They might have been expected to win, but you still had to credit the Storm with a terrific performance over the Knights at AAMI Park on Friday night, with Cameron Smith’s absence just stimulating Billy Slater to put in one of his very best outings since donning the purple jersey in this second coming of his career. In particular, this was a great night for try assists from Billy, and given that his best years with try assists have always led to grand final appearances, it was a pivotal moment in the Storm’s charge towards the top of the eight.
Given the differential in talent between Melbourne and Newcastle – a David and Goliath confrontation if ever there was one, even without Smith – it was no surprise to see Suliasi Vunivalu put down his tenth try of the year two minutes into the game (and his second in the first two minutes of a match in 2017). No surprise, either, that it came off the back of a perfectly placed kick from Cooper Cronk, and while the Steeden might have bounced awkwardly, that just made it all the more impressive when Vunivalu scooped it up, slammed through Dane Gagai and brushed Nathan Ross aside to plant it over the line.
Even with Smith off the field, the game was primed for a battle between the key Queensland representatives – Slater and Cronk on the one side, Gagai on the other – and seeing the Newcastle fullback outplayed so early must have been a rousing spectacle for the home crowd, even if Cameron Munster was unable to add the extras this time around. Sure enough, twelve minutes later, Josh Ado-Carr picked up right where Vunivalu left off, putting down four more points in an early testament to the strength of the Storm’s edges.
It started with a terrific run, dummy and delayed pass from Cameron Munster that saw Cheyse Blair break through the line and almost crash over, only to be brought to ground five minutes out thanks to a trysaving tackle that almost made up for his inability to prevent Vunivalu scoring a couple of minutes before. Thinking quick, Cronk ensured the second goal line dropout of the night, and the subsequent set showcased a stunning example of the Storm at their most clinical and synergetic: a cut-out pass from Munster, a flick pass from Tohu Harris, who spun in the impending tackle to send the ball out to the left, and then an over-the-head one-hand try assist from Slater to put Ado-Carr over the line.
Three minutes later, Felise Kaufusi went over, thanks to another try assist from Slater, who collected the ball from Cronk and ran straight up to the line to put his frontrower into open space, with Gagai once again unable to get to the line in time and Peter Mata’utia only realising what had happened when it was too late to even make a run for it. With Munster kicking the ball cleanly through the posts you’d barely know that Smith was absent, and yet the crowd weren’t that animated, nor did the Storm seem that animated, since for a game between Melbourne and Newcastle at AAMI Park this was almost a foregone conclusion.
Five minutes later, the Storm received four successive penalties, including two in front of the posts, but chose to take a repeat set each time and apply more pressure on the Knights, with Kaufusi coming very close to crashing over for a second try after the third. As luck would have it, though, Harris coughed up the ball one tackle into the fifth set – or, rather, lobbed it over to his left when he was brought to ground in front of the line, mistaking Slater’s position in the chaos of the moment, and shutting down what could have the Storm fullback’s third try assist of the night.
A couple of sets later and the Knights finally received their first penalty, along with their first real breathing space of the night, a Gagai finally responded to Slater with his own try assist, getting on the outside of Blair and then Ado-Carr to flick the ball back to Ken Sio who stormed forward in turn for the best grounding of the evening so far. After pivoting off his right foot right on the fringe of the field, Sio didn’t crash so much as leap over the line, jumping from about three metres out and supporting himself briefly off his left hand before landing ball-first and then tumbling the rest of his body into touch, for a try so surprising and dexterous that it seemed to momentarily stun the Storm, leading to a brief fracas on the side of the field before the final decision came down.
Moments later, Sio crashed over again, only for a (just) forward pass from Joe Wardle to preclude the try, as for a brief moment it looked as if the Knights might be in for a bit of a resurgence, or even a string of tries comparable to their stunning performance against the Dragons a couple of weeks before. Things devolved quickly, however, and by the thirty-sixth minute Lachlan Fitzgibbon had been sent to the bin after a succession of Newcastle errors.
