Broncos v Storm: Five key points
The Storm will take winning form into the NRL finals series after defeating an injury-affected Broncos side on their own turf on Thursday night. Here are the key points from that match.
Munster shapes as Storm x-factor
In a team that has built a dynasty on clinical precision, 20-year-old Cameron Munster is the x-factor that has the Storm poised for yet another premiership push. Considered to not have the depth to deliver consistently outstanding performances at the start of the season, Melbourne were all but written off as genuine contenders when Billy Slater's season finished mid-year but Munster has not just filled in but provided a point of difference. Wearing bright pink boots highlighting the fact that he is not afraid to stand out, the Rockhampton product was named Man of the Match for a performance that included 224 metres from 20 runs, a try assist, a line-break assist, a line break and seven tackle busts.
He earned high praise from both Peter Sterling and Wally Lewis throughout Channel Nine's commentary and certainly caught the attention of experienced Broncos players who struggled to limit his influence.
"A lot of opposition over the past month thought he was going to be quite easy to handle but he hasn't been," said Storm captain Cameron Smith.
"I was just speaking to Sammy Thaiday after the game and he said, 'What about that Munster kid? How strong is he?' He doesn't look it but he's just hard to bring down, got a great fend but he just enjoys playing the game and I think that's really important.
"We just want him to do his job that we ask him to do every week and if he can continue to build on what he's done over the last 4-6 weeks then I think we'll be pretty happy with that."
Storm's mental strength a finals trump card
With two hard-fought wins over top-four teams in less than a week, Melbourne have proven that early predictions of their demise were premature. Only three times in the club's history have they failed to make the finals and if their great rivals Manly can do them a favour and knock off the Sharks on Sunday, they will finish the regular season in fourth position. The core group of senior players remains largely intact but the mental strength shown by the squad's younger players over the past month has delighted their captain.
"The young blokes certainly have stood up over the last couple of weeks," Cameron Smith said. "We were playing against two very good sides and we managed to play extremely well against both and all the young guys from last week have backed up and played well.
"It's pleasing that these young players are playing well. The senior guys guide the team in the match but they're the guys who provide the energy and the enthusiasm most of the time and we certainly need them at this time of the year."
Coach Craig Bellamy was effusive in his praise for how his entire squad had handled the challenge of three games in 10 days to round out the regular season.
"I don't think I could be more proud of what they did tonight after the schedule that we've had," Bellamy said after his team recorded their eighth win over a finals-bound team this season.
"The longer it went the grittier we got and I'm really proud of what they've done."
Finals opponent set, Cowboys the club champs
With their loss to the Storm on Thursday night the Broncos will definitely host North Queensland in Week One of the Telstra Premiership Finals Series, the Cowboys claiming the club championship with the Broncos' losses in both grades.
The third-placed Broncos NYC side was smashed 48-12 by a Storm team they had themselves thrashed 74-6 earlier in the season and with the first grade side going down 15-8 the Cowboys can't be caught at the top of the club championship ladder ahead of their clash with the Titans on Saturday night.
It will be the third time and second year in succession that the Cowboys and Broncos have met in a finals series but it will be the first time they have played a finals game at Suncorp Stadium.
"I'm really pleased at what they've done and where they've finished," Broncos coach Wayne Bennett said of his team's finishing position after 26 rounds.
"Nothing can take No.2 spot from them and that's quite an achievement in itself. We'll enjoy the night knowing that we've had a tremendous home and away season and look forward to the next game we play which will be the Cowboys here."
Hodges farewell can wait
Fans flooded the Suncorp Stadium playing surface to help celebrate the career of Broncos captain Justin Hodges but the 33-year-old was in no mood for farewells.
'Thanks Hodgo' shirts were being sold by the thousands to the 44,000 fans who turned out and he carried son Carter in his arms as he ran onto the field through a guard of honour.
He may come in for some scrutiny by the match review committee for a high shot on Storm opposite Kurt Mann in the 31st minute that didn't draw a penalty but otherwise he'll be back next week to lead his team out against the Cowboys in a Qualifying Final at Suncorp Stadium.
"I don't get too emotional; it's just another regular game," was Hodges' post-game appraisal.
"He hasn't played his last game yet, that's what he was telling me," offered Wayne Bennett.
Taylor makes painful NRL debut
He was entrusted with Brisbane's minor premiership hopes and from next year the playmaking direction of the Titans but Ashley Taylor's NRL career got off to a painful start on Thursday night.
Deputising for Ben Hunt, Taylor's kicking game settled down after his first kick in first grade landed just inches inside the sideline at the end of the opening set but his debut lasted just 29 minutes before he suffered a compound fracture and finger dislocation to two fingers in his right hand in trying to tackle Tohu Harris.
"He's got the off-season now to get over it. It's the game we play and the risks we take," Bennett said of his young half's misfortune.
"I thought he was going good for us, that didn't help our situation with organisation with him gone as well."
Taylor's first NRL involvement was a sixth-tackle kick while being pressured by the Storm and Australian skipper and subsequent bombs from long range landed just short of the Storm try-line.
He was unlucky not to lay on the first try of the night when Matt Gillett cut back on the angle in the 17th minute rather than running off Taylor's hip into a big hole and the three drop-outs he took while on the field each sent the Storm back past halfway.
But the end came too soon and will have a significant impact on the Broncos' title hopes in the under-20s and also his start to pre-season training when he joins the Titans.