The bookies couldn’t pick a favourite as the Melbourne Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs kicked the first ball of the 2021 NRL season in the much-anticipated game at the AAMI Park in Melbourne.
The Storm won both games between the two sides in 2020 and have a fantastic record against the Bunnies having only lost to them on five occasions since 1998. Souths have never beaten the Storm on this ground, a record which coach Bennett would be painfully aware as he plotted a winning start to the campaign against the defending champions.
The Storm hadn’t lost a round one game since 2001 and coach Bellamy was in no mood to let that record slip on his watch.
There were less than three minutes on the clock when Melbourne struck for their first try of the season. Cameron Munster threw an outrageous dummy fifteen from the line and dropped the shoulder to outpace the wrong-footed Souths defence and cross for a criminally simple try. Ryan Papenhuyzen added the conversion for a 6-0 lead.
On nine the Storm went in for their second after a sensational Jesse Bromwich break put them in prime position. A fast play-the-ball saw them outnumber the Bunnies defence with Justin Olam being on hand to take the final pass and dive over. Papenhuyzen added the conversion for a stunning start for the home side.
Papenhuyzen grabbed the third Storm try on seventeen, executing the perfect one-two with Kenny Bromwich and taking the inside pass to coast over the line from ten metres. The full-back added his extras for 18-0, Melbourne totally dominant.
Just before the half-hour mark Papenhuyzen got his second with a terrific burst of speed to outpace four Souths defenders and run the angle to dive over in the right-hand corner and ground the ball before sliding into touch. Papnhuyzen made his first error of the game, unable to convert the touchline conversion opportunity.
Seven minutes before the interval and Souths finally got on the scoreboard when Alex Johnston took a Latrell Mitchell pass to score a summersault try in the left corner. Adam Reynolds blasted his kick between the uprights from the touchline for 22-6, but it was still a mountain for the Sydney side to climb as the half time hooter sounded.
The Rabbitohs made it back-to-back tries as they opened the second half scoring as Cody Walker took a Benji Marshall pass and put in a delightful final pass to Johnston to dive over in the corner for his second of the night. Reynolds was again accurate from the touchline to reduce the arrears to ten points.
Dane Gagai lost the ball deep in his own twenty and two plays later the Storm were awarded a penalty and accepted the opportunity for a twelve-point lead as Papenhuyzen slotted over the goal.
The Rabbitohs were in again on fifty-six for a third unanswered try as Mitchell ran the angle to outpace the last two Melbourne tacklers and ground, one-handed, in the corner. Pepenhuyzen added a third sensational touchline conversion and with just one converted try between the sides it was game with more than a quarter of the game remaining.
A sixtieth minute Reynolds penalty from thirty metres out gave the Storm a little breathing space.
Thomas Burgess was stretchered off on seventy-five after landing heavily on his shoulder in the tackle, taking some of the gloss off a thrilling game.
The final hooter permitted 50% capacity home crowd made plenty of noise and got the season opener that they had prayed for with the Champions getting off to a winning start as they defend their crown. The Rabbitohs fightback salvaged some pride but it was not enough to really scare the Storm.
Melbourne Storm: Papenhuyzen (2T, 4G), Jennings, Smith R, Olam (T), Addo-Carr, Munster (T), Hughes, Bromwich J, Smith B, Welch, Kaufusi, Bromwich K, Asofa-Solomona. Subs: Lewis, Kamikamica, Eisenhuth, Smoothy.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: Mitchell (T), Johnston (2T), Gagai, Graham, Mansour, Walker, Reynolds (4G), Burgess, Cook, Tatola, Host, Su’A, Murray. Subs: Marshall, Nicholls, Kolomatango, Arrow.
Referee: Grant Atkins.