It was a season highs, lows and highs again for the 2012 premiers
Photo: Getty Images
After a shock loss to the Warriors in the 2011 preliminary finals, a season in which they were expected to win the flag, the smart money was again on Melbourne to win it all in 2012.
Certainly, it seemed the Storm were on their way to a cathartic premiership after they charged out of the gate with nine straight wins to begin the season.
But Craig Bellamy's men fell into a hole in the latter half of the campaign, winning just one game between rounds 13 and 22 and fading to a shadow of their former selves in the process.
Somehow, when it seemed impossible, Melbourne trounced South Sydney in the first week of the finals to set up a preliminary final berth, then handed Manly an absolute belting to advance to their fifth grand final in seven years.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Round 6: North Queensland 18-42 Melbourne
Melbourne’s superb start to the season continued with a sixth straight win, this time in Townsville against the gifted Cowboys.
Melbourne had scored the opening try in each of the first five rounds, but in this match Matt Bowen put the home side ahead after just two minutes. Although the Cowboys scored two more tries, for the remainder of the match the Storm were in control.
Will Chambers, Kevin Proctor and Matt Duffie all scored doubles. Gareth Widdop, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith were outstanding playmakers and the Cowboys had no answers to the fluency of Melbourne’s attack.
Cronk had five try assists, and his cross-field kick for Duffie’s soaring take and subsequent try in the 74th minute was the highlight of the match.
Round 10: Cronulla 12-10 Melbourne
The undefeated Storm travelled to Cronulla to face a Sharks outfit that had won six of its first nine games. Isaac Gordon scored early for the home team, Melbourne hit back through Dane Nielsen, and then took the lead in the 27th minute with a Duffie try that went unconverted. Cronulla’s grinding work was rewarded in the 71st minute when Jeremy Smith smashed across from dummy-half and Todd Carney converted truly. In the closing minutes there were several close calls but Gordon stopped Slater one-on-one, and soon after defused a Cronk bomb to ensure the impressive victory. Although missing skipper Paul Gallen, the Sharks defended manfully and conceded just one line break to Melbourne. The Sharks won the battle of the forwards despite another good game from Ryan Hoffman. Slater had a rare shocker, making six errors and being sin-binned.
Round 15: Manly 22-Melbourne 26
This was the Storm’s first visit back to Sydney’s northern beaches since the infamous Battle of Brookvale in 2011. Manly had only lost once at Brookie in 2012 up to this point, but a Storm side minus Billy Slater showed grit and creativity to claim victory and go three wins clear at the top of the ladder. Early tries to Todd Lowrie and Smith gave Storm the ideal start but three four-pointers in a dozen minutes to the home side gave them an 18-12 half-time lead. In the second stanza Melbourne’s defence tightened up, conceding only one score – on the final siren. Second-half tries to Brian Norrie and Duffie ensured victory over Storm’s arch-rivals. Smith was outstanding in the unusual role of five-eighth, shuffled there to allow Widdop to move to fullback while Ryan Hinchcliffe deputised at hooker. Jason Ryles and Jesse Bromwich won the battle of the props, and Duffie’s acrobatic aerial catch for a try provided another item for his bulging highlight reel.
Round 20: Parramatta 16-10 Melbourne
Storm’s topsy-turvy year hit a new low with this loss. After a sensational start to the season, Melbourne won only once between rounds 13 and 22 and tumbled from the top of the ladder. The nadir was defeat at the hands of the Eels, a team which had won just three games and been defeated 14 times in the season. The knives that were being sharpened for Parra coach Steve Kearney had to be put back in the draw as his team upset the might of Melbourne. The Eels scored the first two tries. Melbourne replied through Rory Kostjasyn on the stroke of half-time, and Hoffman added another try in the 78th minute, but a 70th-minute effort by veteran Nathan Hindmarsh sunk the visitors. Hoffman worked hard and Melbourne enjoyed a heap of possession, but this was a team that had forgotten how to score. After the match, Craig Bellamy openly pondered whether the Storm would even make the finals given its horrible form.
Qualifying final: Melbourne 24-6 South Sydney
The Storm saved their best performance in two months for the first week of the finals. On a slippery night at AAMI Park, the second-place finisher put third-placed Souths to the sword with an energetic first half and earned a direct passage to the preliminary finals. Hoffman opened the scoring when, still wobbly from a head-knock, he finished a passage of play that began with a 50-metre Slater break. Billy was back to his best, scoring one try and setting up two others. The third try for the first half went to local boy Mahe Fonua, who was safe under the high ball and enterprising in attack all night. The 18-0 half-time lead was stretched to 24-0 soon after resumption when Sisa Waqa dotted down. For the rest of the game the Storm played conservatively, content to roll through sets, milk the clock and secure the win with minimal effort. Hoffman was the best player afield with 121m and 30 tackles, while Jaiman Lowe came off the bench to repeatedly bend the Rabbitohs’ line. Cameron Smith controlled the tempo beautifully, and the Melbourne faithful dared to dream that 2012 might bring more glory.
Grand final: Melbourne 14-4 Bulldogs
The Storm’s topsy-turvy year ended on the ultimate high with a decisive victory in the premiership decider. Melbourne conceded just four tries for the entire finals series, and defensive excellence was again the key to the grand final win. Hoffman put Storm ahead after just seven minutes. For most of the first half Storm was camped in the Bulldogs’ territory, and by the time they had completed 11 sets the Dogs had completed just two. However the minor premiers’ defence was resolute, and Sam Perrett’s try in the 26th minute levelled the scores. It also precipitated a brawl in which James Graham bit Slater’s ear. Billy had the best possible revenge with a try soon after, and Justin O’Neill ran onto a Cronk chip to score Storm’s third just on half-time. The score at the break was 14-4 and it remained that way for the final 40 minutes. Both sides defended magnificently, and while the Bulldogs enjoyed a greater share of possession in the second half Melbourne gave them little time and space in which to be creative.
Smith had a bad night with the boot, slotting only one goal from five attempts, which kept the margin closer than it should have been. However the Storm skipper was exemplary in every other facet of the game. Cronk won the Clive Churchill Medal for setting up two tries and controlling field position with his long kicking. Brian Norrie was the best prop on the field and in tandem with Jesse Bromwich blunted the vaunted Bulldogs big men. The Storm did not have a bad player and the club was a worthy grand final winner for a fourth time – providing its second premiership.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport