Tonight's encounter is the 39th between the Vodafone Warriors and Melbourne since they first met at Mount Smart Stadium in 1998.
Will Evans looks back at the rivalry.
VODAFONE WARRIORS v MELBOURNE STORM (1998-2016)
During a 19-season rivalry, the Vodafone Warriors have crafted a well-deserved reputation as a bogey side for perennial contender Melbourne – particularly at the Storm’s home grounds.
The teams have staged many dramatic clashes, none more so than the Vodafone Warriors’ twin finals triumphs in the Victorian capital. Of the current NRL clubs, the powerful Storm’s record against the New Zealand club is worse than any club except regular heavyweights Canterbury and Manly.
Overall record: Played 38 – Melbourne won 20, Vodafone Warriors won 16, draws 2; Melbourne scored 825 points, Vodafone Warriors scored 575 points.
Biggest wins: Melbourne – 56-10 at Olympic Park, 2000; Vodafone Warriors – 28-12 at Olympic Park, 2002.
Longest winning streaks: Melbourne – 3 matches (twice – 2007-08 and 2012-13); Vodafone Warriors – 2 matches (5 times – 1998, 2002, 2008, 2010-11 and 2013-14).
Finals: Played 2 – Vodafone Warriors won 2.
Most appearances: Cameron Smith (Melbourne) – 26; Cooper Cronk (Melbourne) – 25; Ryan Hoffman (Melbourne and Vodafone Warriors) – 22; Matt Geyer (Melbourne) – 21; Billy Slater (Melbourne) – 21; Simon Mannering (Vodafone Warriors) – 21; Lance Hohaia (Vodafone Warriors) – 20.
Most tries: Billy Slater (Melbourne) – 15; Matt Geyer (Melbourne) – 13; Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 11; Will Chambers (Melbourne) – 10.
Most points: Cameron Smith (Melbourne) – 138; Matt Geyer (Melbourne) – 62; Billy Slater (Melbourne) – 60; Matt Orford (Melbourne) – 58; Shaun Johnson (Vodafone Warriors) – 44; Manu Vatuvei (Vodafone Warriors) – 44.
1998-2005 – Upset wins among heavy defeats
Melbourne’s dream start to its maiden season was halted by an embattled Auckland outfit that had won just one of its opening four matches, crashing to its first loss 12-16 at Mt Smart Stadium in round five in 1998. Two months later, the 14th-placed Warriors inflicted the ladder-leading Storm’s second of just two regular season home defeats.
Round 16, 1998 – Victory in madcap finish
A wildly fluctuating contest concluded with one of premiership football’s most incredible after-the-siren victories. Melbourne halfback Brett Kimmorley appeared to wrap up a tense contest for the competition front-runners at Olympic Park with a field goal two minutes from fulltime, giving the home side a 21-18 advantage over the Warriors. But, on the last play of the game, the Aucklanders swung the ball from one sideline to the other, before Stacey Jones launched a bomb after the siren sounded. Despite a horde of Storm players waiting at the kick’s destination, the Warriors managed to bat the ball back, and centre Nigel Vagana fired it out for an unmarked Tony Tatupu to score. After an agonising wait for the video referee’s decision as he dissected the myriad fumbles and rebounds in the movement, the try was awarded, handing victory to the Frank Endacott-coached Auckland team —a rare highlight in a tough season for the club.
The Storm responded with wins at home and away over the Warriors in 1999, including a nail-biting 16-14 win at Olympic Park that saw the visitors claw back from 16-2 down despite having skipper Matthew Ridge sent off for tripping.
The Warriors upset the defending premiers 14-6 in the opening round of 2000, but the Storm’s visit had a tragic postscript when popular football manager Michael Moore died outside an Auckland waterfront bar, an accident that rocked the club. The Storm and Warriors have competed for the Michael Moore Trophy every season since. Melbourne trounced Auckland 56-10 later in 2000 – the highest score conceded by the Vodafone Warriors in their first nine seasons – with Matt Geyer scoring four tries from fullback.
The Storm missed the finals for the first time in 2001 as the Vodafone Warriors qualified for a maiden finals campaign; a 24-all draw at Docklands in Melbourne – after the Storm had trailed 16-0 – in the penultimate round confirmed the Vodafone Warriors’ spot in the top eight and officially ended the Storm’s finals bid.
