Sharks v Storm: Five key points
One of the most bitter rivalries in rugby league finished with the Storm clawing one back against their 2016 grand final tormenters. Here are five talking points from their hard-fought 18-13 win.
All eyes on Slater and Holmes
Master v apprentice. Old v new. Past v future. Neither of these two fleet-footed north Queenslanders got picked for Origin I and there was plenty of outcry over both omissions, though 27-Origin veteran Slater's exclusion caused considerably more outrage among Maroons fans than the non-selection of would-be debutant (but current Kangaroo) Holmes. One of the great subplots of this game was the contest between the pair, who each wear the No.1 jersey for their respective clubs. Slater was scrappy early, with some poor pushed passes on attack. But he was also turbo-charged, lapping the youngster in the stats department winning the tackle busts 8-3, the tackles 8-2 and the try assists 1-0, though Holmes won the metres 183-124. Holmes's superb cover tackle to save a Josh Addo-Carr will make the highlight reels but the key play of the game – the match-winning try to Felise Kaufusi – was created by some lovely evasion from Slater late in the game despite rolling an ankle early in the second half.
We don't want to alarm you, but Cameron Smith may be a robot
We're running out of ways to describe the efforts of Storm, Maroons and Kangaroos skipper Smith. Ruled out last week with a sternum injury two days post-Origin and theoretically under a cloud this week, Smith started the match against the Sharks with an absolute masterclass. He kicked a vital 40/20 (his fourth of the year – no other player has more than two thus far) and followed it up with two try assists as his team shot out to a 12-0 lead. He's a couple of months away from breaking Darren Lockyer's record for most top-grade rugby league games ever, having already overtaken the Origin mark last year. He also came up with the pinpoint short kick-off that earned his team its late match-winning try. There are plenty of superlatives we use for our greatest players – gifted, genius, magic and more – but Smith may be the first for whom we can use "perfect".
Lewy laughs at father time
Has there ever been a back-rower who remained so potent after close to 350 games at NRL level or better, 17 years after making his debut? Manly legend Steve Menzies comes to mind but there haven't been many. Three full years after being deemed surplus to requirements in the NSW Origin set-up, Luke Lewis remains one of the most professional and dangerous edge forwards in the NRL. His angled run off a scrappy loose ball to earn his team's first try was magic. That he got rounded up by fellow veteran Billy Slater later in the half is no slight – the fact he was galloping freely down the touchline is more reason to love the man who hasn't played wing in 12 years. Lewis finished with a team-high seven tackle busts to go with his 141 metres, two line breaks and 25 tackles. Please, never retire, Lewy.
Felise for Origin?
It's no secret the Maroons lost the battle of the forwards in Origin I, and for all the talk over whether Slater should have played, he wouldn't have repaired that problem. With the likes of Nate Nyles, Aidan Guerra, Jacob Lillyman and even Sam Thaiday potentially under pressure to retain their spots, an option gathering momentum is a possible Origin debut for Storm back-rower Felise Kaufusi. The Auckland-born Bundaberg Brothers junior wouldn't look out of place in a Maroon jersey – particularly after his two-try effort against the Sharks. Kaufusi has had a breakout season with his minutes, runs and tackles through the roof in the absence of Kevin Proctor and until recently Tohu Harris. His two tries on Thursday were paired with five busts and 33 tackles. Could it be his time?
Storm do it the hard way
Melbourne looked like morals – despite the absence of Cooper Cronk – when they shot out to a 12-0 lead within 10 minutes. From that point though, little went their way. Cronulla's aggro, relentless, in-your-face style continues to put the Storm off their game and they were arguably the better team for the majority of the 70-odd minutes following Melbourne's second try. Cronulla finished with 57 per cent of the ball, and forced three drop-outs to none. They claimed the lead through a slick James Maloney field goal with seven minutes to go. The Storm made 117 more tackles than the Sharks but found a way to win off the back of senior match-winners Smith (with his short kick-off) and Slater (with his late try assists). This was the second time these two rivals have met this year; it's surely (and hopefully) not the last.