It could have been one of the major comebacks of the 2017 season if Manly had prevailed, but even so the Storm’s 30-26 win over the Sea Eagles on Saturday afternoon was an upset of sorts when it comes to the Melbourne mythology. Both teams arrived at Lottoland with something to prove, having suffered humiliating losses at their home grounds in Round 6. Add to that the fact that Manly were once again playing at home and Melbourne had the additional humiliation of losing a grand final rematch and the stage was set for something of a grudge match, even if the teams didn’t exactly or directly grudge each other.
It has to be said, right, up, that the Big Three went a long way towards restoring their performance and synergy after last week’s game against Cronulla. Over the first half at Lottoland, try after Melbourne try surged through, with Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk having a hand in virtually all of them. In particular, the game was a testament to the cognitive power of Smith – most of the tries felt like his in spirit – and his unparalleled ability to organise and manage his team under pressure. Slater, too, seems to be renewing himself week by week, and came very close to scoring his first 2017 try on Saturday afternoon as well.
If Smith’s mind is unparalleled in the NRL, then the Storm wingers are at the top of their game as well. Last week they were pretty well contained by the Sharks, but at Lottoland they were able to flex their muscles and add their agility to the Big Three’s game plans, forcing Manly to play most of their big moves up the middle of the ruck and turn to quick offloads and rapid play-the-balls in order to make headway. Over the first half, that synergy between the spine and the wing – and within the spine – allowed the Storm to effectively silence any concerns about their attack or their completion rate, with the Sea Eagles finding themselves defending right on their goal line for long stretches at a time.
On the other side of the Steeden, it felt as if we were presented with two completely different versions of the Sea Eagles. First, there was the sloppy, lackluster side that we saw – mostly – against the Dragons last week. This was the side that allowed the Storm to bring in five tries over the first half, as well as the side that bookended the first half with two lazy kickoff errors, neither of which seemed reducible to the slight breeze blowing at the Sea Eagles’ back. For long stretches, it looked as if this Manly side weren’t even trying, and the the Storm didn’t have to try that hard to bring in – you guessed it – tries.
Yet there was also another version of Manly – a version that occurred intermittently in the first half and became more prominent in the second, transforming an eighteen point lead into a four-point lead and forcing the Storm to remain tryless in the second half despite scoring five in the first. To put it bluntly, this version of Manly came to the fore whenever they scored a try, since there were no really flukey or lucky tries for the Sea Eagles on Saturday afternoon. Instead, every four-pointer felt as if it could and should have been a turning-point, steadily building the momentum required to make it feel as if Manly could really win it.
In part, this was due to how deftly the Manly tries targeted and demystified the key Melbourne playmakers, as if to prove to the rest of the Sea Eagles side that the men in purple were, to quote a Daft Punk album, human after all. In the first try for the Brookvale boys, Frank Winterstein ploughed through Slater and through the subsequent tackle to ground the ball right beside the posts. In the second, Jorge Taufua dove right under Suliasi Vunivalu to land the Steeden so close to the corner that the Bunker had to be called upon to discern whether he was still in the field of play at the moment he grounded it.
Similarly, Brian Kelly’s try right on the halftime siren targeted both Cronk and Vunivalu, as if capitalizing upon and continuing the mad tackle from Taufua on Young Tounamaipea minutes before that helped get Manly back down the Melbourne end in the first place. At moment like this, we got a real glimpse of the mad conviction and courage could bring to the game if they really chose, and Trent Barrett seems to have said as much to them in the sheds, since they burst into the field during the second half with a new sense of mission and purpose.
In his first try of the season – and the bravest of the afternoon – Jake Trbojevic copped a beautiful flat pass from Tom to plough straight through the ruck, while a terrific catch and short pass from Akila Uate to Brenton Lawrence allowed both players to outsmart Vunivula in the space of a second for the final Manly try of the day at the 65th minute. Every single one of those moments felt like a turning-point, and if Slater hadn’t managed to get right under Brian Kelly at the 55th minute the Sea Eagles would certainly have brought home the win.
Now, I don’t want to minimise the massive achievement of the Storm in the opening half. At one point there, it literally felt as if they might score every couple of minutes, with the tries just rolling in one after the other. Both Vunivalu and Felise Kaufusi managed to get two tries each, while Ado-Carr and Tounamaipea also managed four-pointers in the first twenty minutes. Sure, Smith might have had a bit of an unlucky night with the boot, but when so many of your tries come from wingers, it’s always going to be more challenging to convert.
Here’s the thing, though. In those opening minutes Manly were so ragged – they stuffed up the first kickoff, for crying out loud – that bringing in soft tries perhaps wasn’t as much of an achievement as it might be in another context. I don’t support the Sea Eagles or the Storm, and don’t have particularly strong feelings either way about them, but there can be no doubt that Manly were pretty easy to beat across that opening stanza, apart from the isolated moments where they really seemed to gather, gel and achieve some consistency and conviction.
What’s troubling for the Storm is that, when Manly managed to do this more consistently over the second half, they were left tryless. Normally, the Storm don’t have this difficulty with completing and making good upon their opening promise. In fact, I can’t think of a team that are so great at having the last word, with Smith, Cronk and – more distantly – Slater seeming to have their own special way of placing a personal coda on every game. Here, however, that manifestly did not occur – neither at the end of the first half (when Manly scored) nor at the end of the second half, when Manly kept Melbourne tryless.
In some ways, I think that has to be even more worrying for Melbourne than the loss against Cronulla last week – and certainly equally as worrying to a notorious perfectionist like Craig Bellamy. For while the Big Three were firing on all cylinders in the first half, the second half forced me to question whether they’re starting to glimpse the end of the consistency that defined them at their greatest. By the last minutes – the most critical minutes – they’d started to fade a little, with Brenton Lawrence forcing Slater to cough up the ball ten minutes out from the end during what could have been a critical Melbourne set and Smith unable to bring in his regular magic to mop up the damage.
In a weird way, then, and despite the victory, it feels as if the stakes are even higher for the Storm when it comes to taking on the Warriors at AAMI Park next round. What Melbourne needed this week was an emphatic and unequivocal victory and, while Manly might have seemed to be the perfect team to provide it, the script didn’t quite go as they planned, nor as I would have predicted. Don’t call it a comeback, then, but a win that somehow makes things at Melbourne more urgent, as well as a reminder of what Manly can actually do when they get their act together and play real, driving, blinding football.