Take a look at the Melbourne Storm's road to the finals as they prepare to play the South Sydney Rabbitohs in week one of the Telstra Premiership Finals.
1. The great escape
Melbourne’s 2012 campaign very nearly got off to a rocky start with one of the pre-season competition favourites trailing Canberra 19-18 with just five minutes on the clock. At that stage all the running was with the Raiders, who had recovered from an early 12-0 deficit and trailed 18-12 midway through the second half before taking the lead through a Josh Dugan field goal. But with five minutes remaining, Cooper Cronk placed a deft chip towards the posts and Billy Slater leapt highest to score a thrilling match-winner as the Storm snuck home 24-19.
2. Nine in a row
After that close call in Round 1, Melbourne embarked on a remarkable nine-match winning streak to start the season as they announced to their premiership rivals that they were still very much the team to beat. Their run saw them score 40+ points on three separate occasions – against the Roosters, North Queensland and Penrith – as well as knocking off top-eight rivals Canberra, Souths and Canterbury.
3. Billy Slater brilliance
Billy Slater was simply unstoppable early in the season, scoring nine tries in his first five games including doubles against the Raiders, Rabbitohs, Titans and Roosters. Having scored two tries in each of his first four games, he then fell one try short of becoming the first player in 100 years to make it doubles in his first five. He also broke the record for most tries scored in premiership history by a fullback when he scored his 130th against the Gold Coast in Round 3.
4. Discards step up
Questions abounded over how Melbourne’s pack would perform this season given they had lost enforcer Adam Blair, but veterans Jason Ryles, Bryan Norrie and Jaiman Lowe proved there is no substitute for experience with a series of dominant displays. Ryles, of course, had been punted by the Roosters just a few months earlier and clearly had a point to prove; Norrie was only thrown a lifeline by the Storm a few years back on minimum wage due to a rising injury toll; and Lowe received a similar call last season after battling to cement a regular spot in the South Sydney pack.
5. Two huge wins
Two of Melbourne’s biggest wins this season came against Penrith, who they thrashed 44-10 in Round 9 and 46-6 in Round 22 for a combined score of 90-16. And they were significant for a number of reasons. The first signalled the last win of their nine-game winning streak to start the season, while the second ended a five-game losing streak that had threatened to derail their campaign in the wake of the representative period.
6. Battle of Brookie revisited
After their infamous 2011 clash at Brookvale Oval that saw Adam Blair suspended for five weeks and Glenn Stewart three weeks, Manly and Melbourne squared off at the same venue again in Round 15 with the Storm prevailing this time 26-22. In a classic encounter, Melbourne raced to an early 12-0 lead before a late Sea Eagles flurry saw them claim an 18-12 half-time lead. However, tries to Bryan Norrie and Matt Duffie after the break saw them reclaim the lead. Cameron Smith then sealed victory with a penalty goal extending the lead to eight before Manly crossed late to narrow the gap.
7. Life without Billy
A knee injury to star fullback Billy Slater suffered in State of Origin II not only had Queensland officials searching for a replacement for the decider, it also caused heart palpitations at Melbourne. In no small part due to Slater’s absence, the Storm embarked on a shock five-match losing streak between Rounds 16-21 including a 40-12 thrashing at home to Canberra and a 16-10 loss to eventual wooden-spooners Parramatta.
8. Sublime set play
Melbourne’s big three is the heart and soul of the club and true to form, the trio has perfected a set play that has become their trademark over the past two seasons. It’s all pretty simple really. If the Storm manages a quick play-the-ball on the right edge, Cameron Smith will fire a pass from dummy-half to Cooper Cronk down the short side and he will pass inside to a flying Billy Slater to slice through. The beauty of this set play is that every side in the comp knows they’re going to do it, yet rarely can they stop it. In particular Cronk’s attack has been devastating in 2012, with 29 try assists and 24 line-break assists for team-mates (ranking him second to Benji Marshall in both categories)..
9. Benchmark kicking game
The Storm boasts the best long-kicking game in the NRL. With the dual weapons of Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith often sharing the kicking duties, they have averaged more metres from the boot than any other side this season with 635 metres per game and are one of only three sides to find open space more than 60 per cent of the time. They have also kicked more 40/20s this year than any of their opponents (with six).
10. Never Say Die
Never write off the Storm. That’s the message Melbourne sent to their rivals with two remarkable wins in Rounds 24 and 25. The first saw them come back from an early 12-0 deficit to snatch a thrilling 19-18 win over Brisbane thanks to a late Cooper Cronk field goal; the second saw them score two tries in the final two minutes to overcome an 18-10 deficit and steal a 20-18 win against Cronulla. Seemingly gone, Ryan Hoffman reached out to put Melbourne within striking distance with the clock ticking down, then Sisa Waqa produced a brilliant play when he darted down the short side from dummy-half before putting Will Chambers over in the corner.