It might have been a match between two of the best teams in the competition, but the Round 14 opener was tough to predict owing to the number of players out across the two sides. At the very least, the general view was there wasn’t going to be much in it
The Roosters might have been missing a Morris brother and half their forward pack among others, but it was the Storm missing their creative weapons.
No Cameron Munster, no Cameron Smith and a tough trip to play on unfamiliar territory at the Sydney Cricket Ground, a venue where the Tricolours had won nine straight to close 2019.
The Roosters have turned it into a fortress over the last 18 months, rolling the Storm there in a preliminary final last year.
Really, the Roosters were favourites for a reason, even considering their ridiculous injury toll. The performance that followed was anything but as a clinical Melbourne continued their excellent run of form, and Craig Bellamy proved once and for all just how masterful he is in the art of rugby league coaching.
But, even without injuries, the Roosters haven’t looked the same team since they last played Melbourne. That Round 8 game, possibly the game of the year, saw the Tricolours go down by two points and while they have won four of the five played since, they haven’t been all that convincing.
It’d take a brave man to write off the Roosters, given the players they have to return and the fact they have been there, done that before when it comes to finals, but as it stands today, they have now lost twice to Melbourne, and can’t possibly be considered favourites to take out the title.
That’s because the team who are favourites are the ones they played last night.
Without Munster and Smith, maybe the Storm might have gone close to winning, but they should never have been as clinical, or as polished as the end product was, particularly during the first half where they were the better team by the length of the straight and then some.
You could almost say Thursday night’s game was the proper arrival of the next generation to play for the men in purple.
Sure, they have been hanging around, but there is always the “what if they are only doing it because of Smith and Munster?” line which has followed every player to come out of Melbourne who hasn’t been a noted superstar in the last decade.
But, playing a team who are just as well-coached, just as well-drilled and still had all their creative weapons – remember, Luke Keary, James Tedesco and Jake Friend were all still on the field – the Storm barely missed a beat.
They built their performance off their defence, as the Craig Bellamy-coached team always tend to do, but it was their attack which stole the show.
With Ryley Jacks not overplaying his hand and simply doing the job required, it allowed Jahrome Hughes to take over in the number seven jersey like he never has before.
For a man who notes his best position as fullback, Hughes was quite remarkable in guiding the Storm around the park last night. On the back of a forward pack who worked extremely hard for the most part, his kicking game was excellent, while he got a try for himself, an assist and ran the ball excellently.
Ryan Papenhuyzen was excellent at the back once again, and while James Tedesco had a much-improved performance, the Melbourne custodian got one over his opposite number, while Brandon Smith grew into his role the longer the game went on.
To go from being a utility forward for a few seasons to filling in for the best hooker in the competition isn’t an easy task, but he looked to be handling it well by the end of the game.
Combine a functioning spine with a forward pack who simply rolled the middle third for much of the game, and it’s little wonder the scoreline ended up as lopsided as it did.
What may have been even more impressive was the fact Christian Welch took control of the forwards, running for almost 200 metres, while other youngsters Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui both played roles.
While the Storm now have the wood over the Roosters for this season with a pair of victories from a pair of games, it’s the little things which will win the premiership. Unforced errors and sloppy defence aren’t necessarily a hand-in-hand by-product of injuries, but the Roosters had more of that last night than they have.
That’s not to say they have been perfect with the ball in recent times though. Even in that game of the season last time against Melbourne, they made well into the double digits when it came to errors. It was more of the same last night, but it’s a trend which has been steadily getting worse while their injury crisis has deepened.
Maybe it’s that Trent Robinson’s structure requires incredible players to pull it off. Maybe it’s why they have been so unbeatable for 24 months, because injuries simply haven’t been a huge problem at Bondi.
But if they can’t work it out in a hurry, then a top-four finish will sail away from them.
And while I have already noted you’d be a brave man to write the Roosters off completely, they aren’t on the same level as the Storm this season, who have just kept rolling in the face of their own adversity, with a combined 139-point winning margin across their unbeaten streak since they last played the Roosters.
It’s worth noting that these aren’t the only two teams in the competition, but where the Storm differ from other high-performing teams like the Panthers and Eels is experience.
They have been there. They have done this. They know what it takes to win big finals games, and they have the best coach in the competition.
Thursday night’s game proved it beyond all reasonable doubt.
It proved it’s going to take something very, very special to stop the travelling superstars from Melbourne in this chaotic 2020 NRL season.