You can replace players but you can't replace champions.
Melbourne Storm tried its best to make up for the injury-enforced absence of superstar half-back Cooper Cronk and full-back Billy Slater in Townsville on Saturday night but was no match for North Queensland Cowboys who scored a 22-0 victory.
After being down 16-0 at the half, the Storm showed a few sparks early in the second but then the Cowboys took full advantage of having stars Matthew Scott, James Tamou, Brent Tate and Johnathan Thurston return fit from state of origin on Wednesday night to run away with the match.
The Storm pulled a major selection surprise with the supposedly injured captain Cameron Smith overcoming a high ankle sprain at Origin I, the same game which saw Cronk and Slater also injured, to take his place in the side.
Smith was said to be no chance of playing but he told Fox Sports he had completed a relentless program of physiotherapy and recovery work which left him waking up on Saturday morning with his ankle feeling strong enough to play.
Tohu Harris came in at lock although in truth Harris, Ryan Hinchcliffe and Ben Roberts seemed to switch as needed between five-eighth, hooker and lock depending on the situation.
With rookie Cameron Munster in at fullback for Slater and Smith moving to halfback for Cronk, the Storm side was much different from the one which beat South Sydney two weeks earlier.
Cowboys coach Paul Green knew the Storm would look to their forward pack to win the match. "With the players they had out I think it was always going to turn into that sort of game," Green said. "They still had a very good forward pack ... we came out on top there which was really pleasing."
Smith, who played despite the urgings of his coach Craig Bellamy, said his effort was "nothing special".
"Anyone in our position would have done the same thing," Smith said of himself and NSW representative Ryan Hoffman backing up. "It's our job to back up and play, unfortunately we're down on numbers at the moment. It wasn't hard to put the hand up and play."
Despite the heavy loss, Bellamy was pleased with the effort of his available players. "There was some real good effort out there tonight, without a doubt," he said.
The Storm faced a stern test early as the Cowboys put Munster under a high ball on the first play then driving close to the line on subsequent possessions, but in the first 10 minutes the Storm kept the home side at bay.
The Cowboys looked to be on the board 12 minutes in as Thurston put up a cross-field high ball for winger Matthew Wright.
Storm winger Young Tonumaipea leapt and caught the ball but on his way down Wright appeared to rake the ball out of his hands with Wright then grounding the ball and being given the try.
But the video review judge decided Wright had knocked the ball on so the try was overturned.
While the Storm’s tackling was sound, several holding penalties in the first 15 minutes gifted the Cowboys unnecessary extra possessions – luckily for the visitors their hosts bungled those extra chances.
In the 20th minute the Cowboys had their first try with winger Antonio Winterstein launching himself high into the air to tip back a kick which looked to be sailing out of bounds on the left flag.
Winterstein's tip fell straight into the path of centre Kane Linnett who touched down the ball to put his side on the board, Thurston’s kick hit the post to make it 4-0.
The Cowboys' second try came five minutes before the break when Thurston spotted a gap on the left wing and put Winterstein in for an easy score with Thurston converting to make it 10-0.
Just minutes later Thurston ran in his own try when space opened on the right, his conversion making it 16-0 at half-time.
In attack Smith was trying to move between his customary first receiver position and doing the kicking duties, usually Cronk's domain, on the fifth tackle.
This was the one area of the game in which the Storm struggled with several sets ending with a player being caught in possession on the fifth tackle, the statistics showed this as Storm completed just 10 of 15 sets in the first half compared to the Cowboys' 19 of 26.
That statistic was no better at full time with the Storm having 13 less sets than the Cowboys.
The Storm started the second half with much better intent gaining several sets in the opening minutes but it still struggled to get out of its own half.
Smith, who recorded a team-high 54 tackles, was inspiring at both ends of the field but couldn't find enough game breakers in his own ranks.
The Storm's attacking struggles were compounded when Thurston twice kicked grubbers on the one possession with his second tap kick rolling over the try line, with Michael Morgan touching it down legally to make it 22-0 after 66 minutes.
The Storm's woes could be made worse as Tonumaipea was reported in the first half for a questionable tackle on Tate, with his fate to be decided early this week.
With Cronk and Slater to miss again next match, the Storm now has to find a way to beat the ominous Sydney Roosters at AAMI Park next Sunday.