Billy Slater has made an immediate impact upon returning to the Melbourne line-up as the Storm beat St George Illawarra 18-16.
Shoulder surgery had kept the Storm’s superstar full-back out of top-flight rugby league since State of Origin II last June and he had not turned out for Melbourne since round 10, but he did not miss a beat in his return, at AAMI Park on Monday night.
A pair of cut-out passes to Marika Koroibete – the second of which was followed by some fancy footwork by the winger to stand up Josh Dugan – led directly to the Fijian’s first-half double, but Slater may have been even more impactful without the ball.
Clearly enjoying being back alongside regular running mate Cooper Cronk, the pair toyed with former team-mate Kurt Mann.
Playing full-back in his first game since leaving the Storm at the end of last season, Mann dropped two regulation kicks from Cronk and it appeared Slater’s customary relentless chase of the half-back’s inside shoulder was the reason on both occasions.
The second fumble even gave away the offside penalty that ultimately allowed Cameron Smith to slot a penalty goal and take a 12-10 lead to half-time.
Jesse Bromwich keeps proving it is definitely the ‘Big Four’
It was the newest member of Storm’s Big Four who created the next four-pointer for the hosts.
Over the past few seasons, Jesse Bromwich has emerged as possibly the game’s best prop and the Dragons defence treated him accordingly when he took a charge at the line in the 46th minute.
Five defenders converged on the giant Kiwi on the tryline, but he still managed to offload to Smith, who found the younger Bromwich, Kenny, steaming on to the ball right next to the posts.
Smith’s conversion made it 18-10 to Melbourne, but two-try hero Koroibete turned into a leaping zero when he whiffed on cross-field kick and Dragons back rower Tyson Frizell beat Cameron Munster to touch down on 56 minutes.
Another former Storm player, Gareth Widdop, who missed a golden opportunity to knot the scores with a simple penalty shot on the stroke of half-time, managed to rebound in his conversion attempt to put the visitors within two points heading into the final 20 minutes of the game.
Dugan almost stole victory at the death when he reached out and slammed down a Mitch Rein grubber in the 79th minute, but the ball was planted on the dead-ball line, and the Storm survived a nervous wait with the NRL Bunker.
The loss continued St George Illawarra’s winless streak in Melbourne, which dates back to 1999, and gave the Storm their 12th-straight round-one victory.