The Vodafone Warriors managed two wins over also-rans Melbourne on their way to the 2002 minor premiership, and shared the spoils one win apiece in 2004-05 despite finishing well out of top-eight contention while the Storm re-emerged as finals staples.
2006-09 – Vodafone Warriors thrive at Olympic Park
Melbourne began its watershed 2006 campaign with a 22-16 win over the Vodafone Warriors at Mt Smart, featuring a memorable 70-metre solo try by teenage gun Greg Inglis. The Storm later went on a club record winning streak as runaway minor premiers and turned Olympic Park into a graveyard for visiting teams – until the Vodafone Warriors came to town in the latter rounds.
Round 24, 2006 – Vodafone Warriors arrest winning streak
Competition leader Melbourne’s 11-match winning run came to end at the hands of the 12th-placed Vodafone Warriors in a remarkable clash at Olympic Park. The Storm led 14-12 at the break, but a second half double to Vodafone Warriors fullback Brent Webb – including the 80-metre match-winner set up by a long bust from winger Manu Vatuvei in the 73rd minute – clinched the upset. The loss also snapped Melbourne’s streak of 15 victories at home.
Melbourne won its ensuing three matches against the Vodafone Warriors, including a courageous 4-2 win at Mt Smart in 2007 that coach Craig Bellamy described as the best in his five seasons at the club. Missing six Origin reps, the Storm prevailed thanks to a Jeremy Smith try in the 71st minute.
In the opening match of Melbourne’s title defence in 2008, Billy Slater scored a hat-trick in a 32-18 victory over the Vodafone Warriors at Docklands; the Storm were fined $10,000 by the NRL in the aftermath for failing to take the field as directed, keeping the Vodafone Warriors waiting on the pitch for several minutes prior to kick-off. An 8-6 victory in the Auckland wet helped the Vodafone Warriors scrape into the ’08 finals, and also brought Storm forward Michael Crocker’s extraordinary 34-match winning streak at club and rep levels to an end.
Qualifying final, 2008 – Vodafone Warriors pull off miracle upset
The Vodafone Warriors pulled off an extraordinary last-gasp 18-15 victory over Melbourne at Olympic Park, becoming the first eighth-placed team to defeat the minor premiers in a decade of the controversial McIntyre finals system. The hosts led 8-2 early, but tries to Manu Vatuvei and Jerome Ropati saw the underdogs lead 14-8 soon after the break. A touchdown to Israel Folau and a Greg Inglis field goal edged the Storm in front, seemingly extinguishing the Vodafone Warriors’ gallant upset bid. But with time running into the last couple of minutes and the Vodafone Warriors deep inside their own territory, Ropati and Vatuvei combined brilliantly to send Michael Witt into the clear; after a bizarre and risky pre-try celebration, Witt dotted down in the corner just before the Storm cover defence arrived, snatching a famous triumph. The defeat was just Melbourne’s second at Olympic Park since going down to the Vodafone Warriors during the 2006 regular season.
In 2009, the clubs squared off in the first of what became an annual Anzac Day showdown in Melbourne. The Vodafone Warriors set aside a flailing start to the season to play the role of difficult guest yet again, holding the Storm to a 14-all draw. The Storm notched a 30-0 victory in Auckland in the final round to conclude a disappointing season for the Vodafone Warriors.
2010-14 – Storm’s hosting troubles continue
In its last home match before moving into the brand new AAMI Park, Melbourne hosted the Vodafone Warriors at Docklands on Anzac Day, 2010. Unfortunately for the Vodafone Warriors, the Storm had been shattered by the revelations of salary cap breaches – and the NRL’s punishment, which included the stripping of two premierships and preventing the club from participating in the 2010 finals – just days earlier. Craig Bellamy’s fired-up side took their frustrations out on the Vodafone Warriors, sweeping to a devastating 40-6 win, with Kiwi winger Matt Duffie scoring a double in his NRL debut.
However, the Vodafone Warriors improved on their impressive record in Melbourne with a stirring 18-14 upset on their first visit to AAMI Park on Anzac Day in 2011. The Storm recorded a hard-fought 16-8 win at Mt Smart later that season, but more home-ground pain awaited in the finals.
