There have been plenty of moments over the last twelve months when Melbourne’s young guns have shown us a glimpse of what they might achieve in the wake of the Big Three’s retirement, but Saturday night’s match at AAMI Park wasn’t one of them. With Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Munster, Will Chambers and Tim Glasby out for Origin, the next generation of Storm players struggled against a Parramatta outfit that looked dangerous from the very opening minutes of the game, allowing the visitors to come away with a comfortable 22-6 victory.
The first twenty-five minutes, in particular, were the best football of the year for Parra, with Bevan French, Mitchell Moses and Semi Radradra putting down points, and the team as a whole gelling and synergising more than they have in months. Given how storied and troubled Parra’s history has been – both in recent times and further back – there’s always a sense of fantasy fulfilment when they play as brilliantly as they do here, making for one of the best spectacles of Round 18 regardless of affiliation.
It was no surprise that French put down the first points five minutes in, since the Parra wingers had been looking particularly impressive from the outset, with Radradra putting in two line breaks and French showcasing some quick thinking on the other side of the field. French’s put-down was as dexterous as ever, but special mention has to go to Moses for a superbly timed cut-out pass to put his winger across the line, further proof of how well he has started to gel with the Parramatta outfit.
While Clint Gutherson may not have managed the sideline conversion, the Eels’ momentum didn’t ebb, with Radradra putting in another stunning line break a couple of minutes later. Sure, he may have been brought to ground before reaching the line, but the upside was that Suliasi Vunivalu had to put in a high tackle, and hold him too long in the tackle, to do so, resulting in the Melbourne winger being sent off the field – a stark contrast to the strength and assurance of the Parramatta flyers at this point in the game.
It was a frustrating moment for the Storm, especially since Vunivalu, along with Josh Ado-Carr, was shouldering some of the leadership in the absence of Melbourne’s big players, and the Eels looked poised to crash over on the next set, only for Kenny Edwards to put in a howler of a pass that allowed Tohu Harris to clean up the Steeden and grant the purple army some much-needed breathing space. Any momentary doubts about Parra’s supremacy were put to bed, however, by the next four points, in which Moses and French simply switched places, with Moses now the tryscorer and French the try assister. The try itself was very different, however, fusing short-range and long-range efforts about as perfectly as you could expect, starting with a cascade of expertly timed passes down the centre of the field, with the ball moving through Moses, Gutherson and Michael Jennings, who sent it over to French.
Taking advantage of Vunivalu’s absence from the field, French sped down the right side, outpacing the Storm and finally kicking back inside to Moses, who was running a hard line up through the centre of the field. It was no sure thing that the ex-Tiger would score from there, however, with Moses having to turn around to face the opposition to collect the Steeden, before crashing backwards over the line to ground it. The result was one of those photogenic moments that often seem to attend a player when they have come into their own with a new team – Moses starting the Storm in the face on the cusp of having scored a goal, field goal and try for Parramatta. In retrospect, this will probably come to be seen as the point at which he really felt like a fully-fledged member of the blue and gold army, and with Gutherson adding the extras a moment later the Eels felt more confident than at any other point over the course of the 2017 season.
Even with such a stunning opening, it still felt like something of a dream come true when Radradra put down a try of his own, on the back of a fourth line break and then yet another cascade of passes from Moses, Corey Norman and Brad Takairangi, with Takairangi, in particular, barely touching the ball on its way over, so deft was his part in the play. By this stage, both Parra wingers had scored, and their new halfback had played his best game in the blue and gold jersey so far, in what almost felt like a fantasy of what the Eels could and should be after a fairly challenging couple of years.
The achievement was all the more notable in that Vunivalu and Ado-Carr had struggled to make the same impact upon the game, and while they are often capable of visionary moves on their own terms, Saturday night’s match clarified just how much they need Smith, Slater and Cronk as a platform to execute their magic as well. As a result, the Storm needed one of their more storied players to put down some points, or at least make a powerful move, and initially Felise Kaufusi appeared to have done that, collecting the ball off a high kick from Moses and slamming it over the line. Unfortunately for Melbourne, the replay showed that Kaufusi had got a finger to the ball before Takairangi knocked it back, invalidating the try.
This was probably the turning-point for Melbourne, since if they had scored now they probably would have been able to jack into Parra’s slipstream and take advantage of the high-octane momentum of the match to build some propulsion of their own. As it was, however, this deflated them even further, with Vunivalu making a rare error in the play-the-ball a couple of minutes later, and Cheyse Blair being taken off with an injury at the same time.
As half time drew near, Melbourne looked scrappier and more exhausted than I’ve ever seen them, to the point where the two teams almost seemed to have swapped places. The low point was probably a botched pass around the thirty-minute mark that bounced off the knees of one of the players rather than finding a pair of hands, in what had to be one of the worst Melbourne moves of the 2017 season, and a sobering counterpoint to Smith, Slater and Cronk’s stellar performances in Origin 2.
Shortly after, the Storm received two successive penalties that should, by all accounts, have resulted in further points. Yet on the first set of six, an offload from Nelson Asofa-Solomona to Kenny Bromwich was clinically cleaned up by Moses, while on the second set a potential try assist from Bromwich turned into a changeover after Ado-Carr fumbled the catch, in yet another nadir for the Melbourne wingers over the course of the night. It’s an anomalous situation when the Storm can’t score off the back of two penalties – against the Eels, no less – and the players’ frustration was visible, resulting in a peculiarly visceral and intense five minutes.
