The Melbourne Storm machine has clicked into finals mode, their first victim being a Manly side who some fancied for an upset this weekend.
Now we all know better.
Here’s your talking points from Friday night’s 40-12 belting.
Imperious, clinical, relentless and ruthless.
After twiddling their thumbs through the last six weeks of the regular season and hearing the usual naive commentary about how ‘gettable’ they are, Melbourne got the smell of September in the nostrils and switched up to a level Manly couldn’t match.
The Storm knew early on they had the game how they wanted it, and there wasn’t a better example than going for a try rather than adding a penalty goal when scores were 10-0 after 13 minutes. The Storm knew they were on and they didn’t fear the Sea Eagles at all.
If you are going to beat them, you can’t make any errors. Manly only made four in the first half, but three of those were turned into Storm tries.
When it comes to the Melbourne Storm and finals, they’re in the business of taking souls. It was like the Storm knew what Manly were doing before they even did it – that’s confidence-shredding stuff for an opponent.
The Sea Eagles obviously felt there was joy to be found down Melbourne’s left, with almost all their attack aimed at territory guarded by Cameron Munster, Justin Olam and finals rookie winger Isaac Lumelume.
Lumelume in particular was targeted with runners and kicks, and while he had a couple of howlers which Manly scored from, he did enough good work to break even.
The Sea Eagles certainly weren’t helped by Morgan Harper spilling the ball twice, leading to two Melbourne tries, and him being stripped one-on-one by Cameron Munster leading to another Storm try. There was also a ridiculous last tackle kick when down 0-16 which gave the ball to the Storm for seven tackles, which they promptly took 90 metres and earned another two points from a penalty.
You might get away with those errors against Newcastle or Canberra, but against the Storm? You’re cooked.
Des Hasler might have seen something he liked in the video room, but his team’s execution was deplorable.
It also didn’t help that the Storm had plans of their own down that side of the field. They returned the attention with interest, coming right back at Harper, Haumole Olakau’atu and Jason Saab to score their four first-half tries on Manly’s right edge.
The Sea Eagles came out with much more energy to start the second half, but after seemingly being pinned five metres out from their own line by a great Daly Cherry-Evans kick, the Storm rolled the ball left and blew again through Manly’s right edge for a truly magnificent try, finished by Ryan Papenhuyzen. At 30-6, it was all over bar the shouting.
While all Manly’s attack went right, a side effect was leaving Tom Trbojevic cold out the back. He was rarely involved when the match was up for grabs, and when he did get possession, the Storm pushed him wide and used the angle to close out his space.
Turbo didn’t have a great time in the first 40, especially when he gifted the Storm the ball with a coach-killing error in a play the ball.
He tried to inject himself more in the second half but still found himself being herded into cul-de-sacs. He was clearly putting huge pressure on himself to pull out a trademark ‘Tommy Turbo’ inspiring play to drag his team back into the contest.
As with all things the Storm do, Melbourne planned for him well and they executed to perfection.
But it’s also fair to suggest Manly were so blinded by what they saw on the Storm’s left edge, they didn’t give their best weapon any chance to make an impact.
Bear with me here, because it may seem counterintuitive to say this about a team who just got blasted.
But like many teams who find themselves in a final against the Storm, Manly weren’t horribly bad: they just weren’t perfect.
Daly Cherry-Evans kicked well; they tried to keep the Storm off-balance after halftime with early kicks and more pressure; they obviously had a plan and they defended best they could (away from the aforementioned right edge) before fading late; and they still found themselves done over by a big margin.
But there were undeniable problems. Manly’s forwards were overwhelmed and that was where the game was taken from them. Four of the Storm’s forward pack ran for over 100 metres, while none of Manly’s made triple figures. The Storm outgained Manly overall by 684 metres.
If you’re giving Melbourne that much ground and a platform for Grant, Munster and Hughes, you’re stuffed.
Manly couldn’t scramble in defence to cover their errors and there was also little to no playmaking impact with ball in hand from Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran.
The Sea Eagles now play either the Roosters or Titans. History bodes well for top-four sides in semi-finals, but the Sea Eagles really need to rouse up their forward pack and talk about that left-edge defence if they want to progress.
Scoring tries, hustling to kill off attacking raids in the 73rd minute, running like a man possessed… Welch ran for more metres (153) than the combined output of Manly’s starting front-rowers Marty Tapau and Josh Aloai. In just 38 minutes.
Welch and the rest of the Storm pack enjoyed themselves out there. His impact on the Storm is unmistakeable, with strong runs, quick play-the-balls and solid defence. It’s the hallmarks of what Craig Bellamy wants from a forward, and the perfect mould for what you want in your props.
He’s a beaut.
Never mind the trash talk and fake mind games between Uncle Wayne and Tiger Ivan – it’s Des and Craig who actually put on a show when their teams play each other. Des Hasler is the only current long-term coach with any sort of winning record against Craig Bellamy.
It’s 17-15 to Hasler in regular season games, but now it’s 19-19 all-time thanks to Bellamy’s 4-2 finals advantage (and 2-1 in grand finals).
Will Des get a chance to balance that ledger in 2021? His Sea Eagles have it in them, but now they have to go the harder way, and the gap between these teams has never looked bigger.
One small thing that I hope doesn’t become a big thing. While the Storm might have had the game in hand from a long way out, free-to-air viewers didn’t need to hear 10 minutes of discussion in the Channel Nine booth with Billy Slater about him potentially being the next Queensland State of Origin coach.
This was the first game of the finals series and has absolutely nothing to do with Origin.
Channel Nine just can’t help themselves.
Melbourne put their feet up for a week off before a preliminary final against one of Newcastle, Souths, Penrith or Parramatta.
That week off will be critical for hooker Brandon Smith, who will have extra time to recover after failing his head injury assessment early on in the game.
Halfback Jahrome Hughes would appreciate an extra rest after being hit high what seemed like a dozen times.
Manly will play the winner of Sunday afternoon’s Roosters v Titans elimination final.