ROUND 20: Canberra Raiders v. Melbourne Storm (GIO Stadium, 22/7/17)
The Storm have come away with one of their most impressive wins of the 2017 season after a horror night in which Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and, in the final minutes, Cameron Munster were led from the field. Devoid of two of their biggest playmakers, Melbourne were forced to scramble for a well-earned win, running over the Raiders in the second half, and begging the question of just what it will take for Canberra to achieve a consistent string of home victories with their current strategies in place.
Melbourne’s big men made the first impact, with Dale Finucane crossing over five minutes into the match on the back of a neat piece of play from Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Collecting the ball from Will Chambers, the big prop timed it perfectly to steamroll over Josh Hodgson and offload the Steeden to his lock just before hitting the turf, in a sequence that belied the size and bulk of the two players involved. While it may have been an unconventional way for the Storm to start a game, it just whetted the appetite of the small contingent of Melbourne supporters in the crowd to see what Smith, Slater and Cronk could achieve when they started to really warm up too, on a night that was predicted to get below zero.
For the next ten minutes, the Storm got into gear, slotting into the seamless footy they do so well, so it was a testament to Canberra’s determination that they managed to level the score at the fifteenth minute. It started on the fifth tackle with some terrific footwork from Blake Austin, who realised there was nothing doing in the left corner, and so pivoted abruptly off his left foot, changing the play so suddenly and rapidly that the Storm were utterly unprepared for him to pass to Aidan Sezer in the middle of the field a second later.
Taking advantage of the momentary – and uncharacteristic – gap in the Melbourne defence, Sezer stormed past Asofa-Solomona almost as decisively as the big prop had run over Hodgson a minute before. From there, he ricocheted off a second Melbourne tackle that never quite had a chance to congeal around him, grounding the ball right beneath the posts with a purple haze in the background. If that wasn’t spectacular enough, the replay showed that Sezer had only just retained control of the ball, with his left hand moving in to regain possession at the very moment the Steeden started to slip down towards his right elbow.
So precarious was his grasp that if Finucane, the nearest tackler, had managed to get even the slightest touch it would have forced Sezer into a knock-on, but the Canberra halfback curved his body around the ball to ensure that couldn’t happen. With Sezer converting his own try a minute later, and the Raiders almost going over twice on the restart, it was clear that Canberra were ready to rock, with the Storm suddenly finding themselves scrambling to defend their line, in a spectacular reversal of the opening moments of the night.
With that kind of atmosphere, one of Melbourne’s veterans needed to step up, but none of them managed to put down points – or assist points – leading to a strangely indeterminate period of play for a Storm outfit that have been so disciplined and focused over the last few weeks. By the time the half hour mark had arrived Melbourne had put down five errors, and yet the Raiders were unable to quite make good on that either, with the ball changing possession in a pretty haphazard and frustrating way. Five minutes before halftime, it seemed like Canberra might manage to consolidate, with a terrific pair of sets seeming to gather all the resilience they’d shown in the build up to – and immediate aftermath of – Sezer’s opening try.
In the first, Cotric, Tapine and then Leilua all busted through tackles as they made their way right to the line. In the second, Sezer made up for a few spotty fifth-tackle options with a perfectly placed kick that allowed Leilua and Rapana to converge on Vunivalu as he cleaned it up, dragging him over the line for the most galvanising goal line dropout of the night so far. At the end of that set, Hodgson came up with a terrific, spiraling, thirty-metre pass to Austin, and from there the ball changed hands a couple of times, only for Croker to absolutely boot it through the defence and over the line, granting the Storm a seven tackle set in the process.
Melbourne made the most of it too, and got a penalty to boot, with Slater opting for a quick tap and Tapine responding with a panicky shoulder charge, granting the Storm a two-pointer as the clock wound down to half time. It might not have been the try that Melbourne were looking for but, after such a try-scoring drought following Finucane’s opening effort – and the absence of any tries involving the Big Three – it was good enough, and the closest the game had come so far to a genuine pointscoring collaboration between Slater and Smith.
Melbourne made their lead a bit less precarious seven minutes into the second act, when Will Chambers crossed over on the back of a pair of pitch-perfect passes from Cronk and Slater. With Cameron Smith taken off during the break with a pectoral injury, the Storm had initially appeared to be struggling a little bit for the first few minutes, with Kenny Bromwich coughing up the ball on the first tackle of a repeat set following a blatant obstruction from Leilua on Ado-Carr that should have built Melbourne more momentum than it actually did.
