The Melbourne Storm quickly found their rhythm for 2008 as they quashed any doubts about losing several players; as they accounted for a hot and cold NZ Warriors side 32-18 in front of a health 20,000 strong crowd at the Telstra Dome.
The Storm looked in particularly good touch for such an early season game, their set plays and execution easily the best of any team in Round 1 NRL 2008. Scoring early and often it was Billy Slater bagging three tries in the first half and running shot-gun off the dangerous Cameron Smith on many occasions to penetrate.
Melbourne seem to have not only a dominating forward pack, but one that contains plenty of aggression and venom now; with big boppers Adam Blair, Jeff Lima and Sam Tagatese all hitting with force and sticking it to the usually powerful NZ Warriors forward pack.
While the Storm looked ominous, the Warriors were going with them and were mostly brought down by that man Manu Vatuvei. Known as being susceptible under the high ball, the Storm chipped away at his flank and virtually came up trumps on every occasion – the big winger spilling every ball in the air.
If an immediate try wasn’t scored from the mistake, it would happen one ruck later. Such is the pressure of playing the Storm, the opposing team cannot repel them for back to back sets – it’s just too hard.
The dreaded injury curse was hurting both teams at various stages; the NZ Warriors did it tough without Steve Price who succumbed to an upper hamstring injury early in the match – the side missing his guidance, thrust and the bonus of an extra replacement. For the Storm, Billy Slater had trouble with an ankle but played on and Dallas Johnson suffered a heavy headclash with Grant Rovelli but both were patched up and played on.
The Warriors suffered their usual problems, whenever they built momentum through the forwards – they gifted possession to the Storm with simple errors, drops or penalties. Amazingly kicking out on the full from the kick-off not once, but 3 times. I doubt such a failure has ever been seen in this department before; considering the venue is the Telstra Dome with the roof closed – so wind couldn’t play a part.
The resulting possession to the Storm saw them kick 2 penalty goals from the first lot of errors and eventually score of the third mistake – really making the visiting New Zealanders pay.
At half time, you felt there was a real chance of a close match with the Warriors trailing by only 4 points and could have easily led – attacking the Storm line with 30 seconds to go until the break and dropping the ball on tackle 1 at a distance of 3 metres from the Storm try-line.
The game got interesting even before the whistle blew for the second half, with the Melbourne Storm’s mind games of delaying their appearance from the sheds by several minutes – really getting under the Warriors skin. The NZ Warriors walking from the field and not running back on until the Storm had taken their positions. Something I am not sure has been seen before. Totally understandable given the Storm regularly make visiting teams wait before they run on, but to wait on the field close to 3 minutes before the other team arrives is simply ridiculous and the Storm should be fined for this kind of circus act.
For the Warriors, Jerome Ropati was probably their best – cleaning up several tricky situations and trying his best to protect and assist the under-fire Vatuvei. Ropati attacked the ball with purpose and pierced holes in the usually solid Melbourne defence. New recruit Brent Tate only saw a few chances, with little ball coming his way. Obviously feeling his way back from the knee re-construction Tate should be better for the run and looked keen to get the ball, sometimes venturing the dummy half when needed.
For the Storm, their two strike players in Cameron Smith and Billy Slater were quickly back to their NRL topping best. Smith remains the best hooker in the NRL by a mile, his decision making is simply perfect – choosing the right option and keeping the up-tempo game constant for his side.
Israel Folau was heavily marked and while playing well, didn’t outshine his opposing number in Ropati. Will Chambers looked strong and seems to have immediately settled into the NRL and Steve Turner was his usual speedy self on the fringe – making things constantly hard for the Warriors bigger outside backs.
The Melbourne Storm forwards deserve all the accolades here though. Dominating a fancied pack in the Warriors; even without Steve Price – they aren’t pushovers and the Storm totally got on top of them and laid the perfect platform for their halves in Cronk and Aitken.
While Dallas Johnson and Ryan Hoffman were their usual workhorse selves, Sam Tagataese really stood up and played a leading hand. The try he scored was impressive, backing up and really showing staggering pace for a forward.
Brett White probably was outshone by his off-siders, with Lima as mentioned also having a top notch game at the front.
Once again, the Melbourne Storm look to be a real benchmark in the NRL. Teams will need to really overachieve to get on top of these guys.