The NRL benchmark hasn’t changed in 2020

The Storm and Roosters will be there when the whips are cracking and finals footy rolls into town. Of that there can be no question.

That was the overwhelming thought that came to mind both during and after Thursday night’s epic showdown between the two competition heavyweights who have shared the last three premierships and four of the last six grand final spots between them.

I wanted to give this article a specific angle. Maybe the ridiculous form of the Morris brothers. The coolness under pressure of Kyle Flanagan. Or how the Storm played their first complete game of the season and suddenly looked like world-beaters.

But in the end it kept going back to that thought – that this round opener was the best game of the season so far and maybe one of the best games in recent rugby league history.

It was just that good.

And before anyone points out that there were a combined 29 errors between the two sides, this is one of those games where stats don’t really tell the whole story.

It was a story of two teams playing with energy, pace and intent for the entire 80 minutes.

Cameron Smith

Cameron Smith (Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

If it was risk-free footy from the two teams at the height of their powers, then that error count would be unacceptable. But it wasn’t.

Both teams were happy to throw the footy around, speculate in their attack and then make up for any errors they made in their defence, and with the gears motored through with ease, it showed that neither of these sides have an equal in the competition.

Sure, Parramatta put on a good show against the Roosters a few weeks ago and the form of both Newcastle and Penrith has been strong, but the chance of them competing with either Melbourne or the Roosters based on last night’s game?

It’s not nil, but it’s in the ballpark.

What made it even more impressive is the fact both teams are adjusting to injury issues, with Trent Robinson losing both lock Victor Radley and back-up hooker Sam Verrills last week, while Craig Bellamy lost his star half Cameron Munster.

Ryley Jacks was able to step into the team and perform his role without stress, while Jahrome Hughes stood up and ran the ball with intent, speed and class, his passing game also showing the way.

That allowed Cameron Smith to be in control of the kicking game, the ageless skipper directing traffic admirably.

The Roosters also took to their issues like a duck to water, with each of their forwards standing up, as they did last week against the Dragons with 15, to lay the platform. They seemed to be the better of the two sides for long portions.

While Luke Keary is their main man in the halves, it’s the revelation of Kyle Flanagan’s improvement that continues to surprise on a weekly basis.

While the young half scored the opening try of the game, he took over the long-range kicking game, allowing Keary the time and space to run the ball. In fact Flanagan had almost 300 kicking metres by the time it was all said and done.

Coming into the new season the Roosters’ biggest problem appeared to be replacing the retired Cooper Cronk, who is doing his job in the media as well as he did it on the field. Flanagan is getting better with every week after the bumpy start before the coronavirus shutdown, and his defence has also been rock-solid, making 38 tackles last night.

It’s not only the way he played the game; it’s the way he conducted himself under pressure, icing a penalty goal and field goal within a few minutes of each other to seemingly hand his side the game before another young gun, Ryan Papenhuyzen, tied it up with a stunning drop goal of his own.

Kyle Flanagan (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Again, the Roosters were guilty of making errors under pressure, but that’s simply because they played a brand of footy designed to score points, and errors will follow against a good defence in a high-paced game.

The trend of these teams in the middle of a dynasty recruiting excellent youngsters was on display right across Suncorp Stadium. Flanagan; Papenhuyzen, who ran for over 200 metres; Jahrome Hughes; Brandon Smith; Tino Fa’asuamaleaui; Nat Butcher; and Joseph Manu.

It’s hard to pinpoint a player who was off their game in this clash of the big guns, and credit should go to both coaches for the way they prepare their sides for such a huge game. To be able to have so many youngsters still finding their way all come out and perform in a fast, high-stakes game at the top of the table is a credit to both clubs and is just part of the reason they will both find themselves in the hunt for yet another premiership not only this year but for years to come.

But of course it’s not just the young players, and both of these sides have their share of experience.

Again, the coaches have a role here. The way Bellamy is able to shape players like Dale Finucane, Felise Kaufusi and the seemingly never-ending career of Cameron Smith should be applauded.

Smith was absolutely outstanding last night, but it was his on-field leadership that stole the show. Whether in the halves or as hooker, he didn’t make a bad decision and changed the game on its head when he moved back into the hooking role during the final quarter or so.

On the other side of the coin James Tedesco continues to churn out magnificent performances to the tune of 271 metres, Daniel Tupou never wavered and their forwards, led by Siosiua Taukeiaho, who continues improving somehow, never looked like slowing down.

And then there are the Morris twins, who both scored and are both in career-best form in their mid-30s. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen, but it is. The Roosters system and the way Robinson sets up his team has a big play in that.

In the end Melbourne kicked the winning penalty goal on the back of a silly play from Jake Friend, but the result will barely be remembered in the coming weeks.

It ebbed, it flowed, it was topsy-turvy and never once did a team look comfortable with the result.

And that’s what this sport can do when the two best teams in the competition square off. Melbourne found their mojo for a full 80 minutes and the Roosters were put to the test.

It was rugby league at its absolute best. Long may it continue.

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