Melbourne have set the stage for what may be a grand final farewell for Cameron Smith after overpowering Canberra 30-10 in their NRL preliminary final.
The evergreen Smith, 37, may not have announced whether this season will mark his swansong but the stage is set for the 19-season veteran to have a fairytale farewell after the Storm qualified for their fourth grand final in five years.
The victory was set-up by a whirlwind start at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
Halfback Jahrome Hughes was inspirational as Melbourne raced to a point a minute 24-0 lead in the preliminary final and the Raiders never recovered, ensuring their 26-year title drought continues.
Hughes set up three tries as Melbourne snapped Canberra’s five-game winning run and seal their 20th straight win in Queensland in front of 37,112 fans.
The Raiders came out firing after trailing 24-6 at halftime but in the end their dream of booking back to back grand finals came unstuck at their bogey venue Suncorp Stadium where they have not won since 2010.
In contrast, 429-gamer Smith added another fond memory at a ground where he has savoured State of Origin and Test wins in what may be his last match on his beloved Queensland turf with his record-equalling 27th finals win.
He added yet another highlight to his endless reel with a 66th minute try-saving tackle on Nick Cotric before marking his 12th straight win at Suncorp Stadium for club, state and country.
Melbourne sealed the match when comeback king Dale Finucane – in his first game since August after battling a calf complaint – scored to blow the scoreline out to 30-6 in the 63rd minute before a Cotric consolation try.
Canberra had overcome plenty of obstacles this year to be the first fifth-placed team under the new finals format to make a preliminary final.
Their forward pack had been hit hard by injury including co-captain Josh Hodgson (knee) and had spent around 50 hours in transit since the competition’s resumption in May.
They had hung tough until Friday but in the end Melbourne – fresh from a week off – proved too big an obstacle.
The Storm’s only complaint in their 21st win in 26 Suncorp games was Brenko Lee being placed on report for a 58th-minute high shot on winger Semi Valemei.
The Storm raced to a 16-0 lead before many had taken their seats, running in three tries in the first 10 minutes with up to 10,000 fans still trying to get into the venue due to a ticket system glitch.
Most did witness the highlight in the 10th minute when Hughes regathered his own kick from a Raiders ricochet and flicked the ball to winger Suliasi Vunivalu who evaded three defenders to score down the sideline.
Meanwhile, Canberra’s Hudson Young may be in trouble for a suspected 38th minute crusher tackle on Tino Fa’asuamaleaui while Storm hooker Brandon Smith suffered a suspected facial injury in the 39th minute.