The Melbourne Storm confirmed a top-two finish with a clinical 38-18 win over arch-rivals Manly on Saturday night. Winger Suliasi Vunivalu shot to the top of the try-scoring list with a four-try haul as Cooper Cronk firmed as Dally M favourite.
Vunivalu's record-breaking night
It is a 40-minute blitz Storm winger Suliasi Vunivalu is unlikely to forget any time soon.
Having gone a month without scoring, the competition's equal-leading try-scorer flexed his muscles with a freakish first half against the Sea Eagles that yielded four tries.
Not since Manly's David Williams in 2012 had a player crossed four times in a half of footy, and Vunivalu's haul drew him level with former Storm sensation Israel Folau's record of 21 tries in a rookie season.
On a night full of highlights, Storm coach Craig Bellamy singled out the flying Fijian's final try – an effort that saw him come infield to claim a Cooper Cronk kick and fight his way to the line – as the pick of the bunch.
"The try right on half-time probably wasn't a kick that was right on the spot where he wanted it – or where we wanted it – but he had to catch it and do a bit of work, so I think that goes to show his class and ability," he said.
"We'd like to think that he'll be a really good player for a long time."
It could have been an even more prolific night had Vunivalu not been chased down by Sea Eagles prop Josh Starling late in the first half.
"I think he was tired there at one stage when he broke through and Josh Starling ran him down, so he could have had five [tries] probably," Bellamy joked.
"Everyone got a shock when Josh got him – I think Josh got a shock too."
Cooper Cronk on track for second Dally M
While Vunivalu deservedly drew most of the praise on Saturday, the form of some of his teammates can't go unnoticed.
Cameron Munster was superb at fullback, setting up two tries and breaking eight tackles, while skipper Cameron Smith kicked a 40/20 in the opening minute of the game and crossed for his first try of the season.
But the man who pulled the strings was Cooper Cronk, with the halfback laying on four tries to take his tally to 21 assists for the season.
Cronk was in a four-way tie at the top of the Dally M leaderboard when voting went behind closed doors after Round 16, and has produced two – if not three – man-of-the-match performances in the weeks since.
The 32-year-old won the award in 2013 and appears to be the front-runner to win it again this season.
"Seeing him play that way is normal to us," teammate Tohu Harris told NRL.com after the game.
"He's the ultimate professional and he puts in every week he runs out for us. Seeing him play like this isn't anything different."
Cronk is also on track to rack up NRL game 300 should the Storm make the preliminary final. It's a fact not lost on the playing group.
"A milestone like that is something very few people get so it's going to be a special moment for him and the club," Harris said. "We're going to want to put in our best effort for Cooper."
Brad Parker Manly's shining light
The night might have been soured by the late withdrawal of skipper Jamie Lyon with a hamstring injury, but his absence paved the way for promising youngster Brad Parker to make a name for himself in just his second NRL game.
The 19-year-old made his debut for the Sea Eagles in the Round 19 win over the Warriors, and is young enough to play Holden Cup in 2017.
Despite his inexperience, Parker was far from daunted against the Storm, scoring a double and breaking four tackles in a performance that was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak night.
"We can't make the semi-finals but it's an opportunity for guys like Brad," Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett said.
"He's still eligible to play NYC, and I think he will be again next year. He was terrific tonight. He did a really good job for us when we beat the Warriors six or seven weeks ago and he was terrific again tonight."
Storm confirm top two, but the job isn’t done
Saturday night's win ensured the Storm would finish the regular season either first or second, guaranteeing the Melbournians a home semi-final in week one of the post-season.
While naturally pleased with his side's position after 24 rounds, Storm skipper Cameron Smith says the next fortnight will be crucial preparation for the business end of the season.
The Storm host the resurgent Broncos next week before taking on the second-placed Sharks in the final round of the season, and Smith knows the importance of making a statement at this time of the year.
"We're locked in the top two now, but we're playing against the Brisbane Broncos and Cronulla, and those teams will be involved in the finals," he said.
"There's a huge chance that we might play one of those teams again in maybe the first week if not the second game of the finals.
"We want to build from tonight. There are still a few things that we need to work on and we can be better at. There's no putting on the slippers now that we know that we're guaranteed top two."
Manly left to lament poor first half
They might have drawn the second half 12-all, but the tale of the tape is that Manly were simply outclassed in the first 40 minutes by the Storm.
Melbourne went into half-time with a commanding 26-6 lead, and while the Sea Eagles managed to stay in touch in the second stanza, the damage had already been done.
The Storm finished the match ahead in most of the key stats: they made eight more line breaks, doubled Manly's offloads, ran for 500 extra metres and missed 13 fewer tackles.
Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett was pleased with his side's second-half resolve, but admitted the first half wasn't good enough.
"It's pretty hard to fault the effort of our guys," Barrett said.
"We were our own worst enemies in the first half with three tries on last plays really hurt. We didn't control the ruck at all. They played the ball way too quick for us and we couldn't buy a penalty."
Sea Eagles stand-in skipper Jake Trbojevic echoed his coach's sentiments after the loss.
"We wanted to finish off the season well, so to start like that it is pretty poor – it's pretty frustrating," he said.
"Everyone was pretty dirty on themselves, but it was pleasing to come out in the second half and put in a better performance."