The first piece of what many consider to be an inevitable confrontation has been put in place, with Melbourne now one game away from another grand final after tearing Manly apart 40-12 at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Penrith have yet to play their part – they begin their campaign against South Sydney on Saturday – but the Storm are on their way in no uncertain terms, dominating the Sea Eagles from the opening minutes in a typically clinical performance in their adopted home, Queensland.
This was finals football deluxe from the defending premiers. After resting a host of frontliners last week, their full contingent was far too slick and experienced for the Sea Eagles, who had to chase the game all night and will now try to reset against the winner of the knockout clash between the Roosters and the Titans.
They may be without back-rower Josh Schuster, who was placed on report for a lifting tackle in the second half, while Tom Trbojevic was also penalised for a high shot, although it was minor enough to escape going in the book.
Once again, the timing looks perfect for Melbourne, who can now enjoy the vital week’s break and hope to get star winger Josh Addo-Carr back as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury.
Judging from the amount of metres he covered running up and down the sideline on Friday night, his participation looks a reasonable bet.
This was a match that didn’t really tell NRL watchers anything they didn’t already know. The Storm simply looked a class above Manly, who dug their heels in late to show some resistance but fought the entire fight from the back foot.
Justin Olam celebrates his 76th-minute try for the preliminary-final bound Storm on Friday night.Credit:Getty
The Storm have been good all year. In the finals, they just get better. Regardless of the hype around the Panthers, Melbourne remain the team to beat until someone prises the silverware from their cold, dead hands.
Melbourne scored their opener against the run of play and Manly never seemed to recover from the early bloody nose. Daly Cherry-Evans and Morgan Harper got it all wrong on the right touchline only for Brandon Smith to pick up the crumbs and send Isaac Lumelume on his merry way.
The Storm were in the mood. Kenny Bromwich was next to score after the on-field decision was reversed by video officials, then the busy Christian Welch finished an excellent early shift when he crashed over from close range.
By the time Ryan Papenhuyzen slotted a simple penalty in the 23rd minute the Storm were out of the gates with an 18-0 lead and things were already looking dire for a frustrated Sea Eagles, who simply couldn’t get their game breaker Tom Trbojevic any clear air in attack all night.
There were signs of life as Cherry-Evans tried to force the issue and will his side back into the contest. Some spirited charges put Manly within range and Jason Saab was able to juggle the mini-bomb to score and get his side on the board.
With Smith, who had been brilliant early for the Storm, having failed his HIA, it may well have been the start of a good period for the Sea Eagles. Instead, Melbourne turned to Harry Grant at dummy-half and sent big bodies such as Nelson Asofa-Solomona into the contest.
That all added up to more ball, more physical dominance, more pressure and eventually a try to Papenhuyzen, who sliced through some tired bodies to dive over before the break and make it 24-6 at half-time.
The brilliant fullback was at it again in the opening moments of the second half, finishing off a 70m flourish under the posts to ensure the only conjecture was about the margin, not the result, and rounded off a virtuoso display with a two-point field goal in the dying seconds.
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