If things weren’t already bad enough for the Knights, this was one of the worst times in the game to be down to twelve men, setting up the Storm for another try before half time, only for Brandon Smith to impulsively opt for a double movement instead of consolidating field position a couple of minutes into his debut, awarding Newcastle a penalty in the process. Midway into the following set, however, Ross put down the ball, offering the Storm another set of six with eighty seconds to go and a twelve man defensive squad, only for yet another mistake in the play-the-ball to let the Knights off the hook.
It had been one of the messiest periods of the night for Melbourne, especially given their advantage over Newcastle, and yet the messiness only served to clarify just how dominant they’d been up until this point. It felt right, then, when Slater scored his first try at AAMI Park in almost three years two minutes into the second stanza, in one of the pivotal moments in his inspiring comeback over the course of 2017.
There had been some warning signs for the Knights in these early minutes of the second half, including a terrific flick pass from Slater himself, along with another almost-try from Smith. Still, Slater’s four points outdid everything in the game so far, in one of the uncanniest groundings I’ve ever seen. It started, as Storm tries so often do, with a deft kick from Cronk that looked to find Brock Lamb right on the chest, only for Slater to slam forward and take a hold of it, before tumbling back over Lamb and getting the ball to ground.
The replay showed that Slater had only just managed to catch the ball, bundling it into his chest and then shifting it to his left hand before falling over the Newcastle five-eighth and twisting around backwards to put it to earth. The grounding was the strangest part, with Slater twisting his hand backwards to push the ball forward until it was moving parallel with his body, a situation so odd in terms of sustained possession and downwards movement that it was really quite unclear whether he’d handled the ball correctly or not, inducing the Bunker to give him the benefit of the doubt given the on field ruling of try.
Any momentary ambivalence about Melbourne’s lead was quelled, however, when Vunivalu put down his second try of the night seven minutes later, thanks to another perfectly weighted kick from Cronk. Leaping up, utterly outdoing Ross under the high ball, and grounding the Steeden with balletic grace, Vunivalu encapsulated the Storm’s clinical precision in a single image, and made for a beautiful counterpart to Slater’s uncanny ball handling and footwork.
It was all the more rousing, then, to see Slater himself bookend this try with his second four-pointer in less than ten minutes, thanks to the simplest and most elegant of movements – a short pass from Cronk, a brief pivot and then a damaging run to put him ahead of Gagai, Jaelen Feeney and all the other Knights players converging to try and prevent him going over. For me, this was also one of the critical moments in Slater’s return to the big time, definitive proof – for both the fans and himself – that he has what it takes to return to his very best form over the course of 2017, clarifying that he’s now as capable of standing in for Smith as Smith was capable of standing in for him during his year away.
Speaking of Smith, it was the other Smith who put down the penultimate Storm try at the sixty-third minute, making good on his earlier double movement by dummying and then slamming through four or five determined Newcastle players. From there, he stood in a tackle that looked long even in slow motion, before somehow finding a gap in the pack defence and plunging forward to place the ball over the line for his first NRL try on debut.
Over the course of the night Smith had been excitable and impulsive, and to his credit he’d managed to contain and direct his excitement perfectly here – a great companion piece to Slater’s first tries at AAMI in close to three years, and a rousing moment of generational continuity for Melbourne supporters. At this point, Newcastle had to make some kind of statement to avoid being utterly humiliated, and they did eight minutes out from the end, when Fitzgibbon put down the second Newcastle try following the first Newcastle goal line dropout and the first two tackles for Newcastle in Melbourne’s twenty.
It was a last-minute try if ever there was one, and even then came off a rare error from Slater, who tried to kick a skittering grubber dead but didn’t quite time it right, leaving about half a metre for Fitzgibbon to storm through and plant the ball to ground before tumbling over the dead ball line. Yet that also made it a classic consolation try, providing the Knights with just that little bit of kick for them to notch this up as another lesson in resilience along the way of their long, steady journey back from the 2016 season
Nevertheless, it was the Storm who had the final say, with a brilliant cut-out pass from Munster setting up Blair to crash over one minute out from the end for their eighth try of the night. They’d set their stamp on the opening seconds, and now Melbourne set it upon the closing seconds, in one of their most rousing wins in weeks. Sure, it was against the Knights, but maybe Newcastle were just the platform needed for Slater to demonstrate he’d returned to form, in what will surely come to be seen as one of the defining matches of his late career.