NRL Rugby League flashed back to days gone by tonight; with the Melbourne Storm and St George Illawarra Dragons turning on a passionate display resulting in a flurry of fists, binnings and send-offs at Olympic Park in Monday Night NRL. In the end the Storm proving an impossible mountain to climb for the Dragons, losing out to the home side 26-0.
It was the Dragons who had the run of early play, dominating field position and possession but unable to pierce the Storm defence line. St George Illawarra coming with a plan to attack the Storm in the forwards, turning the ball inside on most plays and resisting the urge to spin it wide. Nathan Brown had Jamie Soward playing on the wing in defence and the elusive half wasn’t always at first and second receiver as the Dragons tried to keep the Storm guessing.
Melbourne were first to register points in the match, against the run of play – the dynamic Israel Folau continues to impress, scoring a trademark try from a high ball despite the attention of two Dragons players. Even as Ben Hornby put on the sleepwalker play to interfere with Folau, the towering centre still took the ball on the full and escaped the clutches of the grounded Saints to reach out and score.
The cold Melbourne weather turned brutal and the rain closed in; Cameron Smith missing the conversion and the fireworks for the night were about to explode. With the Dragons getting another decent share of possession, they were getting frustrated by impeccable Storm defence – big hits and smart reads by Israel Folau and Cooper Cronk were causing the Dragons to cough up too much ball.
When Cooper Cronk buried Jamie Soward with a bell ringer – forcing the ball loose, Soward reacted badly and started what has probably been the longest fight in the NRL in recent memory. Players came running from every direction, Billy Slater getting heavily involved and having a decent square off with Jason Nightingale.
Slater was throwing them like Anthony Mundine as he set upon Nightingale and the rest of the pack picked a partner and followed suit. Adam Blair getting into a mismatch with Jamie Soward and giving it to him WWF style before Beau Scott came flying in with a few late haymakers. The politically correct brigade will try and sweep it under the carpet, but the blow up brought the Melbourne crowd to their feet. The locals are so used to seeing ‘Chesting’ style fights in the AFL, this melee between the Storm and Dragons was a whole new event.
When the dust settled, referee Gavin Badger dispatched Jamie Soward for 10 minutes for causing the initial boil over and the Storm lost two players, Billy Slater for being the first to throw a flurry of punches and Adam Blair for being an antagoniser.
With tempers still flaring, the Dragons deep in Storm territory had the best chance to build some pressure and start putting points in the bank. But even with the extra man, the Saints seemed to panic and continually turned the ball inside rather than finding the fringes where they could have caught the Storm short.
The plan was failing badly and to compound things, the Dragons coughed the ball up soon after to release the pressure valve altogether.
With a scrum soon following, there was sure to be more tension. This time it worked against the Dragons, with Storm prop Jeff Lima baiting Jason Ryles with some footsies in the scrum and the Dragons prop caught for retaliation and immediately sent off by Gavin Badger.
In hindsight, probably a tough call given that Jason Ryles was retaliating – but even so, Badger had to stamp his authority or lose total control of the game and the referee had to react, sending Ryles off for an early shower.
It was now mission impossible for the St George Illawarra Dragons, it’s hard to beat Melbourne at the best of times – but playing 1 man short for the entire match in wet conditions at Olympic Park a coming out on top was akin to winning a game of Twister with a broken leg and 12 bottles of beer under your belt.
The Saints were valiant as they tried to repel several sets of Melbourne attack, their rushing and scrambling defence was frustrating the Storm at times and it did take quite a while before the Storm got comfortable and started laying on the points.
While Craig Bellamy wouldn’t be overly happy with the stuttering attack from his side, the defence from Melbourne more than made up for it – keeping a clean sheet and putting a dent in the St George Illawarra Dragons for and against as they fight for a Top 8 spot.
Melbourne’s touchdowns in the second half were impressive, good hands and some good angles saw Jeremy Smith stride over under the sticks – the Storm lucky to still be given the try after a brain snap by Jeremy Smith. The niggling Smith is up there with Paul Gallen in the dirtiest in the NRL stakes and as he tried to improve the position of the try – a desperate Justin Poore hurled himself at the put down to force an error; Jeremy Smith rising and throwing the ball at Poore and sparking another flare up.
Referee Gavin Badger should have taken much harsher action here, if he wants to be consistent – after sending Ryles off for a minor incident, he simply had to send off Jeremy Smith for a ridiculous play – fueling the spite and almost setting up another melee in the match.
The Storm seemed to thrive on the tough stuff tonight, they coped with the pressure cooker tension so much better than the Dragons. A big wrap for the Melbourne Storm forward pack here, regardless of his dirty nature – the firey Jeremy Smith adds intimidation to the pack and followed up well by the likes of Jeff Lima, Adam Blair and Sika Manu – it was an irresistible force.
For the Dragons, Langi Setu was impressive – his defence brutal and the damaging Saints forward saved a certain try with his hit on Cameron Smith. It was hard to be too critical of the Dragons, with a send-off and things not going their way – they toiled hard in tough conditions. Hurting their cause were some silly penalties from Justin Poore and Beau Scott; the two Dragons giving away 90% of the Dragons penalties between them.
All told; a physical clash that sets the scene well for the upcoming finals. Both coaches would probably have liked the intensity and experience their players gained in the contest – an ideal lead up for the weeks ahead. The only concern would now be the review committee going over footage of the match and singling out offenders from the melee.
Next week the Dragons are at home to the Bulldogs and will fancy their chances against the out of form Dogs, sitting on 22 points the Saints need 3 more wins to ensure they make the cut for this years Top 8 finals series.
For the Melbourne Storm, they make another step towards a home semi-final and face another big test next week traveling to Auckland to face the in form NZ Warriors in what should be another physical encounter.