By Monday night, Melbourne was the only unbeaten NRL team this season. By the end of their clash against the Sharks, they were on par with the Bulldogs, the Broncos, the Eels and – most incredibly – the Titans, as Cronulla-Sutherland handed down a 14-6 victory that was more of a drubbing than the score would suggested. Only several hours before, the Tigers had lost 8-0 to the Eels, and yet the eight points separating the Sharks and the Storm seemed to suggest a much greater gulf in talent, ambition and potential. Apart from a solitary try and conversion from Felise Kaufusi and Cameron Smith twenty minutes in, the Storm didn’t score a single point – and even those six were due to some uncharacteristic sloppiness from Valentine Holmes more than any great inspiration on the part of Fortress Melbourne.
In fact, you might say that this was the first time this season that the Storm have really felt deprived of their big three. Although Billy Slater has been out since Round 2, he’s still felt as if he’s there in spirit, motivating Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk to maintain that momentum that they can only really achieve in his presence. Last night, however, Cronk was nowhere to be seen, especially in the second half, while even Smith was somewhat lacklustre and low-key. While the Storm were marginally more consistent in attack, completing 28/37 as opposed to Cronulla’s 33/44, there was an air of desperation that feels quite new for Melbourne, epitomised by Marika Koroibete’s trip on Chad Townsend in the first half, which led to one of the most important AAMI assets being put on report almost before the game had begun.
As if that wasn’t enough, Will Chambers was also sin-binned in the first half for pinning Holmes down for too long, leaving Melbourne to struggle with twelve players during some of the most crucial opening minutes. In the past, the Storm have often felt like more than a team, a superteam, or a team operating at Origin standards – and there’s always been something improbably and surprising about that. Watching James Tedesco, Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses at the Tigers, or Shaun Johnson, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Issac Luke at the Warriors, you really realise how rare and fragile it is for that kind of threesome to come together in one place at one time. Now that Smith, Slater and Cronk are such an institution, we kind of take it for grated, but seeing the Storm operating as less than a team really drove home how much more than a team they’ve been for so long.
At the same time, it felt fitting that Chambers was sent off for practising Melbourne’s notorious wrestling strategies. Now that the NRL has brought the bunker, the shot clock and the interchange revisions, Craig Bellamy’s strategies for slowing down the game feel as if they belong to a different era. In the aftermath of last year’s match between the Sharks and the Storm, Shane Flanagan was very vocal about Melbourne’s martial arts tactics, and seeing the refs come down so hard on Chambers last night felt like yet another indication that AAMI’s moment may have passed, at least in this generation of Rugby League players. Less a Storm than a light shower, they barely grazed a fairly second-rate effort from the home team.
Of course, that’s not to dismiss the Cronulla effort either – it takes a lot of grit to beat even a second-rate Storm outfit. While Valentine Holmes may have dropped the ball three times, he made up for his hat trick by setting up a beautiful try for Chad Townsend, giving the five-eighth room and time for a fantastic run across half the field, in what turned out to be the second and last try of the game. Deftly converted by James Maloney, who also put in two penalty goals at the 47th and 62nd minutes, it was the kind of second-half turning-point that has been so dominant this round, and a particularly rousing moment against the backdrop of the newly rebranded Southern Cross Group Stadium.
For all Holmes’ dexterity, however, it was Ben Barba who was the star of the show. Even if Jack Bird had been up to fullback after his big hit last week, there could be no doubt after this game that Barba has made the role his own for the rest of the season. Not only did he ring in the first try for Cronulla at the 28th minute, but there was a decisiveness and vision to his game that recalled his standout performance in the Indigenous v. All Stars clash earlier in the year. Running rings around Cameron Muster, you have to wonder whether he’s on the verge of a comeback, a pretty exciting prospect for the game at large.
Individual players aside, it was clear that Flanagan had set out to unsettle the Storm with some banter and big hit-ups in the first couple of minutes – and they were successful, drawing on Michael Ennis’ expertise as a veteran niggler to bring in some of the best attitude seen so far this season. Grand Finals aside, the Storm have had the most strut in the game for some time – that’s what comes from housing the Maroons spine – and so there was something quite satisfying about seeing the lowly Sharks outdoing them in terms of swagger and provocation. Nevertheless, both teams are going to have something to prove when they go up against the Knights and the Tigers this weekend, in what may well be two of the most exciting matches in Round 5.