Melbourne Storm captain Cam Smith inspired his team to a handy halftime advantage as he was leaving with a shoulder injury, until the Storm ran out eventual 26-16 winners over the Newcastle Knights at Sunshine Coast Stadium on Sunday.
The Storm kept pace with both NRL leaders Penrith, who remained a point ahead of the chasing pack with a 42-12 win over Manly on Saturday night, and Parramatta, who remained in third spot after the Eels’ Sunday matinee 18-16 win over Canterbury.
But the talking point following Melbourne’s workman-like win would be the influence and status of Smith.
The Storm’s legendary multiple Premiership-winning hooker would leave the match minutes before halftime with a Grade 2 AC shoulder joint injury incurred as he landed on his right shoulder when scoring a first-half try.
Afterwards, Storm coach Craig Bellamy said that Smith would miss the Storm’s upcoming cutthroat matches against Canterbury, Sydney Roosters and Parramatta over the next three weeks.
Bellamy said that while namesake Brandon Smith would replace Cameron Smith in the lineup, the club’s depth would adequately cover for the influential captain’s absence over 423 career NRL games.
“Every team goes through injuries at some point, so now it’s our turn to deal with it,” Bellamy said.
“Cameron hasn’t missed many games over the years, so he’s had a great influence on so many players, and that makes us ready to contend with him being out,” Bellamy added.
Melbourne’s form has been irresistible all season, and not even four minutes had elapsed from the start for the Storm to draw first blood. Suliasi Vunivalu tallied a try for his eighth consecutive match, finishing off the last few metres from Felise Kaufusi’s penultimate touch.
Vunivalu’s try was not the only milestone for Storm players within that opening score. When Smith applied the conversion, that goal gave him 100 points for the season – and the 15th season in a row that he has surpassed the century mark.
However, as Bellamy had shown concern midweek that his team’s first-half focus has not been where he wanted it to be, his fears were realized within a couple of minutes when Bradman Best levelled matters for the Knights, once Kalyn Ponga’s conversion was good.
The Storm had entered the match with an eight-match winning streak against the Knights in head-to-head competition dating back to 2016, and having won 16 out of 19 matches against Newcastle since 2010. If there was ever a case of one NRL team having a hoodoo over another, Melbourne’s mastery of the Knights would provide a good example.
While Newcastle were doing their best to buck that trend, Melbourne – with edges in team strength and speed – were just too good for the remainder of the half.
The Knights showed good resolve for the next several minutes after Best’s try – but Smith put the Storm ahead with a blistering run over the try line after Kenneath Bromwich broke through the Knights’ lines. Smith then converted to give him a six-point play to put the Storm up 12-6.
And then Ryan Papenhuysen took off on a spellbinding linebreak from inside his own ten-metre line, found another couple of gears, and would not be caught on his end-to-end run six minutes before halftime. Although Cameron Munster would miss the ensuing conversion, with Smith having the injury spell on the Storm’s bench, Melbourne’s supremacy was already being well established.
But as Smith was retiring to the change rooms, his teammates would take their 12-point advantage in there with them after Munster was awarded a penalty goal opportunity which he easily converted.
And Bellamy felt that once Smith had scored his try, that was enough to propel the Storm to victory.
“We were playing pretty well then, but our execution got even better after that,” Bellamy said.
In Smith’s absence, Munster and Papenhuysen would assume the shared role as the Storm’s talisman. While Munster’s vision for making plays for his teammates was always going to be a threat, open-minded eyes would be fixed on Papenhuysen, whom Bellamy has compared to a young Billy Slater at similar stages of their careers.
But even when the Storm normally wouldn’t require any assistance, the Knights committed mental errors to aid their high-flying opponents. The first instance was when Pasami Saulo would be sin-binned for ten minutes for a late airbourne tackle on Jahrome Hughes, as the helmeted Hughes was in the act of kicking downfield.
The next such Knights miscue gifted Munster another penalty goal after Phoenix Crossland was caught offside inside of ten metres from a Storm fifth-tackle kick to extend the Storm’s lead to 14 points.
Newcastle recovered sufficiently to reduce the arrears when Aidan Guerra broke through the Storm’s resistance to score a vital try with 16 minutes to play – and with Ponga’s conversion, the deficit was cut to 20-12.
Melbourne were denied almost immediately to restore the double-digit advantage when a video review ruled that Vunivalu failed to pin the ball down from a high Hughes lob.
But the Storm wouldn’t be denied, as Tino Faasuamaleaui burst over the line from Brandon Smith’s linebreak 12 minutes from time. Munster would then add the conversion to restore Melbourne’s 14-point lead.
The ebb and flow of the second half continued when with six minutes to play, Enari Tuala got over the try line from Ponga’s fourth-tackle kick to cut the Storm’s lead to ten points, where it stayed as Ponga’s conversion was unsuccessful.
Tuala’s try would prove to be Newcastle’s consolation, especially after Faasuamaleaui would deny the speedy Tuala another sure try with a tackle in the open field on the flank in the match’s closing moments.