MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Brandon Smith of the Storm celebrates with team mates after scoring a try during the round eight NRL match between the Melbourne Storm and the Cronulla Sharks at AAMI Park on April 30, 2021, in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

At the time of writing, a number of bookmakers had the Melbourne Storm paying $1.90 to win the 2021 NRL premiership. If you have a lazy million laying around, it may well be the most assured investment you ever make.

The premiership race now appears as one being contested by an iron-clad favourite and three teams deficient in areas that Craig Bellamy coached teams usually expose and subsequently put to the sword.

Whilst most of the rugby league world assumed Penrith would take a second shot at the minor premiers and reigning champions on grand final day, such a meeting was scuppered when the Rabbitohs suppressed the Panthers’ attack in Week 1 of the finals, thus taking over what effectively is the number two seeding in the premiership race.

A week later, the Sea Eagles staked their claim after a demolition of the Roosters and, after using just about every trick in the book, Penrith somehow managed to advance over Parramatta, as the blue and golds added yet another year to their premiership drought.

MACKAY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 17: Egan Butcher of the Roosters is tackled during the NRL Semi-Final match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Sydney Roosters at BB Print Stadium on September 17, 2021 in Mackay, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/Getty Images)

Thus there are four, with one holding all the aces and seemingly destined to raise the trophy, in what would be their third premiership triumph in five years should it occur.

If I were you, I would not be betting against it. The numbers themselves should convince everyone of that fact.

The Storm scored 815 points in 2021 at an average of almost 34 per game. The men in purple have won 21 of their last 22 matches and lost just once since March 25 when Penrith held on to win in a tight affair by a slender two-point margin.

That was Round 3 and considering that just a week earlier the Eels had also managed to topple the Bellamy machine, one could have been mistaken for thinking that the competition was up for grabs and any automatic thoughts of a Storm repeat were perhaps overstated.

However, since that fortnight it has been something of a procession for Melbourne, leading all the way to a preliminary final match up with a seriously out of form Panthers side that has looked far from its best over the last fortnight.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 17: Coach Craig Bellamy looks on during a Melbourne Storm NRL training session at Gosch's Paddock on September 17, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

In short, Penrith just cannot score with the ease they did earlier in the season. No doubt the whistle appears to have been blown less by the officials in the finals’ matches we have seen thus far and the number of set restarts awarded in decent field position have been few and far between.

Yet the team that managed 676 points of their own in 2021 and lost just three matches across the entire season, floundered in the first week of the finals and limped home in the second.

A previously dazzling attack has produced just 18 points in those two matches, scoring just two tries, when five or six had been the norm throughout much of the season.

Many fans also feel the Eels were mighty unlucky to lose to Penrith last Saturday night and that the questionable tactics used by the Panthers late in the match were evidence as to just how much pressure they were under.

Frankly, Penrith look likely to be belted by Melbourne this weekend.

On the other side of the draw, either South Sydney or Many will earn the right to play in a grand final, with the Bunnies set to enter the match as firm favourites and master coach Wayne Bennett likely to construct another brilliant defensive and controlled performance.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 10: Adam Reynolds and Dane Gagai of the Rabbitohs look up at the replay screen during the round one NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the New Zealand Warriors at Optus Stadium on March 10, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/Getty Images)

Manly have plenty of weapons to deploy, yet defensive frailties on the edges may well prove their downfall against a team being superbly directed by Cody Walker and Adam Reynolds in the halves and fuelled through the middle by Tom Burgess, Cam Murray and Damien Cook.

As good as Tom Trbojevic is, seeing him produce a solo performance dominant enough to topple South Sydney is difficult to imagine, especially considering the Sea Eagles’ recent form. Manly beat up on the Raiders, Bulldogs and Cowboys leading into the finals, before copping a 40-12 thrashing at the hands of Melbourne and cruising past a depleted Roosters team that never stood a chance.

In a nutshell, the Panthers look impotent in attack right now, Manly without the required discipline in defence and Souths a star or two short without Latrell Mitchell.

Add in the boost Melbourne has received with the return of Josh Addo-Carr and the all-clear given to Brandon Smith after initial injury concerns and it is hard to see anything but a comfortable win for the Storm this weekend and another grand final triumph the following.