A late penalty goal by Melbourne captain Cameron Smith enabled Storm coach Craig Bellamy to celebrate his 300th premiership win against an undermanned St George Illawarra side in wet and miserable conditions at Win Stadium on Thursday night.
Smith secured the 16-14 triumph with a 75th minute penalty goal as Melbourne extended their winning run to seven consecutive matches to ensure they will retain a six-point lead at the top of the NRL ladder at the completion of this weekend’s round 16.
However, the depleted Dragons ensured Bellamy had a long wait before knowing whether he would join Wayne Bennett, Tim Sheens and Brian Smith as the only coaches to have won 300 premiership matches.
Bellamy is just the second coach after Bennett to have achieved the feat with a single club and Smith, who will next week become the first player to play 400 NRL matches, has been involved in almost every win overseen by his mentor.
"Some people ask me what makes a good coach, it's good players," Bellamy said. "Next week, it is a really important milestone for Cameron and for what he has done for our club and what he has done for the game, we should all salute him.
“Other than finals games I don’t know whether this club will ever have a more important game than next week. It is a huge honour for Cameron and it is a huge honour for our club.
"Our game is 120 years old or whatever it is and Cameron is going to be the first guy to ever do this, and I think it is going to be a long time before anybody else does it."
Smith has played more than 500 elite level matches, including 56 Tests, 42 State of Origins, World Club Challenge and All Stars appearances, and his experience was a significant advantage for Melbourne on Thursday night.
When he wasn't kicking match-winning penalty goals or running from dummy half, the former Australian and Queensland captain was directing halfback Brodie Croft and team-mates around like an on-field coach.
Hughes finishes after props break it open
With Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Tyson Frizell and Paul Vaughan on Origin duty, Tariq Sims suspended, Gareth Widdop, James Graham and Zac Lomax injured and Jack de Belin unavailable due to the NRL’s “no-fault stand down” policy, the Dragons were missing the combined experience of 1371 Telstra Premiership appearances.
The Storm were also without Origin representatives Cameron Munster, Felise Kaufusi, Will Chambers, Josh Addo- Carr, Christian Welch and Dale Finucane, as well as injured centre Curtis Scott, whose combined experience totalled 673 NRL matches.
It was a sign of how depleted the Dragons forwards stocks were that Jeremy Latimore scored the opening try in the seventh minute – a time of the match he had not previously been on the field since his last starting appearance with Penrith in 2014.
The veteran prop’s elevation to the starting line-up enabled St George Illawarra team-mate Mitch Allgood to make his first NRL appearance in five years when he was playing for Parramatta and setting “schnitzel challenge” records before becoming a vegan during a stint at Hull KR.
Latimore, who did not see any action until the 56th minute of last Friday night’s defeat of North Queensland after hitching a ride to WIN Stadium on the back of a motorbike, pirouetted his way over the Storm line from close range to give St George Illawarra an early 6-0 lead.
The Dragons appeared set to score again soon after when an offload by second-rower Luciano Leilua sent fullback Matt Dufty flying into space and he found fellow speedster Jai Field in support but the rookie five-eighth was tackled by Melbourne fullback Jahrome Hughes.
The Storm hit back in the 17th minute when Croft put Joe Stimson into a gap and the Belmore-bound second-rower crashed over to give Cameron Smith the opportunity to level the scores at 6-6 with his conversion.
The try followed a knock on by Field, who was placed on report for a crusher tackle, and another dropped ball by winger Mikaele Ravalawa on his own 30-metre line put the Dragons under more pressure.
Match: Dragons v Storm
Round 16 -
Venue: WIN Stadium, Wollongong
A 7-2 first half penalty count didn’t help but despite a glut of first half possession the Telstra Premiership leaders did not breach the St George Illawarra try line again before the interval and went to the break with an 8-6 lead after a 38th minute Smith goal.
A Field penalty goal levelled the scores at 8-8 in the 59th minute but Melbourne props Jesse Bromwich and Nelson Asofa-Solomona combined to put Hughes over for a 60-metre try just minutes later with clever off-loading.
Ravalawa again drew the scores level in the 69th minute when he ducked under the attempted tackles of Bromwich and his brother Kenny off an inside pass from Dufty to cross for his ninth try of the season.
However, Smith ensured the Storm’s winning run extended to seven matches when he kicked a 75th minute penalty goal after St George Illawarra second-rower Jacob Host impeded Hughes from challenging Dufty as he fielded a kick.
"We just found a way," Bellamy said. "I'm just really glad we could drag out a win. It could have gone either way. This team seems to be able to find a way to win, which is a good sign.”