An ugly high tackle in the 76th minute of the match was almost enough to hand the Wests Tigers an unlikely victory, but this game will be remembered more for the tries that weren’t scored rather than those that were.
It was hard to watch at times, as both teams butchered certain try-scoring opportunities. At least Melbourne had an excuse – they were playing without their Origin stars. The rep period has not hit them with the same force as it has in the past few years, but any team used to playing with the calibre of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis and Cameron Smith will always struggle to plug their absences.
Without the class of those players to finish their half-breaks, the Storm almost blew their perfect record against the Wests Tigers in Melbourne.
Missing hooker Robbie Farah, the Wests Tigers seemed like they were looking for an Inglis or Slater as finishers…but instead they found Daine Laurie.
The Game Swung When… It took 17 minutes for the first try to be scored, and it was in the 21st minute that the Tigers actually played out a set in the opposition 20 metres. So to be even at six-all in the first half was a huge effort by the Wests Tigers.
Late in the first half though, they could have pulled ahead to be in front at half-time if it weren’t for what coach Tim Sheens called a “raw” Daine Laurie.
Back-rower Gareth Ellis, who was a late inclusion coming back from a thumb injury, split the Melbourne defence and was steaming towards the tryline when the last line of tacklers loomed. Ellis was forced into trying to time his pass perfectly to the support – which was big, dread-locked Laurie steaming downfield. Ellis drew the defender and passed to Laurie, who with his size and strength would have been unstoppable close to the line. However Laurie caught the ball… and then dropped it in the biggest blunder of the game.
As the Tigers desperately tried to deliver the knock-out punch late in the game, a better outcome could have left the Storm chasing from behind.
Who Was Hot… With the Storm missing some of their best backs, it was the forwards who stood up and injected the fight into Melbourne.
In particular Sika Manu, who was playing his fifth game of the year after coming back from injury, was outstanding. In 71 quality minutes he made 166 metres and 37 tackles, backing it up with a solid eight tackle breaks and three offloads.
As for playmaking, as usual Cooper Cronk took over without the Origin stars. He was always busy and with a permanent five-eighth in Brett Finch next to him throughout the match, the Storm are looking a much more cohesive unit during this tough period.
Who Was Not: Laurie’s blunder was crucial to the Tigers and Sheens quickly hooked his rookie prodigy. In his 27 minutes Laurie made just 40 metres and one crucial error.
In his first game back from injury Chris Lawrence struggled to inject himself into the game and the usually fleet-footed centre managed just 68 metres, including just one line break.
In defence, the Storm constantly tested Benji Marshall and he came up with five missed tackles, and just nine tackles overall.
The Tigers as a group missed far too many tackles, with Gareth Ellis the biggest culprit; he missed eight.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed: The high tackle that resulted in the send-off of centre Dane Nielsen was one of the ugliest seen all year.
Luckily it was only a smaller player who inflicted the damage on Beau Ryan, or the result could have been much worse.
The Wests Tigers were launching one of many failed late raids into Melbourne territory in an attempt to steal the match, down by two in the final 10 minutes.
As Ryan got into clear space Nielsen came from nowhere and collected Ryan around his head and neck. A clearly startled Ryan was helped from the field, as Nielsen was marched.
Injuries: All players came through without incident – most were returning from injury.
Refs Watch: Ashley Klein wasted no time in sending Nielson from the field; with four minutes remaining it wasn’t a factor in the outcome of the game. Neilson was later charged with a careless high tackle and will miss two games with an early guilty plea.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Sika Manu (Storm): Getting back to his best. Was destructive and worked hard all game; 2 points – Cooper Cronk (Storm): Learning to share the workload with five-eighth Brett Finch, Cronk scored a try from Finch’s run and is directing play well without Origin stars; 1 point – Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers): Developing into a good playmaker, Ayshford set up a try and scored another.
Storm 14 (C Cronk, M Cross tries; J Tomane 3 goals) defWests Tigers 12 (B Ayshford, T Moltzen tries; B Marshall 2 goals) at Olympic Park. Crowd: 10,417.