IT COULD well be remembered as the NRL grand final when the Bulldogs' bite was worse than their bark. A game in which a single act of ill-discipline overshadowed what was, in the context of their recent history, a moment of incredible triumph for the Storm.
Inevitably, the judiciary will determine if the Bulldogs' English prop James Graham bit the ear of Billy Slater as the pair wrestled outside the touchline. Slater was unequivocal when asked by the referee if he wanted the incident placed on report. "Yeah, f---en oath," Slater said. "He bit me on the ear." The videotape also seemed damning.
2012 NRL Grand Final
All the action from the 2012 NRL Grand Final between the Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs and the Melbourne Storm at ANZ Stadium, Homebush. Photos by Brendan Esposito, Quentin Jones, Dave Tease and Chris Lane. Selected Images available from www.fairfaxsyndication.com. Follow us at http://twitter.com/photosSMH. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The biting accusation came during a brawl that erupted just after winger Sam Perrett had brilliantly controlled the ball to score Canterbury's first try and, against the overwhelming weight of play, levelled the scores at 4-4. Yet, poetically, Slater – once bitten, but not shy – would score the next try. The Storm scored again soon after. The Bulldogs would not score again. It was 14-4 at half-time, and also when the final hooter sounded.
While the biting controversy cast a pall on the game, it was the relentless pressure of the Storm that did most to silence a crowd of 82,976 that, naturally, heavily favoured the Bulldogs. This was a performance every bit as good as the grand final winning teams of 2007 and 2009. But with the stamp of legitimacy.
You could not call the Storm's victory an act of vindication or revenge. Convincingly, the survivors of Melbourne's years of salary cap disgrace have argued they were not motivated by the past. Their team contained many new faces. Victory was symbolic of the club's ability to move on, not the venomous act of brooding men stuck in the past.
Storming home ... Melbourne fullback Billy Slater embraces teammate Todd Lowrie after the team's 14-4 victory at ANZ Stadium yesterday. Photo: David Tease
Yet, when the Storm return to their home town and put one trophy back in their ransacked cabinet, the feeling will be sweet. Memories of the 2010 season in which they played without meaningful incentive – constantly suffering the taunts of opposition supporters – will surely come to the surface.
Inevitably, the Storm's big three – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk – were instrumental. Slater's defiant try set the tone. Minutes later, Cronk floated a perfect pass across the ruck for Justin O'Neill to score, and won the Clive Churchill Medal as best player. Smith was, as ever, inspirational, constantly sooling his team forward. Only a case of goal-kicking yips – Smith kicked just one goal from five attempts – marred the captain's performance. Coincidentally, Smith is a friend of Hawthorn star Lance "Buddy" Franklin, whose own goal-kicking problems had contributed to the Swans' victory in the AFL grand final on Saturday.
Yet, even when the Bulldogs finally began to attack the Melbourne line, the Storm seldom looked like suffering the same fate. They almost brought the match to the perfect conclusion when forward Bryan Norrie went over the line. Norrie was about to take the job of captain-coach of Wagga Wagga when he received a phone call from the Storm. He is symbolic of the manner in which the club has rebuilt its list from the bargain basement. However, the fairytale ending was overruled with Norrie fractionally ahead of the kicker.
Incident to be placed on report ... a screen grab of the alleged biting incident involving Bulldog James Graham. Photo: Channel Nine
For Canterbury-Bankstown, the nature of their performance will be almost as disappointing as the result itself. Throughout the season, they had been highly organised, efficient and disciplined under new coach, Des Hasler. Yet, almost from the outset, they were a Dogs breakfast. Too many penalties conceded. Too little possession retained.
Perhaps the most telling moment came early in the first half when Dally M medallist Ben Barba completely missed a high ball. Whether it was nerves, inexperience or the pressure of a masterful opponent, the Bulldogs were outclassed and overawed.