Preliminary final, 2011 – Vodafone Warriors stun Storm to reach grand final
The Vodafone Warriors’ 20-12 triumph in Melbourne to advance to the 2011 grand final was destined to take on mythical status in the club’s narrative. Already regarded as a bogey side for the powerhouse Storm and always enjoying overwhelming crowd support in the Victorian capital, the Auckland-based side still started as the rank outsider after a rollercoaster ride to the preliminary final, but led 14-12 after an enthralling, seesawing first half. Outstanding commitment in defence held the Storm scoreless during the gripping second stanza, before rookie halfback Shaun Johnson’s mesmerising cross-field jaunt to set up Lewis Brown’s 77th-minute match-winner that has since passed into finals folklore. James Maloney’s booming sideline conversion of Brown’s try sealed the Vodafone Warriors’ shock decider berth and ended the shell-shocked minor premiers’ campaign.
A Will Chambers hat-trick spearheaded Melbourne’s 32-14 Anzac Day win in 2012, kicking away after the scores were locked 14-all – largely thanks to a pair of miraculous try groundings by Vodafone Warriors winger Bill Tupou – midway through the second half; the Storm scored three tries in the final 12 minutes. The Storm overturned an early 12-0 score-line to down the Vodafone Warriors 22-12 on an Auckland road trip just five weeks later.
During a disastrous start to 2013 that garnered just two wins in the opening 10 rounds, the Vodafone Warriors again saved their best form for the Storm. An 80-metre intercept try by Shaun Johnson gave the Vodafone Warriors a 16-10 lead, but Will Chambers’ second try – after two dubious passes in the lead-up – with nine minutes left was the decisive moment in the Storm’s 28-18 win. The Vodafone Warriors responded with a thrilling 30-22 victory over the defending champs at home as their giant-killing mid-season run continued.
The Vodafone Warriors overcame another dismal start in 2014 – winning just two of their opening seven matches – to ensure their record of never losing three straight matches in Melbourne remained intact. With former Storm halfback and assistant coach Andrew McFadden at the helm of the Vodafone Warriors, winger David Fusitu’a, playing in his third NRL game, showed tremendous athleticism to score the opening try, before brilliantly laying on the match-winner for Johnson in a courageous 16-10 Anzac Day success. The Storm’s all-time win rate at home is 77 per cent, but they have won just 11 of their 18 games hosting the Vodafone Warriors.
After veteran Storm and Kangaroos backrower Ryan Hoffman joined the Vodafone Warriors prior to the 2015 season, the clubs’ traditional Anzac Day fixture was moved to Easter Monday, with the Storm prevailing 30-14 at AAMI Park. The Vodafone Warriors hit back later in the season with a high-quality 28-14 win, which included Nathan Friend’s unforgettable somersault offload in the lead-up to a Tuimoala Lolohea try, and a stunning solo four-pointer from Shaun Johnson.
Squaring off twice in the first eight rounds of 2016, Melbourne notched two wins against the Vodafone Warriors in a season for the first time in four years. The Storm held on for a 21-14 victory at Mt Smart and – with the teams’ AAMI Park clash restored to Anzac Day – obliterated their visitors 42-0 at home.
Foundation Auckland Warrior and Melbourne Storm stalwart Stephen Kearney, who had a lengthy stint as Bellamy’s assistant coach after retiring from the playing ranks, took the reins of the Vodafone Warriors in 2017, helping lure highly sought-after Storm back-rower Tohu Harris to Auckland from 2018.
Shaun Johnson v Cooper Cronk: Brilliant Vodafone Warriors halfback Johnson and clinical Storm linchpin Cronk have squared off 19 times at NRL and Test level, with Cronk holding a 12-7 advantage. Their contrasting styles have framed several enthralling duels, with Johnson powerless to stop Cronk and company in the 2013 World Cup final, before outpointing the Maroons maestro in two spectacular performances during the 2014 Four Nations.
Prominent players for both clubs
Stephen Kearney: Tough, skilful second-rower Kearney, a veteran of 45 Tests for New Zealand, played 79 games as a foundation Auckland Warrior before linking with Melbourne in 1999. He celebrated in the Storm’s grand final triumph in his first season there and ultimately made 139 appearances for the club, departing for Hull FC at the end of 2004. Kearney began his coaching journey as an assistant to Craig Bellamy at the Storm, and, after guiding the Kiwis to World Cup and Four Nations success, he coaching Parramatta’s NRL team in 2011-12. Returning to the assistant ranks with the Broncos, Kearney eventually gave up the national team’s reins in late-2016 to take over at the Vodafone Warriors in 2017.
