The 2021 season opener was just like last year’s grand final, with a few major differences

The 2021 season opener was just like last year’s grand final, with a few major differences

Previously on, The NRL.

When we last left the Melbourne Storm in the 2020 grand final, they were coming within a whisker of surrendering a 22-point first-half lead to a team many expected to win the premiership.

In the 2021 season opener, exactly the same thing happened.

Considering the blinders played by Wally Lewis medallist Cameron Munster and Clive Churchill medallist Ryan Papenhuyzen in the 26-18 win over South Sydney on Thursday night — Melbourne’s 20th successive round one win — it really did feel like the end of 2020 all over again.

But it was the back half of the game that will trouble coach Craig Bellamy.

Latrell Mitchell led the Rabbitohs’ second-half charge back into the contest against Melbourne.(

AAP: David Crosling

)

Fox Sports aired a special the day before the season opener where Bellamy and six of his charges who nearly let the premiership slip away rewatched their grand final against the Panthers.

In that game, Brandon Smith was the Storm’s second player sin-binned in the final 10 minutes.

As he was cracking jokes during the screening, Bellamy had the wry smile and dismissive tone of a teacher who knew his student was in the wrong but just couldn’t bring himself to chide the lovable rogue. But that former bit player is now the star of the show.

The 2020 near-capitulation was more spectacular for any number of reasons, not least of which was because in October last year, the Storm had Cameron Smith.

This time around, when it came to the crunch minutes, their starting hooker actually came off the field.

And not only did a gassed Brandon Smith jog off with 20 minutes remaining, he was replaced by debutant Tyson Smoothy.

He came back on 10 minutes later, but unlike his predecessor and namesake, Brandon’s biggest impact came in the opening exchanges rather than the final blows.

Smith, a walk-up starter with at least 13 of the other 15 teams in the league, only got first crack at the purple nine this year thanks to an injury to Harry Grant.

So not only does he have the burden of filling the shoes of one of the game’s greatest players, he’s also defending his position from a younger raider.

But “The Cheese” was at his most hectic as the Storm blew South Sydney off the park with three tries in the first half-hour of the season.

Melbourne Storm's Ryan Papenhuyzen dives for the tryline with South Sydney Rabbitohs' Latrell Mitchell around his neck.
Ryan Papenhuyzen potted five of six goals in his first game replacing Cameron Smith as goal-kicker.(

AAP: David Crosling

)

In the opening set, Christian Welch offloaded on the Storm’s own 40-metre line and Smith, from a standing start, made 20 metres all on his lonesome.

He was gaining extra metres through the middle and came up with impressive hustle plays and hard-hitting defence with the sort of energy you would expect from the Kiwi hooker.

While a Storm dummy half leading from the front is nothing new, Smith Jr was doing it in one of the only ways that Smith Sr never did: with explosiveness.

And with the on-field product speeding up at an exponential rate thanks to constant rule tweaks by Peter V’landys and his ARLC brains trust, the Storm are going to need more of that well-directed combustible energy.

Perhaps it wasn’t the worst time to lose their generational number nine.

That’s not to say Cam Smith struggled in the sped-up game in 2020. In fact, everyone else running around like headless chooks highlighted how easy he made the game look at times.

But in this new era for the league and the team, Smith, Grant, Papenhuyzen, Munster and Hughes have the reins and they know how to ride the beast, even if it doesn’t always look like it’s completely under control.

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