The honeymoon is over. Des Hasler will go into the most anticipated clash of the year, against former club Manly at ANZ Stadium on Friday week, with a Canterbury side that has dropped three of its past four games.
The Bulldogs were unable to stop Melbourne from recording their seventh straight win, equalling their best start to a season. But while another Bulldogs loss will lower the lofty expectations placed upon them after opening the season with three successive victories, their spirited performance wouldn't have lost them any fans.
The difference was a Ryan Hoffman try, scored three minutes into the second half. But for much of the game the visitors had the measure of the premiership favourites. Had they taken their opportunities, they may have completed the game's toughest road trip with competition points.
So how do you beat the Storm? This is how the Dogs tried to do it; by getting to their kick; by booting the ball into touch rather than allowing Billy Slater to return it; and by coming up quickly off their line. They almost did it.
The game wasn't over until the final seconds. With the clock ticking down, the Bulldogs launched one last desperate raid, with Ben Barba almost putting Bryson Goodwin in for a try in the left-hand corner. But the cover defence held firm and an upset was averted. The Storm will now prepare for their biggest challenge yet - the representative season.
Hasler spoke of his team's desire to test themselves against the competition benchmark and they responded.
There were many intriguing individual battles, including those between the custodians and coaches. But the one that would reverberate long after full-time was the clash of the hookers. Cameron Smith came into the match battling the flu but had to contend with another nuisance once he got on the pitch. Michael Ennis may be the incumbent NSW No.9 but already he is playing catch up, with Danny Buderus slightly ahead leading into the opening interstate encounter. So what better way to claim a stake as the rake than to outplay your Queensland counterpart. In the end, the honours were shared. A renowned niggler, the opposition wasn't Ennis's only target. The skipper exchanged heated words with pivot Josh Reynolds as the pair went up the tunnel at half-time. The pair were then captured on the Fox Sports footage still remonstrating once they got into the sheds. Bizarre scenes.
There were just two tries in the first half and both were orchestrated by the hookers. Ennis got in first, providing a clever ball for Greg Eastwood to barge over from close range. Then it was Smith's turn from dummy half, putting Ryan Hinchcliffe over after the Test bolter ran a terrific line. Given the Storm completed 16 of their 18 sets in the first stanza, the visitors did well to limit them to just one try.
Hasler would have been pleased with his team's effort but they must now convert those into a win. They will meet an even more determined opponent on Friday week. The team he left.
MELBOURNE 12 (R Hinchcliffe R Hoffman tries C Smith 2 goals) bt BULLDOGS 6 (G Eastwood try S Turner goal) at AAMI Park. Referee: Matt Cecchin, Adam Devcich. Crowd: 14,912.