MELBOURNE STORM claimed their second Australian National Rugby League title with an accomplished 14-4 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs in the grand final on Sunday in front of 83,000.
It was a tactical masterpiece by coach Craig Bellamy, with the Storm nullifying the brilliant Bulldogs’ attack and their electrifying fullback Ben Barba.
It caps a return to glory for the Storm, who were stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships they won for cheating the salary cap. Their inaugural NRL title came in 1999.
Melbourne scored three tries to one with all the points scored in an eventful and at times feisty opening half.
With man-of-the-match and scrum-half Cooper Cronk calling the shots and featuring in the leadup to all three tries, Melbourne jumped straight out of the blocks and dominated the early exchanges before a seventh-minute try to backrower Ryan Hoffman off a Cronk pass.
The Bulldogs, who finished top of the regular season standings two points ahead of Melbourne, levelled in the 26th minute when New Zealand winger Sam Perrett swooped on a grubber kick from Krisnan Inu.
Perrett then reacted to a Billy Slater tackle and a mass brawl spilled over the sideline with Slater and David Stagg heavily involved.
Canterbury’s English forward James Graham weighed in and went on the referee’s report for biting Test fullback Slater, who alleged to the match referees that his ear had been bitten.
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The Storm finished the half the stronger with a marvellous Cronk pass sending Slater surging over in the 32nd minute and a Cronk kick for the left corner plucked from the air by winger Justin O’Neill for the third try.
Only wayward kicking by Cameron Smith cost Melbourne a bigger lead than 14-4 at halftime.
Canterbury put Melbourne under pressure with four consecutive sets of six tackles early in the second half but they could not breach the Storm try-line, with skipper Michael Ennis held up over the line.
The Bulldogs’ big moment came midway through the half when Barba finally shook off the Melbourne defence and kicked ahead for Josh Morris, but the centre could not control the bouncing ball near the try-line and the opportunity was lost.
Melbourne thought they had scored their fourth try 10 minutes from time but prop Bryan Norrie was ruled off-side from Englishman Gareth Widdop’s kick.
Canterbury, coached by Des Hasler, were chasing their ninth title and first since 2004 and had the overwhelming support at Sydney’s Olympic stadium.
It was yet more grand final agony for the ginger-headed Graham, who has played in seven consecutive season deciders — the last six English Super League grand finals with St Helens — but has only got his hands on the trophy once, back in 2006.