Penrith’s young players are about to experience the best week of their lives in the run-up to the NRL grand final against Melbourne Storm

Grand final week is the best week of your life.

All the work that has gone into it, all the ups and downs that you’ve gone through throughout the season and even your whole career, that all comes into it.

It’s actually hard to explain. It’s just an amazing week and it comes back to all the hard work that’s gone into you getting there.

You don’t want to wait, you just want to get out onto the field and play.

With Penrith being in the final — and being there with such a young team, just like we were in 2003 — it brings back a lot of great memories.

I was in these kids’ shoes 17 years ago. I was only a young kid, I didn’t really understand the game.

I certainly didn’t know how hard it would be to get back into the grand final, but in time I realised just how much has to go right for you to get that chance.

All I wanted was a grand final ring

Penrith Panthers Luke Rooney and Luke Lewis hold the NRL premiership trophy after the 2003 grand final against the Roosters.
Luke Lewis (right) remembers every second of his first grand final week.(AAP: Charlie Knight)

My first grand final week is something that I remember as clear as day.

I wasn’t nervous at all, I just felt like I was living the best life.

The only thing that I had in my head was that if we played well in the match, we’d get a grand final ring.

I remember looking at the picture of the ring after it was released in the Big League magazine that week.

I kept looking at it, thinking I wanted to have a grand final ring. I wanted to have that grand final ring.

Everything else was just normal; we were still just having a laugh with our mates, chilling out … nothing really changed.

We were still playing practical jokes on each other all week until, before we knew it, we were on the bus to the game and were sitting in the changing room.

I think Penrith — a group of young kids, a lot of them former local juniors — will just enjoy it, not think too far ahead. That’s the key.

It’s probably a bit different for Melbourne because they seem to be in the grand final every second year.

Cameron Smith walks around Lang Park.
Will the grand final mark Cameron Smith’s final appearance in the NRL?

Saying that, their preparation and thoughts might be impacted by not knowing what Cameron Smith is going to do. It could be the end of an era, which will make this time particularly special for them.

Regardless, it’s a super-exciting week for both sides.

Fatigue told for Canberra

In Friday’s match at Lang Park, it was clear that Melbourne focused specifically on going hard in the first 40 minutes of the game.

They would have watched Canberra’s contest against the Roosters last week and would have seen how much it took out of the Raiders.

The Storm would have had a game plan to run the Raiders off their feet for the first 40 minutes.

Suliasi Vunivalu is hugged from behind by Brenko Lee during the Melbourne Storm's preliminary final against the Canberra Raiders
Suliasi Vunivalu (left) scored the Storm’s third try inside the opening 10 minutes against the fatigued Raiders.(AAP: Darren England)

And that’s exactly what they did. They completed 17 from 17 sets and scored a couple of great tries off the back of some real high-energy football.

From then on, it was just about going through their processes in the second 40 minutes to hold Canberra out.

Losing in the preliminary final does not detract from what was a really good year for Canberra.

I would have liked to have seen them make the grand final, but it was still an amazing year for them, and they should be very proud of what they achieved.

Had they made the top four and managed to win to get the week off, that would have helped them a lot, but at the back end of the year, with all their travel and the injuries, it all just came to a head.

Storm players celebrate while Raiders players look down-trodden.
The Canberra Raiders can still be proud of their performance this season.(AAP: Darren England)

Ricky Stewart has done a great job with that side, dealing with a lot of injuries, plus the demands of travel every week.

They also had their plans thrown into disarray for this game, whereby they had to fly straight out from Canberra to the game instead of having a few hours in a Brisbane hotel to unwind and prepare.

There was no room for error, and although you don’t want to make excuses, that has to play a part when it comes to getting your preparation right for what is probably the biggest game of the year.

Penrith closed down Souths expertly

Stephen Crichton jumps over the top of a pack of Penrith Panthers players to celebrate a try against the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
The Panthers did enough to hold off Souths.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Not everything went Penrith’s way on Saturday night against Souths, but they held everything together.

They didn’t stress and just focused on what was next; getting through their defensive sets and marshalling a good kick chase.

The other thing they got spot on was their outside defence.

Whenever Souths threw something out wide, Penrith were right on top of them and gave them no room to work.

I was a little bit up in the air as to why Brent Naden was changed out for Tyrone May in the lead into the match, but it ended up being a masterstroke from Ivan Cleary.

May was amazing in the centres, his defence was spot on, and that helped Penrith defend perfectly.

We’ve seen how many points Souths can put on teams, especially down short edges — but Penrith loaded up in those areas and shut them down easily.

Penrith has to take its chances

Viliame Kikau has his mouth open as he walks around on the field
Viliame Kikau was missing from the preliminary final, but will hope to get back for the grand final.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

That being said, Penrith left three certain tries out on the field in the first half.

If they had executed properly, the match might have been a little more comfortable for them, but the positive thing was that they were still able to create those opportunities.

You’re not going to take every opportunity all the time, especially in big games, either due to errors or just good defence.

For both teams, this weekend is going to be all about taking opportunities when they can.

In a grand final, those opportunities might be few and far between, and that one opportunity could come in the 78th minute of the game.

If you get that opportunity and don’t take it, that could be the difference between holding the trophy up at the end of the game or not.

If you have a chance, you need to nail it. You can’t afford to miss it, because if you do, the other team will make you pay.

Luke Lewis was talking to ABC News Digital’s Simon Smale.

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