THERE was a feeling of ''surely not'' for Melbourne Storm's clash with Penrith yesterday. Despite its worst slump in a decade, despite losing six of its past seven games, including its past five in a row, surely the Storm could not lose to the Panthers, a team that went into the round-22 game at AAMI Park in 15th place.
The thing was, however, that Parramatta, the only team to have performed worse than Penrith this season, beat the Storm 16-10 two rounds ago. And given the Panthers had won their last two games, there was always the ''what if'' factor.
But in the end, the Storm won 46-6, running in eight tries, including doubles to Sisa 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.
On face value, it provided affirmation that perhaps the Storm had turned the corner.
But a drop in intensity in the second half, when Melbourne scored only two tries - the second to Sika Manu in the final minute - featured some of the scrappy play that has blighted the Storm's recent matches and allowed the Panthers their only try of the game. It suggested there was more work to do.
Melbourne will play its last four games before the finals against Gold Coast, Brisbane, Cronulla and Wests Tigers.
The Storm needed a good start yesterday, with coach Craig Bellamy increasingly frustrated - and sleep deprived - at the inability of his team to find a way out of its funk.
His players' response? It could not have been much better with Waqa scoring a try after 30 seconds. By half-time the Storm, which had only once scored more than 20 points since round 13, was leading 34-0 after running in six tries, some with absurd ease.
Storm captain Cameron Smith said after the game 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 here 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 attacking play, it was his team's defence that impressed most.
''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 when Storm stars 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 from Smith to Cronk and then inside to Slater, who sped through a gaping hole in the defence before Waqa ran half the length of the field untouched to score.
Then, just to reinforce that the Storm was ''on'', Cronk nailed a 40/20 kick to place more early pressure on the hapless Panthers.
Ten minutes later, the Panthers were again caught daydreaming when the Storm applied a slightly different variation of the move with Cronk cruising through the defence.
It was the first time since mid-June that the Storm had its first-choice halves partnership of Cronk and Gareth Widdop in operation. Slater also showed he was far sharper in his second game back from a knee injury. But he began to limp noticeably near half-time although he remained on the field.
Panthers coach Ivan Cleary summed it up as a ''day we'd rather forget''. ''We were pretty bad today. Defensively, particularly in the first half, I thought we were just way off the pace,'' he said. ''When their key players are all playing well obviously they're going to punish you.''