The match we all expected to be the 2021 NRL grand final will come a week early, as minor premiers the Melbourne Storm and their fiercest rivals the Penrith Panthers clash for a spot in the decider.

The Storm and Panthers were the best two teams all season - there is simply no doubt about that.

The Panthers won 12 straight to start the season before Origin and injuries derailed them ever so slightly, and just enough for the record-breaking Storm to pounce.

Craig Bellamy's side set a record for the most wins in history, then lost one, but finished with the minor premiership before blowing the Manly Sea Eagles to bits in their qualifying final.

While the purple horde from Victoria held up their end of the bargain in setting up a repeat of the 2020 decider, it wasn't to be for the Panthers.

Ivan Cleary's side have lost their unbelievably sound attacking structure just enough, and had to first struggle in a loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, before they managed to make it past the Parramatta Eels in a game which finished just eight points to six.

But there is little doubt radical improvement will be needed if they are to mix it with the Storm in this grand final qualifier, a field Bellamy and the Storm have made their own over the years.

Team news

It's all good news for the Melbourne Storm. Josh Addo-Carr is back in action for the club in what could be his final game for the team, and if not, then certainly the second last.

Cameron Munster was rumoured to be under an injury cloud, but that has lifted, while the Storm are otherwise at full strength following the week off, with Harry Grant, Tui Kamikamica, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Nicho Hynes - all capable starting players - relegated to the pine.

On the other foot, the news is not so good at the Panthers. While Ivan Cleary has confirmed Brian To'o will return to the side from the reserves, and Viliame Kikau is fit to play, they lost Moses Leota when squads were cut to 19 last night.

Leota has been enormous for the Panthers this season, and his absence in the qualifying final a fortnight ago against the Rabbitohs was felt heavily by the side when they fell to the Rabbitohs.

MOSES LEOTA
Prop
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
107.8
All Run Metres
0.1
Tries
1.3
Tackle Breaks

He is replaced by Liam Martin, with Spencer Leniu then the man set to join the interchange bench.

Melbourne Storm
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. George Jennings 3. Reimis Smith 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Brandon Smith 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane
Interchange: 14. Harry Grant 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 17. Nicholas Hynes 19. Tom Eisenhuth 21. Isaac Lumelume

Penrith Panthers
1. Dylan Edwards 2. Stephen Crichton 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Matt Burton 5. Brent Naden 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 17. Liam Martin 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo
Interchange: 14. Tyrone May 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Tevita Pangai Junior 19. Spencer Leniu 20. J'maine Hopgood 21. Brian To'o

The key battles

Stopping Melbourne's bench
Even if the Panthers do manage to slow down the all-representative middle third during the opening exchanges - Jesse Bromwich (New Zealand), Christian Welch (Queensland), Dale Finucane (New South Wales) - they then have to take on a ridiculously strong bench in the form of Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tui Kamikamica.

And that's not even to mention the fact another representative player in Brandon Smith shifts to lock, allowing another representative player in Harry Grant to play hooker from the bench.

It's clear to see just how endless the problems Penrith face are, and yet Nicho Hynes wasn't even mentioned.

Compare that to Penrith's bench, and while Tevita Pangai Junior is named there, and Viliame Kikau is likely to drop back again, it's hard to see how they slow down the domination in the middle third.

Asofa-Solomona is the particular player in focus. A man-mountain, it's so often a case of "I'm running at you and good luck trying to stop me."

N. ASOFA-SOLOMONA
Second-row
Storm
2021 SEASON AVG
18.9
Tackles Made
0.2
Tries
3.3
Tackle Breaks

One of the NRL's most efficient line breaks, tackle busters and offloaders, he is unbelievably hard to slow down. There is no getting around that.

Leading the charge through the middle period of the game, he and the Melbourne bench could be the difference.

Nathan Cleary and Cameron Munster
Two players with exceedingly different styles, but both representative players, and both at the top of their class.

If the forwards are anywhere near even, then the performances of Munster and Cleary could well decide this contest.

Cleary's form during the first half of the season was phenomenal - there is no other word you can use to describe it. His first 12 games were simply outstanding, and the qualifying final was the first club game he has lost since the grand final last year, also against Melbourne.

But on that occasion, Munster took over alongside Jahrome Hughes.

