By STEVE MASCORD
DESPITE a stirring rear-guard action in front of a rabid, deafening AAMI Park crowd, Melbourne Storm’s premiership defence is over.
Under master coach Wayne Bennett, the unheralded Newcastle Knights rode into town and raced to an 18-4 lead just after halftime before Cameron Smith’s men attempted to run them down.
But at the end of the season which has seen their fortunes fluctuate, the Knights had the composure to hang on for their first win in Melbourne since 2004.
’The Storm found themselves 18-4 down with 33 minutes left in the second preliminary semi-final, with the majority of the 19,649 crowd trying to roar them back into the contest.
And they had some success, Cooper Cronk chipping ahead, regathering and passing to Kenny Bromwich, who in turn punched the Steeden onto winger Sisa Waqa.
Waqa, who had made a costly earlier error, raced over for his side’s second try, which Cameron Smith converted.
The second half had barely been underway when Newcastle took a lead which, in less high standard and frenetic games, would have been match winning.
Storm fullback Billy Slater dropped a bomb after trying to take it above his head, AFL style, with second rower Chris Houston racing through to score.
Video referees Steve Clark and Luke Patten checked that Slater had not been illegally interfered with after his initial error and the try was given, converted by Tyrone Roberts.
Melbourne held a 12-4 advantage at the end of a first half played at breakneck speed, with a couple of flare-ups inciting a vocal crowd.
The Knights gave early notice that they meant business when Kevin Naiqama, a late inclusion for James McManus who has a stress fracture in a lower leg, made a searching break before being hauled down less than 20 metres out.
Newcastle was sending wave after wave of attack at the Storm line and only a dummy-half fumble prevented them from ramming home an earlier territorial advantage.
Cronk kicked for Slater, who tapped the ball down to Kevin Proctor at the 22-minutes mark, with Novocastrian Jeremy Smith somehow managing to hold up his fellow Kiwi back rower.
But after Naiqama expertly defused a bomb, fellow Knights winger Akuila Uate managed to open the scoring.
The Knights appealed for a shoulder charge ruling against Slater as Uate crossed in the southwestern corner but there was no joy. Thankfully for Newcastle, replays showed the Fijian crossing cleanly and Tyrone Roberts converted for 6-0.
Newcastle’s Chris Houston fumbled from the ensuing kick-off but the world champions were initially held out.
However, a 26th-minute tackle by Alex McKinnon and Darius Boyd on Slater changed the course of the first half. McKinnon came in second and appeared to make contact with Slater’s head.
“I’ve seen that, there’s contact with the head and it’s been confirmed,” said referee Gerard Sutton. Within seconds of the penalty, Melbourne centre Maurice Blair sliced through to score from clos0e range.
But captain Cameron Smith was unable to convert and when McKinnon was involved in a head clash with Jordan McLean in the 33rd minute, tempers flaired.
Knights Joey Leiula rushed in and received a caution, while Smith said the referees: “I accept it was a head clash but isn’t that why we’ve got the (shoulder charge) rule? Richie Fa’aoso got six weeks for that at the start of the year.”
The referees didn’t see it Smith’s way, ordering a turnover for a lost McLean ball. The rookie was diagnosed with a broken jaw and didn’t return.
And with two minutes to go in the first stanza, the Knights added to their total with Chris Houston crossing after Sisa Waqa fumbled Tyrone Roberts’. Roberts converted from out wide.
NEWCASTLE 18 (M Hilder C Houston A Uate tries T Roberts 3 goals) bt MELBOURNE 16 (M Blair J Bromwich S Waqa tries C Smith 2 goals) at AAMI Park. Referees: G Sutton/B Cummins. Crowd: 19,649.
Filed for: THE AGE