NRL Rd 6 - Panthers v Storm
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 19: Nathan Cleary of the Panthers celebrates after scoring a field goal during the round six NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Melbourne Storm at Campbelltown Stadium on June 19, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

There can be no disputing that the Melbourne Storm are competition favourites.

Their thumping victory over their main competition in the Penrith Panthers will do little to dispel that line of thinking, with the Panthers unable get into the contest.

But maybe that shouldn't be such a surprise.

Without wanting to take anything away from the certain favourites for the premiership, it's not as if Penrith were anywhere near full strength yesterday.

You have to remember that, at full strength, this is a side who had won 12 games on the bounce at the start of the year before the Origin window.

Now, it's not as if Melbourne weren't impacted by Origin, and Penrith may have peaked too early, but if you take players of the calibre of Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris and more importantly, Brian To'o out of any side, it'll be tough for them to beat lowly-ranked sides, let alone those at the top of the table.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - AUGUST 24: Isaah Yeo of the Panthers looks on during the round 24 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Penrith Panthers at Mt Smart Stadium on August 24, 2018 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Penrith's key during the opening 12 weeks of the season was their defence, and it goes to show just how good they were, because even after yesterday and the 37 points they let in, they still hold the competition's best record.

But after 12 weeks, Ivan Cleary's side had let in just 88 points - that's an average of 7.3 points per game, and their record was 60 points - or five per game - better than the second-placed Storm.

It didn't necessarily cruel their attack either though, given they averaged 32.8 points per game, compared to Melbourne's 34.2 points per game.

Essentially, they were, and still are, about as well-rounded as you can get. It's a good news story too, given how many of the Penrith players were in the junior system at the club.

Yesterday's 37-10 loss might shake them up slightly, and it might not look great after losing to far lesser teams without their stars during the Origin window, but aside from questions surrounding their depth, it doesn't create too many headaches for Cleary and his side.

The men from the foot of the mountains will welcome all those players back by the time the finals roll around, and will once again be able to lay a claim to the premiership.

The reaction to yesterday's game seems to have been essentially "well, no one is stopping Melbourne this season," but it's not that simple, and when you look at the individual assets those four missing stars provide, it's fairly clear to see why.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Brandon Smith of the Storm warms up before the start of the round 19 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Melbourne Storm at QCB Stadium, on July 23, 2021, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Isaah Yeo and James Fisher-Harris are both rock solid in the middle third for Penrith, and it's an area they struggled yesterday, maybe unsurprisingly.

Instead of dominating on the stats sheet like they normally would, they ran less metres, made less tackle busts, had a shorter average set distance, and more importantly, missed 39 tackles, compared to Melbourne's 29. It means they tackled with less efficiency, and was a big determining factor in the contest.

Yeo is the walk up number 13 for the New South Wales Blues come Origin time, while Fisher-Harris would also walk into just about any representative team on the planet, and is a key man for New Zealand.

The lock plays monster minutes, and has tackled at almost 98% this season, while making over 32 per game. He is yet to play in a single loss, only adding to the level of influence.

Fisher-Harris, on the other hand, has it all going for him and is one of the NRL's top metre-eaters, picking up 173 per game to go with his 27 offloads and 35 tackle busts in just 18 games.

JAMES FISHER-HARRIS
Lock
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
1.4
Offloads
0.1
Tries
0
Try Assists

He is, to put it bluntly, one of the best props in the game and an absolute weapon for the Panthers.

But it's not just those two. Add to all of that the absence of Cleary, and you get the picture why Penrith didn't have the control they needed yesterday.

Cleary, while bringing his own statistical brilliance to the table with try involvements coming out of his ears, also improves the play of Jarome Luai, who has been poor without his halves partner.

Possibly the best player in the game today, Cleary provides a calming influence over his team, to go with an excellent kicking game. It's the kicking game which allows their defence to be so excellent, and allows Luai's running game to shine week in and week out.

The biggest absence though is Brian To'o, and just maybe, given he has done a syndesmosis injury and is now racing the clock to be fit for finals, the biggest problem Penrith face.

To'o is the guy who runs more metres, and more post-contact metres than anyone in the competition, and it's become quite clear that without him on the park, dominance is virtually not an option for the Panthers.

The winger is elusive with the football in hand and difficult to stop at the best of times, making a ridiculous 248 metres per appearance this season. That's to go with his 98 tackle busts, 16 line breaks and ten tries from 16 games.

BRIAN TO'O
Wing
Panthers
2021 SEASON AVG
0.7
Tries
242.2
All Run Metres
3.6
Tackles Made

It's numbers the like of which we have rarely seen in the NRL, and To'o makes the modern day winger's job look easy.

There is no one like him in the competition, but with the amount of yardage he makes, it's not hard to see why Penrith's defence was so good with him on the park, and why their attack is better off too.

It allows players like Yeo, Fisher-Harris and the rest of the forwards to get back behind the ball earlier in their set, putting opposition defensive lines under the pump. It allows Cleary to have time and space to run the kicking game, and Luai for his own running game.

It allows Dylan Edwards to play a more creative role, which he has taken too excellently, and the fatigue in defensive lines only makes Apisai Koroisau a better player.

BATHURST, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 30: Dylan Edwards of the Panthers looks dejected as he speaks to referee Ashley Klein after a Storm try during the round three NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the Melbourne Storm at Carrington Park on March 30, 2019 in Bathurst, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Granted, it's incredibly rare you could call a winger the most important player on a team, particularly one at the top of the table, but for Penrith, arguably, To'o is just that.

Melbourne might have taken the Round 20 chocolates in a big way, but it wasn't a finals dress rehearsal. It was, of a sort, but with so many out, it's impossible to not take the result with a grain of salt.

This Penrith team still have plenty of fight left in them yet.