A Cooper Cronk field goal and a late Marika Koroibete try killed off the Vodafone Warriors' brave bid for more Michael Moore Trophy glory over Melbourne in today's third-round NRL clash at Mount Smart Stadium.
After trailing 4-18 at halftime, tries to Solomone Kata and Jonathan Wright had the Vodafone Warriors right back in the hunt midway through the second half.
They started the second period ideally, probing down their left for Kata to burrow over from dummy half for his 15th career try. Shaun Johnson couldn't convert but the margin was down to 8-12 after 47 minutes.
On the 60-minute mark they drew level when Jeff Robson's floated pass put Wright in at the left corner, Johnson brilliant with the conversion to put his side ahead (14-12) for the first time in the battle.
The lead lasted just eight minutes before the game was all tied up 14-14 when Smith kicked a penalty from in front of the posts.
It proved to be the prelude to heartache for the Vodafone Warriors.
After they turned over possession near halfway, the Storm clinically positioned Cronk for a field goal attempt he was never likely to miss. With four minutes to play Melbourne had a 15-14 lead extended to 21-14 when a loose pass gifted Koroibete a saloon passage to the line to stop the contest with a minute left.
It was a cruel end for the home side in a match in which they fought so valiantly.
While they were disrupted through losing veteran hooker Issac Luke yesterday, the Vodafone Warriors opened the match solidly with on the-money set-ending kicks earning good field position. There was sting in the defence, too, and energetic debutant Jazz Tevaga was anything but overawed.
The Storm, as is their wont, soaked it up, worked for an error and forced one.
It enabled the visitors to camp, gaining repeat sets from back-to-back penalties and then another error. The Vodafone Warriors scrambled but when Cronk pushed through a grubber they couldn't cover it, Kenny Bromwich stealing through for a try Smith converted making it 6-0 after 13 minutes.
Only four minutes later the Vodafone Warriors concocted the perfect response.
Putting heat on the Storm's line they went to their right with a Blake Ayshford pass giving Tuimoala Lolohea the only invitation he needed to score wide out. No conversion from Johnson but they were just two points adrift as the game hit the 20-minute mark.
The on-field officials gave Melbourne some help with a debatable six-again call and the pressure was wound up again, this time the Storm going to their right and fullback Cameron Munster finging his way through after 25 minutes. Another conversion from Smith from close to the posts had the score out to 12-4.
There was more anxiety at the 32-minute mark as the Storm pressed again, twice going close, but the Vodafone Warriors reacted gallantly to protect their line. The NRL bunker was certainly being kept heavily employed, not to mention coming up with calls which met with approval from the Mount Smart faithful.
A last tackle kick by James Gavet, of all players, produced a flare-up and had him placed on report five minutes before halftime. He chased through on his kick and grassed Munster low, the fullback going down and the call somehow made that Gavet was at fault. The players shaped up, a defensive penalty went Melbourne's way and the crowd seethed over the perceived injustice of the tackle being placed on report.
Faced with more defensive duties the Vodafone Warriors held out again in a half when the Storm had dominated possession in the first half but the numbers evened up in an gruelling second 40 minutes completing 20 of 22 sets.
The Vodafone Warriors had been game in the face of so much pressure and it was that work that put them in good stead to come again with a fresh mindset in the second half.
They went on to head Melbourne 4-1 in line breaks and missed only 19 tackles to Melbourne's 27.
Individually fullback Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was the busiest ball carrier on the field, hitting 200 metres for the third straight match - his best so far with 229 from 24 runs including seven tackle breaks. Bodene Thompson (52) and Simon Mannering (40) - both without a miss - while Tevaga finished with 33 tackles and only one miss.
Match details | Mount Smart Stadium, Auckland
Vodafone Warriors 14 (Tuimoala Lolohea, Solomone Kata, Jonathan Wright tries; Shaun Johnson conversion).
Melbourne Storm 21 (Kenny Bromwich, Cameron Munster. Marika Koroibete tries; Cameron Smith 3 conversions, penalty; Cooper Cronk field goal).
Halftime: 12-4 Storm.
Referees: Henry Perenara and Dave Munro.
Vodafone Warriors | Roger Tuivasa-Sheck; Tuimoala Lolohea, Blake Ayshford, Solomone Kata, Jonathan Wright; Jeff Robson, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Jazz Tevaga, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Ben Matulino, Nathaniel Roache, Charlie Gubb, James Gavet.