The Melbourne Storm was once again forced to fight hard for a victory tonight, but maintained its composure to defeat Parramatta 14-10 in front of 11,549 fans at Olympic Park.
The Storm endured a rare scoreless half in the second stanza, but more than made for it with stinging, relentless defence when it mattered most. Its first-half haul of two converted tries and a penalty goal was enough to stave off a determined Eels outfit and further its march to the NRL minor premiership.
“I’d like to thank a few of people who gave it to us during the week,” said Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
“I think that they made us bond a little tighter. Certainly we weren’t at our best with the ball again tonight, there are a couple of things there that we’re struggling to get right. But we were very tenacious and I was happy with the effort. We kept hanging in there with our defence.
“It’s been a tough week for everyone but it’s helped us bind tighter.
“It was a tough grinding game of footy.
“I’d like to give my guys a bit of a wrap. We played three games in eleven days. All those teams that we played against played a real physical game of footy and we had to play a physical brand of footy to compete with them.
“I thought that the players were tremendous. They really stuck in there. It was an important game for us.”
The Storm was forced to reshuffle its squad this week with Matt King and Steve Turner sidelined after last week’s bruising encounter with Brisbane.
“Kingy being out, it was a big loss for us. But Hoffman did a really good job,” said Bellamy.
“One of Parramatta’s strengths is their back five; they’re so big and so strong. But for Hoffy to play so well out there was great.”
Things were looking good for the Storm from the outset. Cameron Smith proved again that he needs only the faintest sniff of the try-line to give opposition coaches a headache. With the game only five minutes old, the Storm’s captain barged over from dummy half after Dallas Johnson came close himself. Smith also brought his kicking boots along with his wily hooker’s bag of tricks, his successful conversion the first of three, in a perfect kicking performance.
After this start, the game set into a pattern. More sets than not, the Storm would receive a penalty thanks to an over-eager Parramatta and receive an easy run downfield. The Storm’s attack, though, was similarly over eager and could not finish any movements with the ball planted over Parramatta’s line.
This would prove costly later in the half when against the run of play, the Eels regained possession 10 metres out, spread the ball from east to west and scored through Eric Grothe.
After the Eels narrowed the score, the Storm unleashed a weapon in the form of Michael Crocker, returning to top flight action just in time for the finals series. Throughout his time on the park, Crocker was a handful in attack and stinging in defence.
Heavy rain before the match provided slippery conditions and points were at a premium. When Nathan Hindmarsh clipped Ben Cross high, the Storm opted for an easy penalty kick instead of their customary approach of going for four points or more.
One of the more bizarre tries of the season got the crowd to their feet.
Sensing space on the outside, Cooper Cronk kicked for Matt Geyer; the winger reached the ball first, but was perilously close to the touchline and had Jarryd Hayne desperately trying to push him out. Geyer threw the ball back over his head, The Eels’ Krisnan Inu caught it and was in turn pushed towards touch by Israel Folau. Millimetres before the sideline, Inu attempted to keep the ball in play and passed it blind. Billy Slater was there to pick up the crumbs, cross the try-line and ground the ball before Timana Tahu could knock him into touch.
Cameron Smith converted from touch and the Storm had a handy 10 point advantage going into the break.
The second-half was full of defensive pressure and close calls for both sides as handling further deteriorated.
The match came alive when Inu got one back for the Eels with 20 minutes to go. Receiving a Tim Smith bomb over Geyer’s head and making amends for his earlier role in the Storm’s second. The winger converted from the touchline and narrowed the gap to only four.
The Eels began to get the run of play and looked the more confident team. Melbourne, though, knows how to hold on for a win. Cooper Cronk stepped up by proving a try-saving tackle when Grothe looked for all money to have evened the scores.
Geyer then got one back on Inu when he bundled him into touch with the Eel sailing downfield desperate for another try.
In the final minutes of the match Jeremy Smith defended with enough sting to suggest that the game had just begun.
“It was pretty physical. Pretty similar to last week, actually,” said Storm captain Cameron Smith.
“I’ve got to give a wrap to them, they were good all night. Very physical. They really stuck it into our forwards. We’ve been copping plenty of stick in the last couple of weeks. People saying we were in a slump.
“We talked about it last night. Just the boys. And we wanted to prove a couple of people wrong. We expected them to come out the way that they did and we’re becoming accustomed to it now.”
Things won’t get any easier for the Storm next week when they face the Bulldogs at Telstra Stadium in another Friday night blockbuster.
Melbourne 14 (tries: C. Smith, Slater; Goals: C. Smith 3)
Parramatta 10 (Tries: Grothe, Inu; Goals: Inu)