It was touted as a heavyweight bout between two sides who hate each other and it even featured some late biff in the Riff, but it was Melbourne who issued a Storm warning that should strike fear into the rest of the NRL.
It was less than a month ago that Craig Bellamy said he was unsure whether the Storm could turn things around to go on a famous premiership run after they’d just lost their fourth game on the trot.
But the legendary Storm coach might need to be a bit more arrogant after three-straight wins, including a statement victory over the defending premiers on Thursday night that has them primed for a top-four finish.
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“It was important for us because we’ve been hanging around the bottom of the top four,” Bellamy said.
“I thought that was our best performance for quite some time. That’s as well as we’ve defended for a year or two.”
The Storm were without halfback Jahrome Hughes (shoulder) but they smelled blood in the water and feasted on the makeshift Panthers spine in a performance reminiscent of years gone by when they were the NRL’s apex predators.
It was a night to remember for the small contingent of Storm fans at BlueBet Stadium, and it was Melbourne’s biggest human who stole the show with a brutal display in an unfamiliar role.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona was like a wrecking ball on the right, terrorizing Penrith’s edge defenders while at the same time blunting Viliame Kikau’s impact by simply clogging up gaps in the line.
The man mountain relished the extra room out wide with 62 meters, five tackle busts and three offloads in a barnstorming 37-minute stint as the visitors racked up an insurmountable 16-0 lead by halftime.
While he did plenty in attack, his most telling play was in defense when he somehow denied a rampaging Kikau over the line, which then led to David Nofoaluma’s first try in Storm colors from the ensuing set.
Injuries mount for mountain men
They’ve enjoyed one of the smoothest years imaginable, but things are starting to look a bit rough for the Panthers just a few weeks out from the finals.
The defending premiers were missing starting halves Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai as well as powerhouse prop James Fisher-Harris, while they were also dealt a massive blow before kick-off when courageous fullback Dylan Edwards was ruled out after he copped a battering in Canberra last week.
Things got worse on Thursday night with NSW representative Liam Martin rolling his left ankle so badly that he had to be helped from the field by two trainers and was on crutches in the dressing room.
Penrith’s depth is the envy of the league but even they can’t win the comp if they continue to rack up injuries every week, and Thursday’s performance will give their rivals hope that they are in fact fallible.
The mass changes took their toll with the Panthers producing their worst half of football at home since 2017.
They enjoyed the bulk of possession and territory after the break but couldn’t cross the stripe as they were held scoreless at home for the first time since 2015 against who else but the Storm.
“I thought there were some combination issues for us tonight,” Ivan Cleary said. “It was a good lesson for our younger guys.”
Justin Olam has failed to match his dazzling form of 2021, but the center built of granite produced his best game of the season as a replenished Storm backline showed how potent it can be when the troops are back on deck.
The hitman produced two monstrous shots in defense that Jaeman Salmon and Brian To’o will be feeling for weeks, but it was his dazzling speed that caught the Panthers by surprise.
Olam scorched his way down the sideline to set up the returning Nick Meaney with a pinpoint chip kick and nearly produced an identical play for Cameron Munster to end the half.
oh so close
Waqa Blake produced the finish of the year last week but it would’ve been a short time at the top if Xavier Coates had been able to pull off the most miraculous grounding of all time.
The Storm winger’s body was in Melbourne yet he somehow managed to stretch his arm towards the line, only for the ball to come free an inch from the line after a big shot by Charlie Staines.
It wasn’t the only unique piece of play with Tui Kamikamica playing a big part in Brandon Smith’s try when he pushed ‘the Cheese’ into a hole before he sped straight past Staines.