It was the only game in town as the clash of the round between the unbeaten Raiders and Storm kicked off in Melbourne, the self-proclaimed sports capital of Australia. The unique situation on a late May Saturday night did not help the crowd size of course, with the global pandemic still keeping the gates firmly closed.
It didn't take long for the Raiders to show why they are one of the favourites for this year's premiership. In just their second lot of possession, Origin player Jack Wighton spread the ball quickly to captain Jarrod Croker who cleverly flicked it onto Jordan Rapana, who would have been playing rugby union in Japan if not for the coronavirus. The move ten metres out left the Storm defence clutching at air as Rapana jogged over for the first try of his return to the club.
The Storm had their turn in attack, but an uncharacteristic mistake from a heavily bearded Cameron Smith saw the Raiders with the ball again. They then enjoyed their second tackle reset of the game, as the Storm characteristically struggled to behave themselves in the ruck. The Green Machine took full advantage of it with English import halfback George Williams looping a perfect pass onto the chest of the other winger, Nick Cotric, who scored in the corner. Croker converted from the sideline to give the Raiders an early 12-0 lead.
A big hit from the restart saw the Raiders spill the ball. The Storm celebrated the turnover and a couple of tackles later fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen weaved his way close enough to reach out for the line. Replays showed he lost control of the ball and the Raiders maintained their lead.
Twenty-four minutes into the game and the Raiders defence opened up with Josh Addo-Carr streaking down the left wing. Fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad came across in cover and did enough to block Addo-Carr's centering kick. Both teams were enjoying the quicker rucks and were running each other ragged.
Next time they were down the Raiders end of the ground, the Storm made no mistake. Cameron Smith worked his magic from dummy-half, putting a charging Dale Finucane over under the posts. Papenhuyzen was proving to be a handful with every touch of the ball and had scattered the Raiders defence in the lead up to Smith's slick work.
From the restart it was Cameon Munster's turn to be a handful, cutting through the Raiders defence before kicking ahead. His kick dribbled harmlessly over the dead ball line.
The Storm looked to be right back in the game until five minutes from the break, when Raiders hooker Josh Hodgson passed the ball to Williams who swerved, dummied and stepped and cut through the Storm defence before finding Nicoll-Klokstad in support. He crossed for the Raiders third try which when converted gave them a 18-6 lead. The fake crowd inexplicably roaring as the halftime siren sounded with the visiting team in the lead.
The second half started in a similar frenetic pace, with both teams trading blows in an end-to-end showcase of open rugby league. The six again calls for ruck infringements continued to keep both defences back-pedalling, but scrambling efforts prevented tries at both ends.
With twenty two minutes remaining, Curtis Scott lost the ball in a tackle and the Storm were deep on the attack, but they only had the ball for two tackles before Tino Fa'asuamaleaui dropped it cold.
The big Storm forwards were making the kind of handling errors that would send coach Craig Bellamy ballistic. Five minutes later Jesse Bromwich was dragged down a metre from the line and lost the ball while reaching out to score. Another five minutes on and replacement forward Max King dropped it cold ten metres out. It was the kind of mistake-riddled football that Melbourne never play and Bellamy wasn't happy after the game.
"I was a little bit embarrassed by that performance to be honest," Bellamy said. "In the second half, we could have played there all night and not scored a try, we never looked like scoring a try."
"Not enough players were taking individual responsibility out there... we knew we were playing a good team tonight, but it was very one-sided out there."
The first three quarters of the game had passed and fatigue was starting to set in for both teams. It seemed only a matter of time before a break-though, if only either team could hang onto the ball long enough to build an attack. The Storm came closest again, only to see Williams stick out his arm and ruin their last backline pass to Addo-Carr.
In the ensuing set of six big Nelson Asofa-Solomona put a pointless grubber kick through the line on the fourth tackle. The Raiders' resilience seemingly had the home team rattled.
With time running out for the Storm, Smith put a grubber kick through for centre Justin Olam who gathered the ball over the line but was miraculously kept from scoring by a brilliant Joseph Tapine tackle. The Raiders forward managing to roll him over and prevent a grounding of the ball.
The Storm remained on the attack for the next five minutes and looked certain to break the green wall, until Hodgson managed one of his trademark one-on-one steals. The brilliant English hooker followed that up by kicking a 40-20, tearing all the wind out of the Storm sails as the clock ticked into the final four minutes of the entertaining game.
It wasn't over though, with the Raiders putting an exclamation mark on their work with a try which swept down the right hand side of the field and involved two kicks and some enthusiastic support work. In a green jersey dominated scramble for the ball, Williams missed out and Tapine claimed the points.
Williams was outstanding, confirming all the scouting reports which said he would not only handle the pace of the NRL, but would carry his Super League dominance into Australia. He was literally everywhere in attack and defence and was a stand out for the man-of-the-match award.
On that performance the Raiders look more than capable of going one better than last year.