Melbourne Storm have romped into the NRL grand final for the fifth time in seven years via a 40-12 demolition on an error-prone Manly at AAMI Park.
The Storm piled on seven tries to two in a ruthless display that must entitle them to title favouritism whether they play the Bulldogs or the Rabbitohs in next Sunday’s decider.
Halfback Cooper Cronk handed in a masterly display, scoring two tries and paving the way for three more with his silky passing and kicking skills.
With a colourful and often bitter history between the two heavyweight clubs, the game was billed as an ‘early’ grand final but failed to live up to that status as the Sea Eagles were totally off their game from beginning to end.
While the Storm were at their lethal, attacking best, Manly was woeful.
It was remarkable to see a team trying for successive premierships collapse under a mountain of handling and kicking errors (34). To commit so many schoolboy errors and easily hand possession to their opponents must have been embarrassing for Manly fans.
Melbourne capitalised on almost every Manly blunder and would have won by a greater margin if Cameron Smith had not missed his first three conversion attempts.
The Eagles were under the pump from the opening minutes with fullback Brett Stewart having to save a try in just the second minute with a great tackle on rampaging winger Mahae Fonua.
Sustained pressure (and a fumble by Tony Williams) enabled Cronk to open Melbourne’s account in the fifth minute before the video referees again caused uproar with a puzzling decision to award a Billy Slater try.
Slater clearly lost control of the ball as he burrowed over the try line from dummy half in the eighth minute and the video officials awarded another highly controversial ‘Benefit of the Doubt’ four-pointer.
Channel 9’s Andrew Johns commented: “It’s an absolute disgrace. Let’s see what spin they put on this (try) during the week.”
Cronk and Slater combined beautifully to engineer a terrific try for centre Will Chambers midway through the half and at that point, the only thing troubling Melbourne was Cam Smith’s three missed conversion attempts.
Manly skipper Jamie Lyon got his team on the scoreboard with a converted try from a Kieran Foran bomb kick just before the break. The Storm, incredibly, had enjoyed almost all of the running yet led by only 12-6 at the changeover.
Many in the crowd of 25,543 thought the second half might develop into a typical Melbourne-Manly arm wrestle but the Eagles were dreadfully below par and got punished repeatedly on the scoreboard.
For the winners, Cronk was clearly the maestro and his team-mates revelled in the time and opportunities he presented from beginning to end.
The Storm did not field a bad player. All were made to look like supermen by an inept Manly team.
Players including Todd Lowrie, Richie Fa’aoso, Jaiman Lowe, Bryan Norrie and Jesse Bromwich ran like bulldozers all night and reaped the rewards.
Aside from skipper Lyon (two tries) and fullback Brett Stewart, Manly was dreadful.
Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans unforgivably muffed two goal-line dropouts to concede penalties in front of the sticks, capping off a night that might haunt him for months.
But DCE had no shortage of partners in crime.
Big T-Rex Williams was ineffective throughout, Anthony Watmough was hardly seen when needed, playmaker Glenn Stewart was easily contained while centre Steve Matai had a shocker while trying to continue with a leg injury.
Melbourne repeatedly targeted young winger Jorge Taufua and the tactic paid dividends time and again when his hands let him down.
First year NRL coach Geoff Toovey was a forlorn figure in the stand as the Sea Eagles conceded error after error to make a truly miserable exit from the 2012 title race.
While it was a very uncharacteristic performance by Manly, it must be said that the Storm looked every inch a premiership team.
It’s now up to Sydneysiders Canterbury or Souths to thwart what Melbourne firmly believes is their 2012 destiny.
A very tall order indeed. The Storm is raging – their opponent will need much more than an umbrella defence to get their measure.