He may not have been man of the match, but his kicking game was solid, he ran the ball strongly, and there was little anyone could do to stop him directing and controlling his team.

It was a stand up performance from Munster, and a level he has maintained this year as he leads the side without Cameron Smith.

Cleary too has gone to another level this season. He undoubtedly has one of the best kicking games in the competition, but will need more creativity and variety to lead his team past the men in purple.

Does he have it in him? Yes. Can he deliver? Anyone's guess.

Ryan Papenhuyzen and Dylan Edwards
This could be the real battle to decide the game, and a spot in the grand final.

While Ryan Papenhuyzen has spent a large chunk of this season out injured, he has started to return to form in the last few weeks, and after a blistering performance against the Sharks in Round 25, backed it up with another in the qualifying final thumping over Manly.

RYAN PAPENHUYZEN
Fullback
Storm
2021 SEASON AVG
0.9
Tries
0.4
Try Assists
3.9
Tackle Breaks

There is very little to be critical of in Papenhuyzen's game, although the way he has played when Hynes has also been on the field has been intriguing to say the least.

Penrith will be hoping there is plenty of indecision if the duo are on the park together, however, the fact of the matter is Dylan Edwards hasn't been up to scratch in attack.

He is strong defensively, runs the ball back well and is willing to do the hard yards, but his efforts in being a creative playmaker are simply not good enough.

DYLAN EDWARDS
Halfback
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
0.2
Try Assists
0.3
Tries
4.1
Kick Metres

His numbers throughout the season have been severely limited, and on occasion when he has been injured and Stephen Crichton has played at the back, it's hard to argue Penrith haven't looked like a better football team.

Edwards must stand up and be more involved, combining with Cleary, Jarome Luai and Apisai Koroisau in the spine if they are to have a chance of keeping with Melbourne.

The stats you need to know

There are very few teams who have a decent record against the Storm, and the Panthers are not one of them. They have won just ten of 38 games over the years against the club, that record not being improved by last year's grand final losing effort.

The Storm also beat the Panthers in the last clash between the two sides, which was an afternoon match. While the conditions will be completely different this weekend, this will be a rare finals match in the afternoon, with temperatures expected to be hot at kick-off. That is going to suit the Storm, who have had the week off and are one of the competition's fittest teams.

Melbourne have scored more points than any other team, have had more possession than any other team, and make more line breaks than any other team. Those factors are a recipe for disaster if you're the Panthers, trying to defend in the heat of the afternoon, up against a masterfully coached team.

Penrith do have some factors going for them though, including their defence, which is the best in the competition, although only marginally ahead of the Storm. In saying that, they have been gutsy through the finals.

Their attack, however, hasn't clicked. When it does though, they are close to unstoppable, and will need Nathan Cleary to play one of his all-time best games to get the men from the foot of the mountains over the line.

Where it'll be won

It's going to seem simple, but the bottom line is this - if Melbourne's free-flowing attack is allowed time and space, they will win this game in an absolute canter.

The Storm just have so many weapons, and can hurt you from any part of the park. Long-range, short-range, mid-range, right, left, up the middle. It simply doesn't matter. They can score from anywhere.

If Penrith defend perfectly for 80 minutes they are something of a chance, but even then, their attack will need to go a level which hasn't been sighted since the first half of the season.

They need to turn it into a grind and have their forwards go to work, but against the kings of the grind, that in itself is a risky strategy.

Simply put, there is no "easy" way to beat the Storm. It'll be won in defence, but the Storm have the edge everywhere.

Prediction

Penrith can't afford this to get into a shootout. Their attack has been clunky at best, and they will lose unless they can keep it low-scoring.

That said, few teams have had any real answers defensively to Melbourne this season, and I don't expect the Panthers to be any different this time around.

They may be able to limit the damage and fight to stay in the game, but this is an uphill battle for the men from the foot of the mountains.

Storm by 14.

What else you need to know

Kick-off: 4pm (AEST)
Venue: Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
Broadcast: Live, Channel 9, Fox Sports, Foxtel App, Kayo Sports, 9Now
Overall record: Played 38, Storm 28, Panthers 10
Record in finals: Played 1, Storm 1, Panthers 0
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton, Touch judges: Todd Smith and David Munro, Bunker official: Ashley Klein