Storm clouds gone as stars celebrate win
IT SEEMS fairytale endings do happen. Two years after Melbourne was locked in the darkest days of the club's history, the Storm proved too strong for Canterbury in last night's grand final, winning 14-4 and giving three of the best players in the competition the right to now officially call themselves premiership players.
The Storm's ''big three'', Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater - as well as prodigal son Ryan Hoffman- have been the heart and soul of the team. They were among the most deeply affected when the team was stripped of two premierships after being penalised for long-term salary cap cheating.
Cronk capped off a brilliant display, awarded the Clive Churchill medal for best player on the field.
Charging away: Storm champion Billy Slater makes a break. Photo: Brendan Esposito
But it was not an easy ride for the Storm, with an apparent try to Bryan Norrie controversially denied by video referee Chris Ward and a frantic final 10 minutes when the Bulldogs' much-vaunted outside backs finally began to make some holes in the Storm defence.
Despite an improved second half for Canterbury, it was too little too late with the Storm grimly holding onto its lead in a scoreless second half. In fact it was the Storm's defence that proved the difference in keeping the second half scoreless after the Bulldogs gave up three tries in the first half.
''It's fantastic. We worked so hard for this and geez we earned it,'' Hoffman said.
Ryan Hoffman crashes over for the first try of the grand final. Photo: Quentin Jones
''We earned this through hard work … we had so many guys putting their bodies on the line.''
The Storm players and officials claim the dark days of 2010 had little to do with what the team achieved last year or this season. They say that the team differed vastly from the sides that had two premierships stripped from it.
But the core of the team, those who are the heart and soul of it, the likes of Smith, Slater, Cronk and Hoffman, were all there again and there is no doubt that they have long memories.
Storm players celebrate a Justin O'Neill try. Photo: Dave Tease
The players have a different take on the salary cap scandal, maintaining that regardless of what the history books say, they are the rightful premiers of 2007 and 2009. They have the tattoos and premierships rings to prove it. Now the Storm has a second official premiership to go with its maiden triumph in 1999.
The game was marred by an ugly incident, with Slater claiming that James Graham bit his ear during a scuffle after the Bulldogs' first try to Sam Perrett.
The try, where Perrett did well to pick up and control a grubber kick and a Slater tackle to slide over, levelled the scores at 4-4, but was overshadowed by the all-in brawl that was sparked immediately afterwards when Krisnan Inu pushed Slater over. Players from both teams rushed in with Josh Reynolds and Sisa Waqa trading punches, but it was Slater who was the last off the ground clutching his ear.
The Storm complained to referee Tony Archer about the ''Mike Tyson moment''. Archer said there was not enough evidence to prove the claim and therefore put the incident on report for the match review committee to look at today.
The Storm dominated the first half, having 66 per cent of possession, but for all its control it went to half-time with only 14-4 lead. Storm rarely loses when it leads at the break so the Bulldogs needed to be the first to score in the second half and in the opening minutes they turned the tables on the Storm, forcing repeated sets in a row.
But despite the Bulldogs' pressure, Storm's defence was outstanding and it finally got its hands on the ball with a Cameron Smith try-saving tackle on Michael Ennis, when the Storm captain held his opposite number up over the tryline.
The Bulldogs' fans were on their feet when Storm five-eighth Gareth Widdop put up a cross-field kick with the loose ball ending up in the hands of star full-back Ben Barba, who outsprinted Cronk over the length of the field to plant the ball .
But the try was disallowed as it had already been ruled that Bulldogs' winger Jonathan Wright had knocked-on. From the scrum, the Storm set up Hoffman for the first try of the game.
Hoffman ran between Josh Reynolds and Inu and barged his way over the line.
However, skipper Smith showed the first sign that his goalkicking had gone off, continuing the poor form of last week by missing the relatively easy shot. It left the score at 4-0 after six minutes.
The Storm then went on a remarkable period of dominance through the aid of penalties given up by the undisciplined Bulldogs or by forcing line dropouts.
Despite its errors, Canterbury did well to not concede any points and gradually began to get itself back in the game.
The big brawl and the biting allegation seemed to fire up the Storm and it put on two tries in the final 10 minutes of the first half.
The first was to Slater, who ran off a Cronk pass to split the defence and score.
Cronk was involved in another at 39 minutes when he put in a nice kick that Justin O'Neill grabbed and burst through a Barba tackle.