20-year Memory: Shark Park Comeback
Very little was known about the Melbourne Storm team that arrived at Shark Park for the opening game of the 2003 season.
A new coach, new captain and several unknown, young players.
Nobody could predict it at the time but this game would signal the start of a successful journey that Storm fans would continue to enjoy to this day.
The Club had appointed former Canberra Raider and Broncos assistant Craig Bellamy as head coach.
Also making their Storm debuts at Cronulla that day were Dallas Johnson and a 19-year-old former jockey apprentice named Billy Slater.
After seeing their side miss the finals the previous two seasons Storm fans finally had reason to be optimistic. However that optimism did not last long as the Sharks raced out to a 20-0 lead in the blink of an eye.
As far as new beginnings go for sporting clubs, things do not get much rockier than that.
Matt Geyer, hardly a seasoned veteran at 28 but one of the team’s more experienced players at the time, recalls the doubts that had crept into his mind just 20 minutes into this new era at Storm.
“I remember thinking ‘oh god, what about all this work we had done in pre-season?’” Geyer said.
“The Craig Bellamy pre-seasons have since become quite famous over the years and we trained bloody hard, I’ve never trained so hard. You go through all these doubts. ‘Did we train too hard?’ ‘Maybe we shouldn’t have trained so hard’
“What happened after that is in folklore now.”
Shortly after 20th minute, Semi Tadulala got up to play the ball from his own 40 metre line. Little did the NRL world know but this was the moment they would be introduced to the greatest fullback of the modern era.
Slater, playing in the centres that day, swept in and collected the ball from dummy half before bursting through the Sharks line at halfway. Some fancy footwork saw him fly past Sharks fullback David Peachey as though he was standing still before taking on a younger Paul Gallen and scoring his maiden NRL try.
That piece of individual magic may have only cut the margin to 16 points but everyone at Shark Park that day knew they had just witnessed something special.
“His first try in the NRL was a typical Billy Slater run, although he was about 20kg lighter then than he is now,” Geyer said.
“He was running like a new-born giraffe, his legs were kicking everywhere.
“He didn’t understand where he was but in a good way…. for Billy it was just a game of footy.”
As has become commonplace over the last 14 seasons, Slater’s brilliance would prove the turning point.
Storm crossed again before the break and headed into the sheds with renewed hoped and a 22-10 score line.
A second half purple patch would follow as Steve Bell celebrated a hat-trick while Geyer secured a double himself. However the beloved playmaker is loathed to remember the way he carried on as he crossed for his second try.
“I remember when Robbo (Peter Robinson) trapped that ball and put me in the clear all, I had to do was put it down,” Geyer said.
“I looked around and no one was near me so I started doing the fist pump and I hate that. I hate when players do that and the next year that image was actually on my footy card!”
“But it must have been that feeling that we’d had a hard off season and we’d come back with these kids here. I don’t think I celebrated like that again or before.”
The cause for the out-of-character celebration was probably justified, Storm had pulled off a thrilling 36-32 comeback win. The 20-point turnaround remains to this day the biggest comeback in the Club’s history.
The Craig Bellamy era may have only just begun but it appeared the rugby league stars were beginning to align in Melbourne.
“The Craig Bellamy methodology hadn’t quite kick in at that early stage but it was quite an apt finish because it spoke quite a bit about how his teams were going to be,” Geyer said.
“You couldn’t forsee what was to come. People ask me about Cam (Smith), he lived with me at the start of that year. I thought he was okay, a very talented boy but he didn’t seem to have much drive. If anything he was a lazy bugger.
“Players who had been through the Club at that time as 18-year-olds; Inglis, Folau, Smith, Slater and Cronk. You wonder if they would have been as good as they were had they not been down here in Melbourne.
“They just seemed to thrive in the situation that was created for them.”
Storm went on to win 15 games in that 2003 season to finish in fifth, their best result since the premiership year in 1999.
Slater was rightfully crowned the Dally M Rookie of the Year courtesy, in part, to an incredible 19 tries in his debut season.
Fast-forward 14 years and Melbourne Storm has made 13 finals appearances, reached five grand finals and won 66% of games.
It may not have been obvious then, but that afternoon at Shark Park in 2003 would set the Club on a course from which it would never look back.
Melbourne Storm 36
Tries: Steve Bell 3, Matt Geyer 2, Matt Orford, Billy Slater
Goals: Matt Orford 4
Cronulla Sharks 32
Tries: Phil Bailey, Greg Bird, Matt Hilder, Jason Kent, David Peachey, Jason Stevens
Goals: Brett Kimmorley