Yet the upshot of all that frustration was the first Melbourne try of the game, and while it might have been the only try, it still felt at this stage like it might be the beginning of a comeback, so eloquently did it reverse the Storm narrative so far. First and foremost, it started with a brilliant run from Vunivalu, with full credit also going to a terrific cut-out pass from Brodie Croft that sailed over Harris and Kaufusi to hit his winger right on the chest. After forty minutes that had been so debilitating to the Melbourne wingers, it was rousing to see Vunivalu storm down the right side of the field, while it felt symbolic to see him mirror French’s try assist earlier in the game with an inside kick.
At first, it looked as if the ball was going to find Kaufusi, which would have been poetic indeed after his botched four points earlier in the game, but the big second-rower wisely realised the bounce was more dangerous, leaving it to his fullback to come in and clean things up, Even then, however, Jahrome Hughes had to showcase some consummate patience in waiting for the right time to collect the ball without knocking it on, and the Eels almost had a hand to it by the time he scooped it up and put it to ground. Between Vunivalu’s strength and dexterity, and Hughes’ patience and perception, it felt as if the Storm had exorcised some of the demons of the opening half of the game, while it must have also been cathartic for Melbourne fans to see their first points put down by such a sterling collaboration between an experienced winger and an up-and-coming player, with Hughes filling Slater’s boots quite impressively at this particular moment.
The Eels came back strong after the break, almost putting down four more points after King (just) pulled off a 40/20. Once again, Moses was instrumental, popping a harbour bridge pass across to French, who responded with a rare fumble, knocking the ball back in the right corner. From there, Moses helped move the ball over to the left side of the field, only for Norman to be cleaned up trying to extend the play, inducing the ex-Tiger to straighten things up with a pitch-perfect grubber that was almost grounded by Jennings, but which nevertheless gained Parra a goal line dropout and a repeat set of six.
Norman took the fifth tackle kick at the end of the next set, but this time it was defused by Vunivalu and Young Tounamaipea, marking the beginning of a renewed Melbourne charge that almost saw them put down an additional try a couple of minutes later. From there,the Eels remained strong but didn’t quite match the spectacular opening of the first stanza, epitomised by French trying to repeat his try assist to Moses, burning up the right side of the field and sending out a kick that was clearly designed to find Gutherson on the chest, but which instead landed just before the dead ball line, bouncing into touch a moment later.
Still, things continued to deteriorate for Melbourne as the hour mark approached, starting with an error in the ruck from Nate Myles that granted Parra their third penalty of the night. Shortly after, Hughes dropped the ball on the first tackle, a disappointing move from the stand-in fullback, although luckily for the Storm the Eels got a hand to it, knocking it on and granting Melbourne the scrum. If that wasn’t bad enough, a perfectly timed tackle from French forced Ryley Jacks to cough up the Steeden after what initially looked like a line break-making offload from Asofa-Solomona, settling the Storm into a slump that they were only able to break a couple of sets later thanks to the referees not calling six again at the end of a Parra set.
Twice the Storm almost got through over the next ten minutes, and twice the Eels pipped them at the post, culminating with an astonishing tackle from Nathan Brown as Ado-Carr was chipping the Steeden forward to himself. Just as the Melbourne winger had got on the outside of Moses, kicked the ball and looked set to ground it, Brown came in with an enormous play, skidding across the field and landing on his side to prevent the Fox getting a hand to the ball. Sure, Gutherson may have obstructed Ado-Carr on the way – I wasn’t quite sure why the referee didn’t call it that way – but all in all it was a trysaving play, and probably the moment at which the Eels decisively regained the momentum of the opening stanza, even if they were yet to score a try in the back forty, inducing Craig Bellamy to make a rare appearance on the sideline.
The final fifteen minutes of the game may have been the most convulsive clash between Melbourne and Parramatta since the aftermath of the 2009 salary cap scandal, with both sides coughing up the ball, making split-second decisions, and strange judgements, culminating with a massive cut-out pass to nobody from Moses that Tohu Harris scooped up and carried halfway down the field before the play was halted by the referee for an earlier forward pass.
All that speed, all that momentum, all that convulsive energy, culminated with the fourth and final try of the night from Gutherson at the seventieth minute, who slammed the Steeden over the ball on the back of a looping cut-out pass from Norman followed by a short ball from Moses. All night, the Eels had been raring to cement this combination and in a weird way, the chaos and confusion of the preceding ten minutes provided them with the platform to do so, which is perhaps why these four points – and six, once Gutherson had converted his own try – introduced a final focus and serenity to the Parra effort, which was so assured by the time Gutherson had slotted the ball through the posts that it almost felt like we were witnessing some kind of closure for the 2009 grand final, at least for the older fans in the crowd.
By the final five minutes or so, it became clear that the defence of the Eels had been as much of an achievement this stanza as their attack had been in the first, since while they may not have put down as many tries, they had succeeded in keeping Melbourne out for a fully forty minutes – no small achievement, even with so many key playmakers out for Origin. Two moves stood out in particular – a tackle on Ado-Carr right on the wing and a clean-up of Kaufusi right on the line – although the takedown of the Fox was arguably the strongest, just because the Melbourne no. 5 was heading towards the line on the back of a forward pass, meaning that the Eels didn’t technically need to defend him, but that they did anyway, so desperate were they to ensure that the Storm remained scoreless in this second half.
In a final thrill, Melbourne broke through the line on the final siren, but it just clarified how effectively and clinically the Eels had managed to contain and shut down all those last-effort bits of magic that normally guarantee the Storm can come from behind, and which had set up their sole try at the end of the opening stanza. It was the perfect end to a fairytale night for Parramatta, and while they may have been playing against a depleted Storm outfit, their strength and determination went above and beyond any advantage, and will hopefully propel them – and Moses, in particular – into some season-making games over the next few weeks.