Sport Melbourne Storm ushers in new era with win over South Sydney to kick off NRL season

Melbourne Storm ushers in new era with win over South Sydney to kick off NRL season

Storm gun Ryan Papenhuyzen scores a try against the Rabbitohs at AAMI Park on Thursday. Photo: AAP
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Life without Cameron Smith got off to the best possible start for Melbourne, which opened its NRL premiership defence on Thursday night with a thrilling 26-18 win over South Sydney.

Storm produced an emphatic answer for those questioning if it could still be a force without its captain, who announced his retirement on match eve.

After bursting out of the blocks at AAMI Park to take a 22-0 lead, Melbourne’s mettle was tested without Smith to steady the ship as the Rabbitohs roared back to trail by six points.

Brilliant Storm fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen finished with a double, while his tally for the night was 18 points after taking over Smith’s goalkicking duties.

The second of his tries he had no right to score, using pure acceleration to burn four defenders including Rabbitohs star Latrell Mitchell to slam the ball down in the corner.

Mitchell, however, was one of his team’s best and his 55th-minute try put his team right back in the hunt and keep Storm fans, who hadn’t been able to attend a match since September 2019, on the edge of their seats.

Souths took advantage of Melbourne new right-side defence, with recruits Reimis Smith and George Jennings partnering for the first time with injury to Origin centre Brenko Lee and the departure of Suliasi Vunivalu.

Rabbitohs winger Alex Johnston crossed twice while Mitchell’s effort also came on the same side, with veteran signing Benji Marshall coming off the bench to combine well with Cody Walker.

The visitors managed to stop the home side crossing the line after the 29th minute, but errors cruelled their chances.

Dane Gagai was penalised in the 56th minute for a late tackle in taking out Storm kicker Jahrome Hughes although it appeared there was little he could do to pull out.

Papenhuyzen’s penalty gave his team breathing space with an eight-point buffer that Souths were unable to peg back.

It continued a horror run for the Rabbitohs at AAMI Park, where they haven’t won in 10 attempts.

Melbourne continued its first-round winning record which dates to 2001.

Compounding Souths’ disappointment was a late injury to Tom Burgess, who was stretchered from the field in a neck brace.