One measure of Roger Federer’s sustained brilliance was that, during an incredible stretch, he reached 23 consecutive grand slam finals. In a similar vein, it is testimony to the Storm’s enduring excellence that, in two weeks, they will contest their sixth preliminary final in seven years.
Indeed, on the strength of a powerful 24-6 win during which they overwhelmed a Souths team replete with big names, Melbourne will not merely contest another grand final eliminator. Regardless of who they play, the Storm will start heavy favourites at their AAMI Park fortress – just as they had when ambushed by the Warriors last season.
The memory of that defeat will, no doubt, ensure any sense of complacency is banished from Melbourne’s collective subconscious. Just another motivational bullet in coach Craig Bellamy’s already well-loaded gun.
It has been difficult to tell in the past two seasons whether Melbourne’s trademark was excellence or bloody-minded defiance. Yesterday, there was a touch of both – a comprehensive victory produced despite the withdrawal of winger Anthony Quinn and forwards Jason Ryles and Sika Manu.
The lines through those names seemed to have tipped the balance in South Sydney’s favour. Instead, as a tribute to how the Storm’s system is almost as important as their personnel, Melbourne were left with the pleasant dilemma of adding those three to a team that had hardly missed a beat.
For the Rabbitohs, a finals campaign that presented the best opportunity in decades to break the now 41-year premiership drought hit a speed hump. Was it big-game nerves for a club that had not reached the play-offs since 2007? The excellence of vastly experienced opposition? The exposure of a Rabbitohs team that had the worst big-game record of the so-called Big Four?
Whatever the reason, coach Michael Maguire will have his work cut out restoring the confidence of his team before the cut-throat semi against Canberra or Cronulla – a task made no easier by the arm injury to centre Matt King. At least the new finals system guarantees a home final.
But yesterday was, in every sense, a Melbourne sort of day. Bright sunshine replaced, just before the kick-off, by showers. But, more pertinently, it was a Melbourne day in the manner the home team produced its customary blend of disciplined defence, highly structured attack – peppered with sufficient individual brilliance to befuddle a bigger, more cumbersome, opponent. In the much anticipated battle of the fullbacks between Billy Slater and Greg Inglis, Slater scored the first points on his way to a resounding victory. Seven minutes in, Slater dodged and weaved the first 40 metres of a 90-metre burst by the Storm that led to Ryan Hoffman’s opening try. Although, given Hoffman had earlier been stunned by a heavy blow, the veteran forward might well have thought he was on a ride at Wet’N’Wild rather than sliding across the AAMI Park turf.
Slater’s next move was less stunning, but equally devastating. Seizing a pass from Hoffman, he rolled to the line – and not one centimetre further – with the video referee ruling momentum had taken him that far. More spring in Melbourne’s step, more air out of Souths’ tyres.
On the rare occasions Souths penetrated Melbourne’s defensive 20, they coughed up possession far too easily with misdirected chips or bombs that Slater easily defused. Only late in the first half did the Rabbitohs create any concerted pressure, and then winger Nathan Merritt’s fumble at the other end led, indirectly, to the Storm’s third try.
By half-time, it was hard to tell whether the 18-0 scoreline, or the crowd of 19,750 jubilantly performing the actions to YMCA, was the best indication of where the game was heading. Sisa Waqa kept the party going six minutes into the second half with the game-clinching try. Melbourne’s tireless defence did the rest, with Eddy Pettybourne’s late effort mere window dressing. Thus, with the inevitably of Federer in his pomp, the Storm had made the final four. All that is missing is the single-handed backhand, and the trophies in the cabinet.
MELBOURNE 24 (M Fonua R Hoffman B Slater S Waqa tries C Smith 4 goals) bt SOUTH SYDNEY 6 (E Pettybourne try A Reynolds goal) at AAMI Park. Referee: Shayne Hayne, Jason Robinson. Crowd: 19,750.
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