An under-strength Melbourne Storm – characterised by coach Craig Bellamy resting virtually all of his regular group of players – showed some glimpses of future promise but ultimately fell in a 30-22 loss to the St George-Illawarra Dragons at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium in Sydney on Sunday afternoon.
Already locked up into second spot, the Storm will play Parramatta at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium in the first week of the NRL finals series on Saturday night after closing out the regular season with an eight-point defeat, thanks to two-try outputs by Dragons pair Matthew Dufty and Tyson Frizell.
But Bellamy – perhaps due to the lack of a bye which would have occurred in any other season – effectively fielded a B-team against the Dragons, with 14 changes to rest players ahead of the final against the Eels.
“It’s a reward for so many players who have trained so hard and worked so well as a part of our squad all season,” Bellamy told Fox League before the game in defending his one-game policy of making wholesale changes.
And he further defended the move afterwards, in spite of a loss which in the big picture does no damage to the club’s finals position nor to its overall prospects.
“If we hadn’t done this, it might have been a five- or six-day turnaround heading into a final with our main group. So we had to make the changes we had to make,” he said, with regard to limiting risk of injuries.
Ryan Papenhuysen led out the side which, with exceptions of Christian Welch, Brandon Smith, Sandor Earl and Nicho Hynes, was a younger and green-in-the-gills 17-man selection with players vying for first-team experience.
Usual captain Cam Smith, Cameron Munster, both Bromwich brothers (Jesse and Kenny), and wing threats Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vinuvalu were among the most notable Storm players rested of that baker’s-dozen-plus-one.
The Storm’s youngsters provided a special energy as Melbourne took a 16-12 halftime lead, although Papenhuysen missed all four of the Storm’s conversions.
Papenhuysen’s playmaking, with a stifling pump-fake on a run towards goal, was critical in Paul Momirovski’s opening try ten minutes in, and Earl scored the Storm’s second try a couple of minutes later, albeit aided by a contentious decision from the bunker.
The Storm were being driven by the hunger of their younger players, as Earl and Aaron Booth delivering quick, lethal passes for Chris Lewis to give Melbourne a three-try lead.
The Dragons were also served by youth for their initial try, as Zac Lomax toe-poked delicately for Duffy to plunge down, and Lomax’s successful conversion cut the Storm’s lead to 12-6.
The Storm’s younger players had given them a shot of pizzazz – not just in gaining metres with the ball but in their gang-tackling as well – but were also marked by rushes of over-exuberance. Max King was fortunate not to be sin-binned but still copped a referee’s report for illegal wrestling in an attempted tackle on Blake Lawrie in the 26th minute.
But the vision of Cooper Johns and the speed of Isaac Lumelume provided the positive side of the Storm’s younger players once again on the half-hour, as Lumelume scored his first NRL try and the Storm’s fourth on the afternoon.
Frizell, playing in his final game for the Dragons before already having been confirmed to join Newcastle for 2021, took Dufty’s quick pass over the try line to cut the Storm’s lead into the sheds to four points with Lomax’s conversion.
As Lumelume served as a last line of defence to deny the Dragons the lead twice within the first fifteen minutes into the second half, St George-Illawarra ultimately took the lead with 21 minutes remaining when Lomax was awarded a penalty try and a successful conversion from Leutele’s push-off.
Dufty extended the Dragons’ lead a minute later on a breakaway and it became an eight-point edge with Lomax’s conversion – and with a quarter-hour to go, with the Storm trailing 24-16, when Melbourne’s youthful hunger and energy was a delight to witness in the first 40 minutes, their collective lack of match experience was starting to show up against them.
Late substitute Hynes gave the Storm a dose of hope for match honours with eight minutes to play when his last-tackle kick ricocheted back into his arms to take over the try line between the posts, and his conversion made it a two-point game.
However, Frizell got an insurance try for the Dragons, and a nice send-off for his years with the club, running full-on into Jayden Sullivan’s chip to complete his brace for the final 30-22 margin of victory.
Overall, Bellamy felt that the effort from the group of inexperienced players was a qualified success – and could benefit the Storm given doubts over the futures of players such as Cam Smith and Addo-Carr, among others, for the 2021 season.
“I was happy with our effort. We played very energetically for the first half, and most of the game, but we really lost our grip,” Bellamy said.
“Our first half was outstanding, we attacked and defended well, we just couldn’t keep it up late in the game. For a lot of those guys, it’s a learning experience, and if we take that out of it, we will learn from it.
“Overall, with these guys, it was tremendous,” added Bellamy.