“They’re a young team and one of the things about being young in the NRL, that second half is the hardest thing to master, particularly now with the speed of the game. I thought we handled that better this week.”
Even when the Storm drew level with 20 minutes remaining, Storm coach Craig Bellamy never sensed a victory was on the cards.
“We weren’t good enough all night, and even when it got to 14-all I didn’t think we were coming home over the top,” Bellamy said.
“We were outplayed, out-enthused and out-aggressed. I’m not quite sure to make of our performance to be honest.”
The moment that hurt the most for Bellamy and skipper Cameron Smith was seeing Billy Kikau charge through uncontested to catch a Cleary kick and score.
“That try summed it up, nobody was within five or six metres when he caught the ball, and it’s not like he had to run 60m,” Bellamy said.
Smith was in the headlines during the week when he was accused – again – of having too much influence over referees.
The veteran had a word with Klein when he was penalised for obstructing Cleary as he chased through for a kick, but refused to use his captain’s challenge.
And when Smith did decide to use his first-ever challenge, he got it wrong when Suliasi Vunivalu went into touch.
“Hopefully he can pick a bit better next time,” Bellamy quipped.
“We probably should have challenged the one when they got two points. Cameron didn’t move. He didn’t block [Cleary]. At the end of the day we need to be a bit better at that.”
Smith said after the game: “We couldn’t match their intensity early, and with the season re-starting, it’s a key to winning matches – if you start well and get some momentum, it’s hard to peg back.
“We fought back well, but there were some uncharacteristic Storm play late in the second half.”
The Panthers deserved this victory after taking it to another premiership powerhouse, Parramatta, just seven nights earlier.
Isaah Yeo was given huge praise by the TV commentators for his tireless work off the ball, while Kikau was described as a ”flying squeegee mop” when he scored and was impossible to miss with his giant bleached mohawk.
Cleary was excellent again with his father pleased with his defence, decision making and courage to take a field-goal with several minutes still on the clock.
Dylan Edwards will strip fitter for his first gallop in the No. 1 jersey for the season while Zane Tetevano came up with a bell-ringer of a hit on Dale Finucane, which hurt his ribs from behind and forced him from the field momentarily.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary was so impressed with the work rate of Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai and Api Koroisau, he was spared having to use Matt Burton off the bench.
What a shame more fans will not be allowed into Campbelltown Sports Stadium on Thursday when the Panthers host the revived South Sydney.
The Cleary and Cody Walker match-up on the same side will be a highlight.
Meanwhile, Bellamy shot down claims he had been in talks with Canterbury while reiterating next year would be his last as a head coach given it was now ”a young man’s game”.
Christian covers rugby league for The Sydney Morning Herald.