 2018.
With both sides set to play in the finals series, the big thing on the table for Melbourne to focus on is the chance to clinch a third straight minor Premiership crown and maintain solid form as the business end of the season approaches.
Melbourne have fallen to uncharacteristic defeats in their last two clashes with finals-bound sides with both South Sydney and Cronulla earning two competition points against the Storm, but with the troubles engulfing this week's opponent, Craig Bellamy will be hopeful his side can settle things down and get back to the famous grind which has served them so well.
Melbourne's attack was also pretty disappointing in their last outing. Despite notching a win on the road against the Titans, Melbourne could only manage 10 points and looked clunky and disjointed with the ball in hand for much of the night.
Despite their reputation as a hardline outfit, Melbourne's attack has had moments of pristine clarity this season and with Penrith seemingly leaking points against lesser sides in recent weeks, they may well have the opportunity to play themselves into form once again at just the right time.
With Slater out, Jahrome Hughes comes into the starting fullback role while veteran forward Ryan Hoffman has been named amongst the reserves in a stunningly quick return from a hamstring injury.
Another player calling time on a long career at the end of 2018, Hoffman has put together a super-human effort to even be in contention for this Friday night's game after his initial prognosis had him out until the Grand Final at the earliest.
Penrith were pretty bad two weeks ago when they lost their last home game of the season against the Newcastle Knights on their 'old boys' day but they were somehow even worse on the road in Auckland last Friday night against the Warriors.
The Panthers were systematically played off the park by a Warriors side which has itself struggled to find consistency this season and looked to be ending the year running out of gas and that will raise huge question marks for interim head coach Cameron Ciraldo who will now only have this week's clash with the Storm and at least one finals game to keep himself in the shop window while Penrith chase a full-time mentor for 2019.
While both sides in this game have finals football on their immediate horizon, Penrith should be far more focused on their immediate issues and finding the early season form that once saw them on top of the competition ladder, unlike Melbourne who appears to be the same methodical outfit grinding their way along.
Penrith was second-best in a distinct way last Friday night in New Zealand and the alarm bells will be ringing for Ciraldo who wielded the selection axe and much some applauded positional changes before the clash.
The Panthers do welcome back veteran playmaker James Maloney. The State of Origin winning five-eighth will add some much-needed poise and control to a side lacking that and hopefully take some pressure of young halfback Nathan Cleary who has struggled to step up his game and be as direct and attacking as would be expected.
Penrith's big forward pack has been underwhelming in recent weeks, but they hold the keys to this contest in Melbourne on Friday night. Going toe-to-toe with the Storm pack and limiting the creative space for the likes of Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith will be a huge part of the Western Sydney club's approach.
Last week's loss will also sting the Panthers, who lost hard-hitting centre Dean Whare for the season to a broken arm. With Maloney returning, Tyrone Peachey shifts from five-eighth into the centres in the only real changes. Hooker Sione Katoa has been included on the bench having been preferred over the departing Corey Harawira-Naera, who looks set to join the Bulldogs in 2019.
Full disclosure, I am a rabid Penrith fan and have been since I was old enough to comprehend the game of footy and I told my dad I liked the Panthers. I have often gone into the seemingly impossible hopeful, sometimes expectant of a good result.
I cannot tip the Panthers in this one. I hope they'll put together a good performance and keep the Storm honest, heck, a small part of me still harbours thoughts of a stunning upset down in the Victorian capital, but my head and my wallet has the Storm in a canter. Tip: Melbourne 13+
Who will come out on top when the Storm host the Panthers in a Friday night blockbuster? Let us know in the comments below.