Melbourne Storm 17 def St George Illawarra Dragons 16
THE opening game of the 2009 NRL season delivered fans a Golden Point thriller, with Craig Bellamy and Wayne Bennett’s charges displaying September-like form rather than that expected from a first-up March hit-out.
The lead changed three times in the opening 40, with the Dragons heading to the sheds up 8-4 courtesy of a gift four-pointer to captain Ben Hornby who strolled over unopposed after Storm winger Anthony Quinn had the ball jolted from his grasp in a tough Dragons hit.
But discipline cost the visitors dearly in the second stanza; extra possession from penalties and mistakes saw the Storm’s experienced stars Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk post tries in the 47th and 65th minutes to take a seemingly comfortable 16-10 lead.
However, warhorse winger Wendell Sailor awoke from a haze to conjure the game-tying play. With his trademark short-step stutter and fend, he shrugged off a host of Storm defenders, crabbing cross-field from his right wing. He then zoomed down the left flank and gave a perfectly timed (if questionable) pass to Matt Cooper who crossed over. Jamie Soward’s conversion sailed over the black dot and the Olympic Park crowd settled back for a few more minutes of action.
The Game Swung When… The Dragons were unable to contain the Storm within their in-goal zone after a precise Jamie Soward cross-kick on the fifth tackle in the 45th minute. They couldn’t even place them under pressure by restricting their field position to within a few metres of their tryline.
Instead, Greg Inglis was eventually pulled down on halfway. Three tackles later Billy Slater was popped a short ball from Cameron Smith and the Storm had the momentum and a 10-8 lead. It was basic stuff; Wayne Bennett would have been livid.
Also, the game was gone for the Dragons when skipper Hornby was pinged for a leg pull in defence in the opening minute of extra time; the Storm were never pegged in their own territory again and minutes later Inglis calmly potted the match-winner from in front.
Who Was Hot… Greg Inglis (13 runs for 141 metres) was mercurial and always had the Dragons’ defence in two minds. They hung off him when he received the ball in the Dragons’ 10-metre zone in the 15th minute – give Inglis four strides unopposed and you’re asking for trouble. The Storm no.6 spied his opposite Jamie Soward on his line and made a beeline for him for an easy four points.
Storm second-rower Jeff Lima powered through his work, recording 38 tackles and 16 hit-ups for 107 metres in just 54 minutes. And prop Adam Blair was punishing (29 tackles, 13 hit-ups for 93 metres).
For the Dragons, slimmed-down ex-Raider Michael Weyman made 19 telling charges for 171 metres. Bench forward Matt Prior made good impact with 12 runs for 99 metres in just 42 minutes. And Wendell Sailor was deceptively productive – he made 16 runs for 171 metres. Darius Boyd did some good things at fullback.
Who Was Not… The jury is out on Sailor. Had he not come up with his crucial try assist just two minutes before halftime the critics would have been baying for his blood.
He does appear big and sluggish. And his kick into touch on the run (the ball travelled two metres in the air) in the 36th minute was laughable. But then he eluded six players in a crucial 60-metre run. He’s a conundrum, Wendell.
Also, Wayne Bennett has his work cut out hiding Jamie Soward in defence more effectively. He missed five tackles on the night.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Straight after Wendell kicked the ball out on the full Dean Young won a scrum for the Dragons against the feed.
It wasn’t because Cooper Cronk fed it into the tunnel or towards the Dragons’ pack. Nor did Young strike early for the ball. Cameron Smith half-rucked it back before Young stretched out and hooked it back through the scrum to the bemusement of halfback Ben Hornby. Very 1970s. And great to watch.
Bad Boys… It didn’t go on report, nor did it attract any attention but Billy Slater gave a touch judge a real serve when things didn’t go his way in the 27th minute.
Jeff Lima’s ‘chicken wing’ tackle on Michael Weyman in the 22nd minute earned him a Dangerous Contact charge but he’ll be free to play in Round 2 given an early guilty plea.
Injuries… Storm lock Dallas Johnson is suffering a badly bruised hip and is in doubt for the Round 2 clash with the Broncos. Greg Inglis suffered a knee strain and will be monitored through the week.
Ref Watch… Make that ‘Refs Watch’. There’s no doubt the extra on-field official has made rugby league an even faster game. In this clash Shayne Hayne and Gavin Badger worked cohesively – although it became apparent differences in rules interpretations will be an ongoing bug in 2009.
It also signalled that defenders will have to be squeaky clean when targeting opposition kickers, with even the slightest contact likely to incur a penalty.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Greg Inglis (Storm): Left the Dragons spellbound with his attack and seized the moment to kick the decisive drop-goal; 2 points – Jeff Lima (Storm): No show pony but got through more work in both attack and defence than any player on the field; 1 point – Michael Weyman (Dragons): Looks more of an athlete under Bennett’s coaching and always got over the advantage line.
Storm 17 (G Inglis, B Slater, C Cronk tries; C Smith 2 goals, G Inglis field goal) def Dragons 16 (B Hornby, M Cooper tries; J Soward 4 goals) at Olympic Park. Crowd: 14,870.