While Melbourne’s NRL grand final berth never looked in doubt from the opening whistle of their 40-12 preliminary final win over Manly, coach Craig Bellamy said he questioned his ability to steer his team to the title decider.
Bellamy admitted after the crushing victory that a five-game losing streak late in the season tested his belief.
The Storm emphatically answered those concerns at AAMI Park, thoroughly outplaying the defending champions as they ran in six tries to two.
After being stripped of titles in 2007 and 2009 for cheating the salary cap the Storm have a chance to win a legitimate title at ANZ Stadium on September 30 against either Canterbury or South Sydney.
With the exception of their skipper Jamie Lyon, who scored a try in each half, Manly could hardly have played worse, with the fierce rivalry between the sides falling flat.
Manly started the match with an error on the second tackle and that set the tone for a miserable night as they suffered their first grand final qualifier loss since 1975.
Coach Geoff Toovey said the team was “gutted” to deliver such a disappointing performance.
“I don’t mind the loss, we’ve had a fantastic season but to finish on that note with such a poor display; the players are really gutted,” he said.
“We were way off the mark.”
Melbourne superstars, fullback Billy Slater and halfback Cooper Cronk, showed how much they love the big stage, both scoring a double.
“We were all tested a little bit and certainly I was questioning myself and what I was doing with the team,” Bellamy said.
“Was I playing my role as well as I could and did I have to change a few things … you’re always asking yourself more questions when you go through a period like that.”
Skipper Cameron Smith said the team continued to work hard and were now reaping the rewards.
He said the loss of the two titles didn’t make this grand final any more special.
“It’s always nice to make a grand final given what you have to go through during the season.
“I’m really pleased this team’s been able to make it.”
Such was their dominance, the Storm should have had the match wrapped up by halftime but only led 12-6 thanks to some uncharacteristically wayward kicking by Smith and Lyon’s try in the 37th minute.
But Cronk’s second, coming four minutes into the second half, saw Manly heads drop again.
After two controversial decisions by the video referee favoured Manly against North Queensland, they were on the receiving end at the nine minute mark.
Centre Will Chambers was tackled just short of the line and Slater picked up the ball from dummy half and dived across the line with video referees Russell Smith and Sean Hampstead ruling a “benefit of the doubt” try despite him appearing to knock it on.