The Melbourne Storm showed why they are the true premiership favourites, making a difficult trek to Townsville look easy as they downed a resilient Cowboys outfit 32-10 at 1300SMILES Stadium overnight in front of 19,288 fans. Cooper Cronk was the star man for the Storm, scoring two and setting up two more to show he's every bit capable of matching it with the newly re-signed Johnathan Thurston.
Commentators had challenged the Storm's ability to be up for the game after making the long trip north, and with a less than perfect performance last weekend against the Dragons Cowboys fans had reason to hope their team could make it three wins in three years against the best side in the competition.
It looked like coach Craig Bellamy had sent the Storm back to basics early on, as they sought to slow the tackle and play direct with hooker Cameron Smith leading the way. Suitably it was one of their old favourites that drew them first blood, as Smith went outside to Cronk who found a flying Ryan Hinchcliffe on his hip. The hooker-cum-backrower showed a surprising turn of pace to streak away, easily outrunning Antonio Winterstein in defence to score in the corner. Smith split the posts with his sideline effort and it was 6-0 to the Storm.
Knowing that it would be a tough night at the office if they sought to beat the Storm's intensity the Cowboys instead looked to roll with the punches and then get straight onto the counter-attack, and after going close in their first set after being scored on - with the assistance of a penalty and a repeat set close to the Storm line - it was off an error that they struck back, less than 10 minutes later.
The Storm went to the short side through five-eighth Gareth Widdop, and after initially finding some space the ball spilt free. Johnathan Thurston, a constant in the Cowboys' cover defence all night, pounced on the loose ball and was nearly able to put Ash Graham away. With the Storm defence still back-peddaling the Cowboys' general demanded the ball on the next play, shifting it the width of the field with a magical cut-out pass onto the chest of Antonio Winterstein. The winger was able to draw in fullback Billy Slater, offloading inside to centre Kane Linnett with no sense of self-preservation. Linnett was given a free run at the line and the Cowboys had hit back.
The Cowboys may not have been able to match the Storm's high pressure system but could've done without gifting them prime field position, Glenn Hall earning the ire of coach Neil Henry when he left behind a simple pass 20m out from his own line. The Storm nearly made the Cowboys pay with more than just points, as after going short-side to the left they swung it across the field to give right winger Matt Duffie a chance at the line. It was strong defence from the Cowboys in that set, but fans were instead left heart-in-mouth as Thurston was left prone on the ground after his cover-defensive effort.
The Cowboys were back on the attack soon after though and a sick and sorry Thurston was able to rejoin the line. The Storm quickly learnt that he was sore but no less skillful, as he produced another sublime cut-out ball to again find Antonio Winterstein in space on the left edge. The young winger this time backed himself for the line and looked to have finished well, but the efforts of Matt Duffie saw his toe tickle the sideline prior to grounding the ball.
19288 spectators at 1300SMILES stadium saw end to end play for the next 10 minutes, eventually a repeat set earnt off a Gavin Cooper knock-on breaking the deadlock. Uncharacteristic confusion reigned on the last tackle for the Storm, Slater left to put a stabbing grubber through behind the line for himself. In contest with Slater Cooper was unable to gather cleanly, and the Cowboys were put onto the back foot just 30m out from the line. They were never able to get their defensive line set, and when Cooper Cronk sliced through next to the posts it was a deserved 4-pointer to the halfback. Smith easily slotted the extras.
It was again soft defence up the middle that saw the Storm add more points soon after, as first Billy Slater and then Tohu Harris made huge ground down the centre of the field, scattering Cowboys defenders as they did so. Harris was eventually brought down 20m out from the line, but it was short relief for the home fans when Cronk's outside ball and some good finishing from Will Chambers saw him go over for the Storm's third try of the night.
The second half would've had the spittle flying from both coaches upstairs, featuring error after error from North Queensland and a run of penalties against the visitors. Both sides threatened early but it was the Storm who extended their lead, Cooper Cronk staying with the play and being rewarded with his second four-pointer when he benefited from an offload from Matt Duffie on the wing.
There was some consolation for the Cowboys as a long shift to the right put Ash Graham over for his third try in two games, but it was far too little, if not yet too late, until Will Chambers added his second to put the game beyond reach and Ryan Hoffman scored a trademark meat pie off a great hole-running effort in the dying stages to rub salt into the Cowboys' wounds, the premiership upstarts given a reminder that they have a long way to go, going down 32-10.
MELBOURNE STORM 32 (Cooper Cronk 2, Will Chambers 2, Ryan Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hoffman tries; Cameron Smith 4/6 goals) defeated NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS 10 (Ashley Graham, Kane Linnett tries; Johnathan Thurston 1/2 goals) at Willows Sports Complex (1300SMILES Stadium). Halftime: Storm 16-6. Crowd: 19,288. Referees: Gerard Sutton and Brett Suttor.