Once upon a time, you would have expected that the Dragons would be absolutely decimated by a first round match against the Storm, let alone a first round match at AAMI Park. After all, Melbourne have won their first round for the last twelve years, while St. George haven’t won in Melbourne since 1999. Nevertheless, last night’s match felt like a bit of a turning-point, since while the Storm may have come away with a 18-16 victory, it was clear that Melbourne’s decline is just starting to become visible, just as the Dragons’ ascent is just starting to become visible as well. While Smith, Slater and Cronk are still clearly dominant, it was a match where you could sense that these two teams were starting to gradually converge. In a year or two, they could easily meet on a level playing field.
Of course, the Storm outfit was all the more hyped in that this was the first appearance of Billy Slater in Melbourne colours since Round 10 last year, as well as his first appearance on the field since his showdown with James Tamou in Origin II. Given that that was one of his most volatile appearances for the Maroons for ages – possibly because he was battling through his shoulder injury – it felt like a shame that he wasn’t there to dish out Origin III as well, which is perhaps why last night’s game had something of an Origin frenzy as well. For all the endless speculation about Smith, Slater and Cronk’s movements, as well as their strategies for this later part of their careers, they played their first round this season with nearly as much conviction as usual, which has to feel incredibly relieving to Storm supporters. At this point, the trio have cemented their legacy, and it’s achievement enough to simply maintain it as well as they did last night, with Slater playing a full eighty minutes, Cronk putting in a impressive high kicking game, and Smith commandeering it all with his usual calm.
At the same time, it became clear that Marika Koroibete and Jesse Bromwich are emerging as the new custodians for the club, with Koroibete celebrating his 50th game with two tries in the first half and Bromwich delivering a beautiful try-line offload that set up his brother Kenny with the game’s third try. As always, Will Chambers continues to feel like the unsung ingredient in the Storm’s lineup, but it’s still good to see Koroibete and Bromwich getting the recognition they deserve. In reality, they’ve been playing at this level for a while, but there seems to be a new awareness in the air that the Storm can no longer afford to pin all their mythology on Smith, Slater and Cronk. With Cronk assisting both of Koroibete’s tries, it was a bit like witnessing a gradual changing of the guard, especially since the Dragons were showcasing Kurt Mann in his first official appearance as fullback since moving from the Storm last year, while Gareth Widdop seemed to draw from his synergy with the Storm in his kicking game as well.
Nevertheless, it was clear that the Storm still have some way to go to make it to the finals this year. Despite the final score, the Dragons were leading at 10-0 and could easily have won it if they’d managed to get in another try in the final twenty minutes, especially given that they were fairly unlucky when it came to the ref’s decisions, with both teams handling the ball in quite a slippery, sloppy fashion, but St. George-Illawarra seeming to bear more of the brunt of the penalties. More points were scored by errors than by ingenious gameplay, resulting in long dead sections – especially the last part of the second half – where neither team really seemed to know what to do with itself. While the Storm, at their heyday, may have played a fairly conservative and constrained brand of defensive football, the upside was that they always felt in control at virtually every moment. As a result, these dead zones in last night’s game really stuck out as weak spots in the Storm’s armour, something Craig Bellamy needs to contain before the season gets too far underway.
To say that this was the best game of the first round, then, as several commentators have done, is a bit of an exaggeration. If anything made it incredible, it wasn’t the Storm’s actual performance but the sudden recognition that they might almost have been vulnerable enough to allow the Dragons to beat them at AAMI. Along with Brookvale, AAMI is one of the great fortresses of the NRL, and if Brookvale seemed to crumble in the wake of the Bulldogs’ victory on Friday night, it felt as if AAMI wasn’t all that far behind in the first half of last night’s game. For that reason, I found Benji Marshall one of the most vibrant presences last night, not just because Josh Dugan and Tim Lafai were much quieter at the centre than during the trials, but because Marshall seems to be having something of a late-career resurgence that made him a natural figurehead for such an unlikely Dragons performance. While I get why people continually hype the Storm – I’ve never known them without Smith, Slater or Cronk either – you have to give St. George-Illawarra credit for how clinically they reminded us that this combination can no longer take anything – or everything – for granted.