Tony Martin: After a stint with the London Broncos from 1996-98, he made his NRL debut as a 19-year-old with the original Storm squad in 1998, going on to make 69 appearances for the club to the end of the 2000 season. He was among the try scorers in Melbourne’s 1999 grand final win over the Dragons. The centre returned to the London Broncos from 2001-03 before being signed by the Vodafone Warriors, playing 53 times from 2004-07 scoring 270 points, ninth on the club’s all-time points-scoring list. He finished his playing career in England with Wakefield, the Crusaders and Hull FC with a career total of more than 320 top-grade appearances.
Paul Whatuira: Wainuiomata junior Whatuira cut his teeth in first grade with the Auckland Warriors in 2000, coming off the bench five times. He scored two tries in six games as a winger for the Storm in 2001, before winning grand finals with Penrith (2003) and Wests Tigers (2005) as one of the competition’s most underrated centres. Whatuira played 16 Tests for the Kiwis from 2004-07 and finished his professional career with stints at Huddersfield and Parramatta.
Henry Perenara: Auckland-born Perenara debuted for the Warriors a week after his 18th birthday, playing three top-grade games in 2000. He then moved to Melbourne, playing 33 games across two seasons and making his sole Test appearance for the Kiwis, before stints with the Dragons, Eels and Sharks. Perenara has been an NRL referee since 2011.
John Carlaw: Newcastle junior Carlaw earned his first-grade spurs with the short-lived Hunter Mariners, before playing 24 of the Storm’s 27 games in the club’s stunning 1998 debut season. The centre/winger had stints with Balmain and Wests Tigers before a career-best two-season stay with the Vodafone Warriors, playing in the 2002 grand final among 35 appearances for the Auckland side.during the 2014 Four Nations. e outpointing the Maroons maestro in two spectauc
Wairangi Koopu: Hardworking backrower Koopu played 159 games for the Vodafone Warriors from 1999-2008 and represented the Kiwis in three Tests in 2004-05. He wrapped up his NRL career with 12 games for the Storm in 2009.
Ryan Shortland: Born in Masterton but playing his junior footy in Coogee, Shortland made one appearance off the bench for the Storm in 2007 before linking with the
Vodafone Warriors. The centre scored three tries in five games for the Warriors during 2008, but made a switch to rugby union with Otago and then English club Newcastle.
James Maloney: Tenacious goalkicking half Maloney played four games for eventual premiers Melbourne in 2009, but was still a relative unknown when he arrived at the Vodafone Warriors in 2010. He scored 547 points in 75 games for the club and played a vital role in its charge to the 2011 grand final but, homesick for Sydney, he moved to the Roosters in 2013, achieving premiership success and Origin honours.
Dane Nielsen: Recognised as a solid defensive centre, Nielsen played 78 games for Melbourne, featuring in the club’s 2009 and 2012 grand final wins and representing Queensland in three Origins in 2011-12. He joined the Vodafone Warriors in 2013 and played 30 games for the club across two seasons. Nielsen has since had stints at St George Illawarra, Bradford and South Sydney.
Todd Lowrie: Another highly-rated member of Melbourne’s 2012 grand final side, former Newcastle and Parramatta lock Lowrie played 64 games for the Storm before heading to the Vodafone Warriors in 2013. The move lasted just one season, however, seeking a compassionate release to join the Broncos after 21 games in Vodafone Warriors colours.
Nathan Friend: Toowoomba product Friend made his NRL debut in the famous Origin-depleted Broncos’ defeat of Wests Tigers in 2002 under Brisbane assistant coach Craig Bellamy, before joining Bellamy at Melbourne in 2003. The hooker played 34 games across four seasons, culminating in an appearance off the bench in the Storm’s 2006 grand final loss. A mainstay during the Titans’ first five seasons, Friend joined the Warriors in 2012 and played 86 games in four years – a stint perhaps best remembered for his freakish upside-down pass against the Storm that won the Headline Moment of the Year at the 2015 Dally Ms. Friend finished an admirable 242-game career back at the Titans in 2016.
Ryan Hoffman: The tall second rower carved out a reputation as one of Melbourne’s big four of this century, making his debut in 2003 and forming a key combination with fellow Storm stalwarts Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. After 170 appearances he left Melbourne to have one season with Wigan in the English Super League in 2011 (helping Wigan win the Challenge Cup final) before spending three more seasons with the Storm from 2012-14 lifting his NRL career tally to 245 games. He joined the Vodafone Warriors in 2015, was made captain in 2016 and is now approaching 300 career games.