Melbourne can stamp their reputation as the greatest team of the NRL era after moving into next week’s grand final with a tense 14-12 win over Canberra.
The turning point came in the 59th minute on Saturday night when Raiders star Jack Wighton, with his team down two points, was sin-binned for holding down a breakaway Marika Koroibete.
Centre Cheyse Blair went over in the ensuing set, sending the 28,161 crowd at AAMI Park into raptures, and the Storm to their first grand final since their 2012 triumph.
Skipper Cameron Smith then kicked his team to an eight-point lead with a penalty goal.
Raiders winger Edrick Lee bombed a chance not long after, before Elliot Whitehead set up a grandstand finish with four minutes left on the clock.
But the minor premiers held on, booking a spot in Sunday week’s decider against Cronulla at ANZ Stadium and celebrating Cooper Cronk’s 300th game with a win.
Craig Bellamy said he was delighted to be heading to his sixth grand final as Storm coach after withstanding another tense challenge in an injury-riddled season.
“You’ve got to give the Raiders a lot of credit – they kept hanging in there,” he said.
“I’m really proud of this group, of what they’ve done, not only tonight but the whole season.”
In an absorbing battle in the wet, the league’s top defensive outfit kept the best attacking side to their equal-lowest score since April.
Play was momentarily stopped early when Josh Papalii’s 11th-minute try-saving tackle on Cronk also crushed his teammate Jason Croker, who struggled for the rest of the match.
It was one of the few pointscoring opportunities in a hotly contested first half, with a Smith penalty goal all that could separate the two sides inside the opening 20 minutes.
The first try finally came in the 23rd, when Raiders winger Jordan Rapana stretched out in the corner, breaking the club’s record for most tries in a season.
Playing in their first preliminary final in almost two decades, Canberra appeared on their way.
But in a show of big-game experience, the Storm almost pulled one back through Tohu Harris in the 27th, before milestone man Cronk did it all himself five minutes later.
The scoreboard hadn’t moved since halftime when Koroibete raced 90 metres downfield from a kick return and was brought down by Wighton 20 metres short of the line.
The Raiders’ star laid in the tackle for too long, giving referee Matt Cecchin no option but to send the fullback to the sin-bin and opening the door for the Storm to take ascendency.
The home side immediately took advantage, Blair crashing through in the next set and then Smith nailing a simple shot after Josh Hodgson gave away a penalty.
Beaten coach Ricky Stuart said his players were devastated but he could see a bright future ahead.
“The hurt tonight is the start of a really, I hope, competitive strong era for the Canberra Raiders,” he said.
“This loss will help us achieve success in the near future.”
The grand final will be the second time the Storm have progressed through to the decider since being infamously stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships.
Since then, they haven’t missed the finals, strengthening their claim as the best side in the NRL era under the tutelage of Bellamy.