Super Storm set up fairytale finale for cagey Smith
Will this be Cameron Smith's last dance?
The stage is set for a possible premiership fairytale for Storm champion Smith after Melbourne turned on a magical masterclass to carve up Canberra 30-10 and qualify for their fourth grand final in five years.
Before a COVID-record 37,112 at Suncorp Stadium, mighty Melbourne rocked the Raiders with a furious first-half blitz to book a grand-final showdown with either Souths or Penrith on Sunday week at ANZ Stadium.
Smith has been tight-lipped all season. A Storm premiership would be the perfect script for the 430-game legend to ride into the sunset and when Smith was chaired off Suncorp by cheering teammates, it seemed a dead giveaway.
But, until the very end, the 37-year-old has his poker face on.
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"I can't tell you, I don't know," Smith said when asked if he will retire next week.
"It wasn't so much of a farewell ... just the relief to be in another grand final.
"All I have tried to do this year is play well. Once the game ends next week, I will have a big decision to make."
Storm centre Brenko Lee was placed on report for a 59th-minute high shot on Semi Valemei and faces a nervous wait to feature in his maiden grand final.
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This high-octane preliminary final was one of the most imperious performances of coach Craig Bellamy's 17-year reign in Melbourne.
The Storm led from start to finish, with Smith, Jahrome Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen superb as Melbourne posted three tries in the opening 10 minutes to leave the Green Machine stuck in first gear at 16-0 and in crisis at 24-0 after 25.
Canberra were desperate after the break but when Dale Finucane swooped on a Hughes kick in the 62nd minute, Bellamy's Storm troopers were heading to Homebush.
The Storm's 2017 premiership win was bookended by gut-wrenching defeats in 2016 and 2018 and now they have the ultimate motivation to scale the NRL summit again - especially if their skipper Smith announces his retirement in grand-final week.
"I'm so proud of this side," Bellamy said. "This group has had a great attitude and I hope they get what they deserve next week."
Stop the debate. Hughes, slick and quick, is a bona fide big-game performer at halfback.
Hughes is not a natural No.7 and he was quiet in the Storm's finals defeat of Parramatta a fortnight ago, but the headgear-wearing utility showed he can be a premiership-winning halfback.
From the opening minutes, he sliced-and-diced the Green Machine, setting up three tries, including Melbourne's fifth-minute opener with a clever jink and pass for Jesse Bromwich.
"Jahrome was superb," Smith said. "He has taken on more responsibility and he is kicking really well."
Before kick-off, Smith gave Storm players a steely look as he delivered one of the most passionate speeches of his career.
If this was Smith's farewell to Suncorp Stadium, he made a statement. Stirred by Smith's words, Melbourne first 20 minutes was brutally beautiful.
Smith capped a fine skipper's knock with a superb 66th-minute trysaver on Nick Cotric that inspired the Storm's date with title destiny.
Melbourne wingers Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr were magnificent. The pair produced 15 tackle busts and 213 metres between them as their fusion of pace and power propelled the Storm - and Smith - to another date with title destiny.
STUART STORMS OUT AFTER TOUGH NIGHT
Ricky Stuart stormed out of his press conference after Canberra's premiership redemption quest came to a shocking crash against the Melbourne Storm.
The Storm qualified for their fourth grand final in five years after flying out to a 24-0 lead against the stunned Raiders. After losing last year's grand final to the Roosters, the Raiders fell one game short of the 2020 decider to stretch their premiership drought to 26 years.
The Raiders have not brought a title home to the nation's capital since Immortal Mal Meninga's farewell premiership in 1994.
Stuart took one question in his post-game press conference before walking out.
"We didn't defend well when we had no footy in the first 25 minutes," Stuart said before storming out of his press conference.
"Four tries to nil was really disappointing. We didn't start well. It was not us.
"I can handle the loss, but I'm really disappointed we didn't have one of our better games.
"We hung around and tried to turn it around but Melbourne wouldn't let us. It was a tough night. I'm very proud of where we got to but disappointed we didn't go one step further."
MAKING UP THE NUMBERS
While the Raiders won 14 of 20 games in the regular season to finish fifth they were never truly a dominant side.
They were beaten by all top four teams and qualified for last night's preliminary final by knocking the Roosters out of the competition in an absorbing clash which clearly took a toll on their energy levels.
The loss of star hooker Josh Hodgson (knee) in Round 9 was a huge blow and the Raiders did well to make it to the final four of the competition.
But they lacked the ability to find another gear in the finals and were comprehensively outplayed by the Storm on the big stage.
FIRST HALF BLITZ
The Raiders trailed 24-0 after 24 minutes following what was a complete domination from Melbourne.
In that opening blitz the Storm had 65 per cent of possession and completed at 93 per cent to blow Canberra off the park.
The match was practically over within 10 minutes after Melbourne racked up a 16-0 lead with tries to Jesse Bromwich, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Suliasu Vunivalu.
Canberra lacked energy and had few answers to stop the Melbourne juggernaut.
They weren't helped by lackadaisical defensive efforts, such as Nick Cotric's failure to clean up a rolling ball which saw Justin Olam score Melbourne's fourth try.
The Raiders worked their way back into the contest, with Cotric scoring two tries, but you cannot give Melbourne a 24-point lead.
WHERE TO NOW?
The Raiders have fallen agonisingly short of premiership glory in consecutive years.
They will lose star forward John Bateman to the Super League and Cotric to Canterbury, but will welcome Hodgson back to the fold in 2021.
The Raiders have enough talent to challenge for the premiership next year but a top four finish is critical to ensure they are not blown away by a fresh team.
The premiership window may still be open but they need to make the most of their opportunities.
Originally published as Super Storm set up fairytale finale for cagey Smith