The Storm produced their best as the Warriors' improvement continued in a thrilling Anzac Day contest in Melbourne.
High-quality affair with flair galore
Both sides rose to the occasion of the annual Anzac Day clash in one of the best games of the season. There were plenty of thrilling passages of play and enough highlights to keep any sports fan entertained.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy shared the sentiment of a thrilling contest.
"It was a tough game of footy, a fairly quick game of footy and there was a bit in there for everyone, whether you like a bit of defence or attack," Bellamy said.
"It was a see-sawing game. It was hard to enjoy as coach or a player involved but people who weren't Storm or Warriors supporters would've enjoyed it as well. It was a high-quality game of footy and it was fortunate we got home in the end."
You wouldn't have predicted a close contest by looking at the teams' respective standings on the table but both sides threw everything they could at their opposition. With a host of international representative stars such as Kieran Foran, Billy Slater, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Jesse Bromwich and Shaun Johnson, the 22,153-strong crowd were certainly sent home satisfied with the spectacle.
Storm's most complete performance
With their strongest line-up available so far this season – minus the last-minute withdrawal of second-rower Kenny Bromwich who was absent due to his partner going into labour with their first child – the Storm provided their most complete performance of the year.
"(It was) most definitely our best game all year," Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith said.
"We started with a lot of energy and we backed that up in the second half.
"The attack and the defence didn't fall away at all so that was a very pleasing aspect about tonight."
After eight rounds the Storm sit atop the Telstra Premiership ladder with easily the best defensive record in the league – conceding 99 points after eight games – while their attacking game is ranked eighth but continues to improve.
Warriors continue to show promising signs
While the Warriors sit in 12th position with a 3-5 record, there are plenty of reasons for New Zealand fans to remain optimistic. Since Foran's addition to the side, the Warriors look more polished and captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Shaun Johnson are reaping the benefits of having less organisational responsibilities. The Warriors spine looked immensely threatening at times and wrestled the lead midway through the second half.
Bellamy paid credit to his opponents and expects them to quickly bounce back.
"They played really well tonight and they played really well last week too in Canberra (in a hard-fought 20-8 loss) which they continued tonight," Bellamy said.
"They've got a big win just around the corner somewhere and it won't be too long I imagine."
While disappointed with the defeat, Warriors coach Stephen Kearny praised his side's heartening performance.
"It was a wonderful effort," Kearny said. "It came down to the back end of the game and how it finished – it was a real credit to our guys. The improvement is (in) making sure we continue to do that and we come out as winners next time."
Clutch execution the difference
The Warriors held a 14-12 lead in the second half but the Storm's clutch execution down the stretch was what got them home. Behind several key plays of the 'big three' of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Smith, Melbourne wriggled their way in front despite the best efforts of an inspired Warriors side.
Kearny admitted the last 15 minutes proved crucial in the result.
"They've got some handy players that know how to manage that part of the game well," Kearny said. "Both footy teams were fatigued at that time but they've got some smart guys that know how to manage the backend of a game.
"We (need to) make sure we stick to a process which we've been working really hard on all year. When those opportunities present themselves in a high-pressured game like tonight, we've got to make sure we capitalise on them."
Top-of-the-table clash looms
The Storm's season-best performance propelled them to the top of the NRL ladder as outright leaders, setting up a salivating clash against the second-placed St George-Illawarra Dragons at WIN Stadium next Sunday. The Dragons are coming off a heart-breaking 13-12 extra-time loss to the Sydney Roosters in their Anzac Day affair. With Gareth Widdop expected to miss a month with a knee injury, many pundits are claiming the Dragons' honeymoon start to the season is over. However, the red and white will be determined to sustain their strong start with a spirited display in front of their home crowd over the match-favourites in the Storm. It will also see St George-Illawarra's league-leading attack take on the NRL's stingiest defence of Melbourne.