Saturday 23 September 2017 / 10:53 PM

FINALS WASH-UP: RATTLED STORM BLOW BRONCOS AWAY LATE

Melbourne marched into the grand final and towards the club’s apparent 2017 destiny with an emphatic 30-0 defeat of Brisbane, but the score did not reflect the tight and absorbing encounter the first hour of play at AAMI Park delivered.

After a frenetic, high-quality opening that left both teams blowing, the Storm were forced to settle for a penalty goal to opening the scoring 18 minutes in after watching several try opportunities slip tantalisingly out of reach.

Both sides inexplicably bombed tryscoring chances in the ensuing period. Uncharacteristic errors crept into the minor premiers’ game and the Broncos dominated territory and possession – but the visitors couldn’t make an impression on the scoreboard as the Storm’s defence stood firm.

With Melbourne exhausted from soaking up a ton of pressure, the archrivals looked certain to head to the sheds 2-0 – until a brilliant offload from Storm centre Curtis Scott sent Josh Addo-Carr streaking 40 metres for the first try right on halftime.

Cameron Smith added the conversion for 8-0, a reading that didn’t correspond with the Broncos’ overwhelming momentum in the second 20 minutes.

Both sides struggled to settle after the resumption, producing regular errors and disorganised last-tackle plays.

Again when the Broncos looked to be getting some traction, the Storm sunk in the dagger. Smith and Cooper Cronk belatedly found some cohesion to open up a half-gap for Felise Kaufusi, who offloaded for Billy Slater to scamper away to the corner.

Smith’s sideline conversion turned the Broncos’ mountainous comeback task into a preliminary final Everest at 14-0 with 20 minutes left.

Melbourne sealed its seventh grand final berth in 12 seasons at the 65-minute mark as Smith turned the ball inside to giant interchange forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who steamrolled Kodi Nikorima on his way to the line.

Following another Smith penalty goal, the Cronk-Kaufusi combination split the Broncos again in the 71st minute, this time the halfback accepting a return pass inside before sending Slater away for his second.

The Storm wound down the clock with a penalty goal to Tohu Harris as the mercurial Smith took a well-earned early mark.

Melbourne Storm 30 (Billy Slater 2, Josh Addo-Carr, Nelson Asofa-Solomona tries; Cameron Smith 6, Tohu Harris goals) defeated Brisbane Broncos 0 at AAMI Park.

Rattled Storm eventually find their groove

The Storm slipped out of their customary rhythm in a disjointed first half performance, seemingly rushed and nervy in most things they did.

Four times they kicked the ball dead to give up seven-tackle sets to the Broncos, Billy Slater dropped a regulation high ball, and overanxious defensive decisions were lucky not to be punished.

Melbourne’s off-kilter kicking game forced them to shoot for the sidelines, negating their ability to heap pressure on the Broncos.

They still somehow found a way to lead 8-0 at halftime despite playing well below their best against a team in good touch. Yet another mark of a champion side – but that fortunate lead failed to settle the Storm as the second half got underway.

As with Addo-Carr’s try, however, Slater’s vital strike came against the run of play, and the Storm used that breakthrough to finally click into gear and put their foot on the deflated Broncos’ throats.
Another of Melbourne’s many virtues – unwavering patience – proved crucial to the manner in which the home side clinched the result.

Goal-line grit

Desperation tackles from Anthony Milford on Felise Kaufusi and Sam Thaiday on Cameron Munster in the space of a few seconds miraculously stopped Melbourne from scoring a sixth-minute opener, setting the tone for an opening hour dominated by the outstanding defence of both sides.

At the other end, Brisbane had more than 20 tackles inside the Storm 20-metre zone – and 57 percent possession overall in the first half – yet had nothing to show for it at the break thanks to resolute goal-line D.
But while the Broncos fell away without the ball in the final 20 minutes, the Storm never let their standards slip to keep a clean sheet – remarkably for the first time since Round 14 last season.

Ghosts of Edrick haunt AAMI Park

While no tries were scored in the opening 38 minutes, it wasn’t for a lack of opportunities served up on a Steeden-sponsored platter.

Suliasi Vunivalu, the NRL’s preeminent tryscoring machine, shelled one of the easiest chances he’s received all season at the 20-minute mark, snatching at a pass from Will Chambers after the centre had made a clean break.
Incredibly, just a couple of minutes later Corey Oates – he of 15 tries in his last 15 games, crossing in all but one of his last 10 – bombed a try at the other end as he dived for the corner.

Then the coup de grace, Tautau Moga ignoring an unmarked Oates on the Broncos’ next possession, instead taking on three Melbourne defenders and coughing the ball up on the try-line.

The game situation was obviously different, but it was shades of hapless Canberra winger Edrick Lee’s infamous drop in the corresponding match at the same venue one year earlier.

Daring Darius pulls up lame

Returning captain Darius Boyd was courageous in his 53-minute contribution and his presence lifted the Broncos, but he was still clearly hampered by his hamstring injury, struggling to stride out and inject himself.

Boyd had some nice touches in attack but managed just 37 running metres before finally pulling the pin and coming off for Benji Marshall to try and spark the side.

Whether they would have been better off with Marshall in the halves and Kodi Nikorima at fullback form the outset is debatable, and irrelevant now. What is certain is that the skipper’s injury hindered what has been an unmistakably brave finals campaign from the battered Broncos.

Cowboys, Warriors, Knights lick their lips

A trio of key 2018 engine-room recruits would have delighted their new clubs with powerhouse performances.

Warriors buy Tohu Harris – injured for much of this season – made 13 runs and a team-high 36 tackles for the Storm; teammate Jordan McLean showed what he will bring to the Cowboys’ pack with a string of powerful carries; and soon-to-be Knights tyro Herman Ese’ese was among the Broncos’ beset forwards with 74 metres off the bench.

It wasn’t all rosy for the Warriors and Knights, however – Auckland-bound Adam Blair and Newcastle pick-up Tautau Moga had forgettable final games in the Broncos’ strip, with Blair mustering just six runs and 20 tackles that were overshadowed by two late penalties that led to Storm points.

More milestones for Storm icons

Cameron Smith added to his astonishing list of 2017 achievements by becoming the first player in the history of the premiership to kick 1,000 goals. His six-from-six effort with the boot highlighted yet another weapon in the Storm’s arsenal in next Sunday’s grand final.

Billy Slater, fresh from taking sole ownership of the all-time record for finals tries in week one, moved past the great Steve Menzies into outright second on the premiership’s tryscoring register. Slater now has 182 tries from 298 games – 30 shy of the record-holder, the incomparable Ken Irvine.

Meanwhile, Cooper Cronk will join a select group of players by appearing in his seventh grand final next weekend. Only St George dynasty stalwarts Norm Provan (10), Brian Clay (10), Eddie Lumsden (9), Johnny Raper (8) and Kevin Ryan (8), Souths and Easts legend Ron Coote (9), Souths and Manly enforcer John O’Neill (8), St George and Parramatta captain Steve Edge (8) and Eels great Ray Price (8) will have played in more.

Smith (suspension, 2008) and Slater (injury, 2016) have each missed one of the Storm’s run of grand finals to leave Cronk out on his own amongst the code’s modern greats.

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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