Melbourne Storm captain Christian Welch’s season is over. So is George Jennings. And Brandon Smith broke a bone in his hand and is looking at up to a month on the sidelines.
The Storm continued their excellent opening-round record on Saturday night with a 26-16 win over the Wests Tigers, but it came at one hell of a cost.
It was an almighty effort from the Storm who lost Smith in the opening minute, Jennings midway through the first half to a ruptured ACL, then Welch two minutes out from full-time with a ruptured Achilles.
There were sombre scenes in the dressing rooms with coach Craig Bellamy especially saddened for Welch given he had already missed two seasons with a knee injury.
“It’s really disappointing for George and certainly Christian,” Bellamy said.
“He’s had a few tough times now and doesn’t deserve that. But we’ll back him all the way to get back.
“We should be so happy and jumping out of our skins, but we feel so down for the two guys that have those serious injuries.”
The Tigers were fortunate not to lose Luciano Leilua to serious injury after a cannonball tackle that will attract the attention of the match review committee.
Leilua winced in pain approaching the half hour when he was held up in a tackle by Melbourne pair Kenny Bromwich and Josh King before rookie Trent Loiero dived into his legs from behind.
The cannonball tackle was on everyone’s minds, especially the Tigers, after Jackson Hastings somehow survived a shot from Sydney Roosters prop Lindsay Collins during the trials.
Hastings avoided injury and Collins was fined for his effort. Collins found himself in trouble again on Saturday when placed on report for a tackle where he was again third man in and dived at Newcastle winger Enari Tuala.
Mick Ennis spotted Loiero’s effort and said during the TV commentary: “We can’t keep waiting until someone does an ACL to outlaw it.”
Tigers coach Michael Maguire said: “I’ll have to have another look, but I’ll leave that up to the hierarchy to sort that one out. It’s definitely something we never practise. It’s something the game needs to watch. It’s pretty dangerous.
“It’s a bad tackle. You can see ‘Luce’ was hobbling around for a fair while. I’m sure they’ll deal with it. It definitely got him.”
If the Tigers were ever going to beat a powerhouse like Melbourne, it was on this warm night in Sydney.
Cameron Munster was suspended – he returns on Thursday for the clash against South Sydney and coach Craig Bellamy’s 500th game as head coach – Jesse Bromwich was struck down by COVID while hooker Harry Grant was also suspended.
They started well with Luke Brooks looking more than comfortable with new recruit Jackson Hastings by his side. Back-rower Kelma Tuilagi was a handful every time he punched the ball up on the left edge.
When Tigers winger Ken Maumalo jagged a second courtesy of a flat Brooks kick straight after the break yet another weekend boilover was brewing.
But the Storm are a serious team who know how to win. They especially know how to get the cash in round one. Their last defeat on the opening weekend coming way back in 2001.
But that record was on the line until Hughes stepped off his right foot three times and shuffled infield to score a try under the posts, then denied Maumalo a hat-trick at the other end of the field, before bursting downfield to help set up Xavier Coates’ acrobatic try.
Ryan Papenhuyzen got himself more involved as the game went on. The pint-sized fullback looks set for another big year. How many kids are about to embrace the blond tips in his mullet?
“It was a tough gritty win, we put pressure on ourselves in the first half,” Papenhuyzen said.
“Injuries are part of the game. We didn’t respond to them early on, but we were pleased with the second half.
“We’ve done a lot of work in the pre-season about believing and being in the moments and reacting and standing up and being the guys who can influence the game.”
The Tigers will need to lift next Sunday against a Newcastle side set to be given a warm reception by a heaving Hunter crowd. The Storm will be given their own hero’s return at AAMI Park against the Rabbits.
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