Melbourne 38 Leeds 4: Rhinos are swept away by ruthless Storm

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HOW is it that they can keep on doing this?

Not Melbourne Storm storming to more titles nor the NRL dominating the World Club Challenge yet again.

Cameron Munster leaps and catches the ball. Pictures: Brendon Ratnayake/

Cameron Munster leaps and catches the ball. Pictures: Brendon Ratnayake/

That is all par for the course. No, it is that seemingly innate ability of Australian sides to find yet another gifted footballer just when you foolishly think they may perhaps, at last, be teetering towards vulnerability.

It has happened plenty in recent years. For the national side, how would they cope with the retirement of Andrew Johns? Then, similarly, Darren Lockyer? They are already pondering the eventual ramifications of Johnathan Thurston’s career ending.

What they do, however, is simply wheel another cab off the rank to fill any glaring chasm.

Yesterday, in the case of Melbourne, it was Brodie Croft playing the part to perfection in this intriguing if eventually underwhelming World Club Challenge in the Victorian capital.

Leeds fans in good voice.

Leeds fans in good voice.

The NRL premiers were supposed to be a little under-cooked, their new season still yet to start, and, following Cooper Cronk’s departure to Sydney Roosters, the No 7 role could certainly be a little problematic.

Revered Cronk, of course, had spent his entire 12 year first-grade career making things tick for Melbourne, part of that golden triumvirate with fellow Queenslanders Cameron Smith and Billy Slater.

It would take time to adjust to life without him.

No, it wouldn’t. Instead, Croft, the 20-year-old rookie, stepped up and quietly set about destroying Leeds Rhinos, the Super League champions.

There were no nerves, no tension, he looked like the State of Origin veteran he’s replaced as he dictated from the middle, working off the back of Smith and a dominant pack and making so many telling contributions.

He ran like Cronk at times, kicked like him, even his name sounds like his. It was uncanny.

Leeds’s hopes of lifting a record-equalling fourth World Club title were all but over by half-time, the youngster having played a part in all three of Storm’s tries as they manoeuvred into an 18-4 lead.

Against most teams such an interval deficit would not unduly concern the West Yorkshire club. Melbourne aren’t most teams, though, as they proved yet again with another brutally efficient performance.

Rhinos, in fact, had taken an early lead with a well-worked try for Ryan Hall, the England winger who marked his 350th career appearance with a score after Stevie Ward had made a bold blindside raid on the last tackle.

It was that sort of unsuspecting invention that Leeds coach Brian McDermott had hinted at as being necessary to break down the formidable purple machine.

Unfortunately, for the next 71 minutes, they would not manage it again and, in truth, rarely even got close.

Granted, they were not helped by injuries, decimated in fact; loose forward Ward and the confident teenage full-back Jack Walker both departing in the first period, McDermott already shorn of four props left at home and England back-row Brett Ferres.

Melbourne – who vanquished North Queensland Cowboys 34-6 in last year’s Grand Final – almost looked affronted that Leeds had dared to cross their line.

Croft quickly chimed into action, his deft hands sending Jesse Bromwich crashing over, before he dropped his own shoulder to dart in himself, leaving Carl Ablett grounded.

Next, his delicious inside ball near halfway unleashed Slater and, though, he was eventually closed down, the ball was worked to the prolific Suliasi Vunivalau who cut back infield and embarrassed three defenders with the way he slalomed to the line.

It came just seconds before the break and you could see Leeds visibly sink. Croft had been so central to it all and Hall conceded: “He is a good player.

“They lost Billy Slater, too, so they had a bit of a swap around as well as us.

“But you didn’t really see much of that; it was seamless for them as they have a very good system here at Melbourne with players coming through.

“You saw that tonight with how that rotation worked. And it’s rare they get beat here.

“We came in with the idea of throwing the ball about which was good for about 20 minutes. And then we let it get the better of us a little bit. We dropped a few balls, were just giving them field position and before you know it the scoreline had gone. We just wanted to put the cat amongst the pigeons; if all we did was play one-up stuff, they love defending that.

“They defended that all of last year and only lost a couple of games so that’s why we tried to do something a little bit different.

“But ultimately it didn’t go very well.”

Amid all this it was forgotten that Slater never returned for the second period, worryingly, having left clutching a shoulder, the injury that had forced the stellar full-back such issues latterly So, no Cronk. No Slater. And still slick Storm raided time and time again.

There was much talk beforehand about the NRL telling Leeds late in the week they would be using two referees as is the norm in the domestic competition.

There was plenty of brouhaha from the visitors, and rightly so. The unexpected move stank.

However, in all honesty, even if the two officials had surreptitiously joined Rhinos’ ranks to raise them up to 15 players, it still wouldn’t have changed the result; Melbourne were that good. That clinical. That ruthless.

Leeds erred and erred again, suffocated by Storm’s relentless approach.

In fairness, McDermott’s men never let up but they were far too fragile near their own line, illustrated when Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Felise Kaufusi, Will Chambers and Dale Finucane all added further tries.