Storm 46 Panthers 6
Lucky break … Billy Slater makes a break during the Storm's win over the Panthers. Photo: Getty Images
THERE was a feeling that hung around Melbourne Storm's game against Penrith yesterday. It was one of ''surely not''. Despite their worst slump in a decade, surely they could not lose to the Panthers, a team that went into the round-22 game at AAMI Park in 15th place.
The thing was, the only team that has performed worse than Penrith this season, Parramatta, beat the Storm 16-10 two rounds previously. So there was always the what-if factor, especially as the Panthers had won their past two games.
Craig Bellamy demanded a good start from the Storm yesterday and his players' response could not have been much better. Sisa Waqa scored a try after 30 seconds and, by half-time, Melbourne were leading 34-0.
In the end, the 46-6 scoreline included eight tries - some of them scored with absurd ease - including doubles to Waqa, Cooper Cronk and Justin O'Neill, who returned from a groin injury to replace State of Origin representative Dane Nielsen, who was dumped to NSW Cup.
At face value, it appeared the Storm had turned the corner. However, a drop in intensity in the second half translated to a lower completion rate and a display of some of the scrappier play that has blighted their recent form.
Storm captain Cameron Smith said the team had ''a mindset of running through their line rather than taking the easy option of going wide and going around them''.
''At times we've tried to do that over the last couple of weeks, and that's not the way we play our style of football,'' he said. ''It didn't matter who we came up against this week, we just needed to get back to playing that style of football. That's when we're at our best.
''We're not like other sides where we try and play fancy plays and that's what works for us. We play a simple style of football, a basic style of football, and when we're playing well, you hear a lot of people say we look quite boring. Well it's not boring when you're scoring 40 points, I can tell you.''
Bellamy said despite the avalanche of attacks, it was his team's defence that most impressed. ''With the footy, everything went reasonably smoothly, especially in the first half, but the thing that pleased me was our defence,'' he said.
''I don't care who we played today, we had this mentality … they would have to play some good footy to go through us. That's the thing I'm happiest with.
''Whether the side was top of the table, middle of the table, or down near the bottom of the table, it didn't matter to me.
''We had some attitude in defence today and that's what I'll be looking for next week, and the week after that, and the week after that.''
Waqa's first try came from a stunning start, with Penrith caught napping - and that is the only way it can be described - when Smith, Cronk and Billy Slater tore the Panthers' defence open with a move that has been seen several times this year.
A short interchange of passes between the Storm triumvirate, from Smith to Cronk and then inside, led to Slater speeding through a gaping hole in the befuddled defence, before Waqa ran half the length of the field untouched to score.
Just to reinforce that the Storm were ''on'', Cronk nailed a 40-20 kick to place more early pressure on the hapless Panthers.
Ten minutes later, the Panthers' players were caught daydreaming again when the Storm applied a slightly different variation of the move, with Cronk this time cruising through the defence.
It was the first time since mid-June the Storm had their first-choice halves partnership of Cronk and Gareth Widdop in operation. Slater also looked far sharper in his second game since returning from a knee injury but, nearing half-time, he began to limp heavily, although he remained on the field.
The Panthers improved slightly in the second half with Matt Robinson scoring a try.
Panthers' coach Ivan Cleary summed it up as a ''day we'd rather forget''. ''We were pretty bad today,'' he said. ''Defensively, particularly in the first half, I thought we were just way off the pace. When their key players are all playing well, obviously they're going to punish you.''
MELBOURNE 46 (C Cronk 2 J O’Neill 2 S Waqa 2 J Bromwich S Manu tries C Smith 7 goals) bt PENRITH 6 (M Robinson try L Walsh goal) at AAMI Park. Referee: Adam Devcich, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 9,223.