The Melbourne Storm qualified for its tenth NRL grand final in its 22-year history – and fourth in the last five years – with relative ease, beating the Canberra Raiders 30-10 in the teams’ preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane on Friday night.
Coach Craig Bellamy’s Storm racked up four tries in the match’s first 23 minutes and took advantage of an error-ridden Raiders side to make the win look easy.
And it was a win that would serve notice to Saturday night’s Penrith versus South Sydney, that even in a dominant season, the Storm may be starting to peak now.
“We wanted to start better than we have, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Bellamy said after the match, as the Storm’s quick ten-minute opening burst was enough to propel them to victory.
The Storm’s first try came four minutes in, rolling the dice on the fifth tackle and just a couple of metres out, as Jesse Bromwich took Jahrome Hughes’ short pass down the middle and over the try line.
And that was just the start, as Melbourne went three tries clear within the match’s first ten minutes, with Ryan Papenhuyzen and Suliasi Vinuvalu each scoring in breakaway fashion within moments of each other to stake the Storm to a 16-0 lead.
Canberra, already under the pump on the scoreboard, also encountered difficulty finishing off their tackles, while their own attacks were thwarted by fierce tackling from the likes of Hughes, both Bromwich bothers, and Cam Smith, who made the Raiders pay further for their errors with a penalty goal on the quarter-hour that made amends for a missed conversion.
Seventeen minutes before halftime, a break which the Raiders were sorely needing to regroup, the Storm went up four tries to the good. Papenhuyzen, with a good head of steam on him on a fourth-tackle play, attempted a dribble-kick to his own advantage in order to score, but when Canberra winger Nick Cotric failed to clear the bounding ball, Justin Olam charged in and pinned the ball down easily.
“The first 20 minutes, we basically had all of the ball. And it was different from past weeks where we couldn’t dictate what we did with the ball,” said Bellamy.
“Our execution was out number one point, and we saying what we’re going to do and actually doing are two different things,” he added.
Cotric used a strong second effort to get the Raiders on the board with nine minutes to go before the intermission, hauling in George Williams’ kick and muscling and spinning his way through to pin down in the right-hand corner.
Going up 24-6 at halftime, Melbourne did so by executing a quality of what the best teams do: punishing opposition teams for their mistakes with a lethal efficiency.
Statistically, the Storm had advantages which defined their first-half opportunism:
Broke 21 tackles to the Raiders’ 11
Locked up on 91 percent of their tackles to the Raiders’ 84 percent
Cut down on their errors from past weeks, down to one, versus six for Canberra
Led 183-170 in post-contact metres
And led 700-537 in total metres gained
Individually, while Hughes had a hand in assisting directly on three of the Storm’s four tries, Papenhuyzen (82 metres gained) and Josh Addo-Carr (68) did the most damage when running at and through Raiders players, while Vinuvalu (21 post-contact metres) and Brenko Lee (19) were most effective at making Canberra pay for their poor tackling.
In addition to scoring often early, and taking advantage of the Raiders’ errors, the Storm also made sure that they won the field position battles, especially deep into their attacking half.
“We have a kicking plan on our sets coming into the game, what we work on during the week – where we want to finish our sets and where we want to put the ball and start our defensive sets,” said Cam Smith.
“For me being at nine, if I have an opportunity to kick early, and if I have the opportunity to put the ball deep, I’m going to take that,” he added.
The Raiders’ overall aggression and gang-tackling was much improved as the second half started, evidenced by Dale Finucane being corralled by four bright-green-shirted players back across his own try line within the first 20 seconds of the restart.
While Canberra did its collective best to convert those qualities into better field possession than they enjoyed in the first 40 minutes, the Storm did a lot of gang-tackling of their own to take a bend-but-don’t-break display to keep the Raiders at bay.
Hughes, seemingly playing in the old Cooper Cronk role, was instrumental in the Storm’s fifth try on the hour. Finucane, who had not played since Round 14 but was partaking in his 200th NRL match, marked the latter occasion with distinction by reading a ricochet from a Hughes kick perfectly to run in unabated.
“Jahrome Hughes’ kicking game this season has improved so much – he’s taken on more responsibility, and not just for his kicking, either, but his entire role to the team,” said Cam Smith in praise of Hughes.
Cotric scored his and the Raiders’ second try of the night with eight minutes to play to cut the Storm’s lead to 30-10 – but by this time, anything Canberra would produce would serve as a mere consolation as Melbourne would coast their way into another grand final.
“I was really pleased with the way we played tonight. We came up against a team that was in really good form, and did well to get themselves into a preliminary final,” said Cam Smith, who gave a contrite “I don’t know” response when quizzed about his future with the Storm or even in the NRL beyond next weekend’s title decider.
“It’s all about competing, especially at this time of year, and you have to compete on every play. And we made so many plays tonight – and if you don’t make those plays, the results could go against you.”
“I couldn’t be any prouder of this team, with everything we’ve done. Probably my best team since the 2011 side,” said Bellamy.
“This group has had a wonderful attitude throughout the season, with all the changes and sacrifices we had to make. I haven’t heard one complaint – we just got on and did what we had to do,” he added.