New Zealand have come away from AAMI Park with their second loss in a row but they still have plenty to feel good about. Apart from a tendency to gift the Storm field position with penalty after penalty in the first half, they were probably the strongest team on the park, showing grit under the high ball and doing a good job of containing the Melbourne wingers until Josh Ado-Carr crossed in the line in the final fifteen minutes.
The result was a real neck and neck game: the Warriors got a penalty, then the Storm got a penalty; the Warriors got a try, the Storm got a try; the Warriors missed a conversion, the Storm missed a conversion. Even with the final Melbourne surge no team was ever ahead by more than a converted try, with Billy Slater looking like his old self for the first time since rejoining the team as he put down some of his most dangerous runs and tackles this season. Combined with a stellar night from Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, it was nice to see two fullbacks back in form after a prolonged absence from the game.
On the New Zealand side David Fusitua managed to come up with a double, putting down tries early in both halves. Like Corey Oates’ two tries earlier this round, both of Fusitua’s efforts were nearly identical in their execution – the kind of set play that summarised the Warriors’ professionalism over the course of the game. At the ten minute mark, a perfectly timed string of passes from Kieran Foran to Shaun Johnson to Blake Ayshford set up Fusitua. Three minutes into the second stanza the formula was repeated, with RTS standing in for Ayshford.
One other critical difference the second time around was Johnson’s input, with the Kiwi halfback running deep into the defensive line to open up space for Fusitua on the outside. Throughout the entire game, Johnson had an unusual intensity about him, bringing in some big tackles in defence and strangely sombre when setting up his conversions and penalty goals. Mercurial as ever, his fifth tackle options weren’t always the best, but it was clear that he had a lot riding in the game, and the team followed suit,
Nowhere was that clearer than in a particularly dramatic sequence just before half time in which the Warriors had to choose whether to tap or take the two thirty-five metres out from their line. Normally that decision happens spontaneously and collectively, but as the team became more indecisive and looked for guidance to the sidelines, Johnson – who clearly wanted to tap – became visibly frustrated and exasperated. Few players have such an expressive face when they’re irritated, and while he may have put it through the posts it was clear he regarded the decision as a critical turning point in the game.
While New Zealand wouldn’t manage to put down another four points they showed some defensive dexterity when it came to trysaving, which was almost as good. Again the hero, Fusitua put through a brave intercept of Suliasi Vunivalu at the end of a particularly threatening Storm set, while some quicmthinking from Ayshford led to a timely tackle on Cameron Munster that may have gifted the Storm a penalty goal but undoubtedly saved a try.
On the other side of the Steeden I’m tempted to say that Melbourne did what they always do – grind the opposition into a win – except that the tight scoreline felt like yet another dent in the Storm’s aura of invincibility, especially for a home game. It felt apt that Nelson Asofo-Solomona put down the first try after a series of New Zealand penalties gifted Melbourne more and more field position, since the Storm needed someone to slam through the defenders and break their spirit a bit. As one of the biggest forwards out there, Asofo-Solomona was the man for the job.
Shortly after half time, Cooper Cronk put down the second four-pointer after a line break from Will Chambers, outrunning both Tuivasa-Sheck and Johnson to restart the Melbourne momentum. However, it was Josh Ado-Carr’s try at the sixty-sixth minute that seemed to really swing things Melbourne’s way, just because the Warriors had done such a good job of containing the Storm wingers up until this point. On the current set alone they’d managed to contain Vunivalu twice, but when Ado-Carr went over everything changed.
With Felise Kaufusi putting down the fourth try three minutes out from the siren, New Zealand were well and truly done. It wasn’t simply a matter of time, either, but confidence, since Kaufusi had been a bit of a weak spot for the Storm earlier in the game, coughing up two penalties in a row. His reversal of fortune, then, felt like an apt symbol for the reversal of the original Warriors push, recalling his double against the Sea Eagles at Lottoland last week.
Still, the Warriors have a lot to feel good about, since this was a very different kind of loss to their 20-8 scoreline against the Raiders at GIO Stadium. With all the players syncing and doing their bit – and with Johnson harnessing his consistency – they’ve got an enormous amount of potential. The trick is find a way to maintain that level of focus and professionalism when they take on the Roosters at Mt. Smart next Saturday.