Anyone who expected Melbourne to hand down a drubbing to Newcastle yesterday afternoon would have been sorely disappointed. After a terrible start, the Storm were down 14-6 at the 60th minute, with only the trifecta of a Cooper Cronk try, a Cameron Smith penalty goal and another try from young gun Richard Kennar providing Melbourne with the surge they needed to avoid being beaten by the NRL’s current cellar-dwellers at their own home ground. While it may have been the Storm’s 300th victory since 1997, even Cameron Smith wasn’t sure if it was that much of an improvement over last week’s performance at Southern Cross Group Stadium. As with the Titans-Broncos match the night before, I came away with a sense of Newcastle’s potential more than the Storm’s supremacy, in what was ultimately a remarkably even game: until the 73rd minute, both teams had scored two tries, two conversion and a solitary penalty goal.
One big problem for the home team was that their big men only seemed to find their momentum towards the end, with Blake Green and Will Chambers not seeming to know where to place their focus in the first forty. While Cronk also peaked in the second half, he was a powerhouse all the way through, more or less bookending the Storm surge with two tries at the 19th and 63rd minutes. In addition, his second try was probably the best of the game, coming off a deft pass from Dale Finucane to burst through a chink in the Knights’ defence so narrow that you could barely see it. While Kennar’s winning try in the 73rd minute was pretty impressive for a debutant, it was Cronk’s contribution ten minutes before that sealed the deal for the Storm. If last week’s showdown at Southern Cross Group Stadium was the first time Billy Slater’s absence hit home, then Cronk seemed determined to compensate at AAMI with his best effort this season.
Still, Cronk and Smith weren’t quite as flawless as you might expect. Melbourne could have really owned the game in the 50th minute if Cronk hadn’t knocked on a low pass from Smith within the in-goal area, a bungle that astonishingly repeated itself a couple of minutes later. Combined with the fact that Smith managed to convert both of Cronk’s tries but couldn’t follow through with Kennar, it felt as if the intensity of the Cronk-Smith rapport wasn’t serving the game quite as well as it has in the past. For all his precocity, Cameron Munster is no Slater either, something made abundantly clear when he allowed a Newcastle grubber to pass him by on the way to the dead ball zone only for Korbin Sims to sneak around and plant it over the try line for the deftest four points awarded to the Knights over the course of the game.
On the other side of the Steeden, Trent Hodkinson reminded us why he’s still one of the best kickers around, effortlessly converting Jacob Sifiti and Korban Sims’ tries to continue his perfect goal record this season. Losing Sione Matu’utia at the sixth minute to a concussion and Danny Levi at the twenty-fifth with back spasms was a bit of a blow to Newcastle, so it was remarkable how much of an effort the Knights managed to bring, with Dane Gagai putting in the kind of steady, unflashy fullback performance that makes him so powerful to watch.
It’ll be interesting, then, to see how the Storm fare against Canterbury-Bankstown at AAMI next weekend. In some ways, these two are well on the way to becoming rivals. Whereas the Storm are on the way down, the Dogs are on the way up, with both of them vying to be the best team south of the Queensland border. With the Knights set to play the Tigers, my allegiances will be torn – I want the Tigers to win, but I don’t want the Knights to lose – in what promises to be a pair of pretty interesting sequels to yesterday’s match.