Luckily for the Storm, however, Dave Taylor coughed up the ball a couple of minutes later, allowing Melbourne fans to breathe easily as Slater and Cronk converged for their first pointscoring combination of the evening. With Iosia Soliola giving away an unnecessary penalty for a longish tackle on Chambers a set later, it was clear that the Raiders were starting to panic, and the Storm seemed to sense it, until Soliola came up with an even more ridiculous move – a blatantly late, high tackle on Slater that saw the Melbourne fullback knocked out cold, before joining Smith in the sheds immediately after
Granted, Slater slipped moments before he made contact with Soliola, but there could be no doubt that the Canberra second-rower had intended to hit late and hit hard, with Slater’s collision with the ground compounding his concussion with what appeared to be whiplash, in the ugliest single injury of the 2017 season so far, especially given Slater’s spectacular comeback over the course of the year. As Slater was taken off, it looked for a moment as if Soliola might be sent off too – the first time a player would have been sent off in this way since Dave Shillington in Round 22, 2015 – but it wasn’t to be, with Soliola given the green light to continue, and the Storm faced with the prospect of maintaining a six point lead without Smith and Slater on the field.
Just after the hour mark passed, it looked as if the Storm might have scored their next point – and Vunivalu might have become the equal top tryscorer for 2017 – after Cotric cleaned up a high ball from Cronk as neatly and elegantly as possible, only for Vunivalu to get a hold of the Steeden during the following play-the-ball and slam it backwards over the line. Initially, it appeared as if Vunivalu had managed to get possession thanks to Jack Wighton inadvertently pushing Felise Kaufusi into the play-the-ball, in the midst of an attacking formation that still hadn’t quite turned into defence in the seconds after Cotric regained possession.
As it turned out, however, replay showed that Kaufusi had got into the midst of the play-the-ball on his own, cancelling out the try and fueling the Raiders into their first really decisive period of the second half. Cotric was at the head of it, chipping the football forward at the end of the next set, and almost reaching it in time, only for Munster to storm ahead and boot it into touch. Still, the Raiders seemed to sense that Cotric was the man to spearhead their resurgence, and at the end of the subsequent set they put in their best single move of the second stanza – a cut-out pass from Hodgson to Sezer, a harbour bridge pass from Sezer to Soliola, and then a short ball from Solio to Cotric, all of which fused seamlessly to put Cotric across the line in one fluid movement.
The fact that the pass from Soliola was backwards out of the hands made the combination feel all the more perfectly timed, while the fact of seeing Soliola playing a pivotal role in this team effort went some way to cancelling out his more individualistic moments earlier in the stanza, which had worked so drastically against the well-being and integrity of the team. With Croker slotting the Steeden through the uprights, it was a two-point ball game once again, and yet the Storm now proceeded to recap their six point lead in a remarkable fashion, thanks too a pair of kicks – one from Austin, one from Cronk – and a pair of equally spectacularly bounces.
The first took place on the restart, which Munster booted into the corner for all he was worth, where Austin evaded a dangerous bounce assuming that Cotric would be able to clean up the ball behind him, only for the big winger to find it eluding his grasp and knocking against his knee before skittering right between his legs. All of a sudden, Melbourne had a goal line dropout, and minutes later Cronk put in an equally dangerous kick from short range, which Wighton knocked on right on the line, restarting the tackle count and commencing what would be a complex pointscoring sequence even in slow motion.
The first stage was Finucane realising that the Steeden was still too unpredictable to try to pick up, and so chipping the ball forward into the in-goal area with his left boot, with Tim Glasby just managing to remain onside in the process. From there, Croker leapt at the ball, and the Raiders converged, but Finucane was quicker, making it a double before any other Raiders could get their hands to it. With Smith and Slater off the field, it was clear that Cronk was going to have to reconfigure his game plan, and so it was poetic to see him linking up with the opening tryscorer, for a four-pointer that reiterated just how much drama and emotion had transpired since those first minutes of the game. In a year in which virtually any team opposing the Storm felt like an underdog, there was something especially rousing about seeing Melbourne staging such a spectacular comeback, and there can be no doubt that losing Smith and Slater for this one game will end up strengthening them, and forming a critical rallying-point, in their scintillating journey towards finals football.
In one final twist, however, Sezer came off with a try five seconds before the final siren, and half a minute after Munster had been sent off the field. Opting to decline the conversion to make the most of their five seconds, the Raiders just might have been poised to go ninety-five minutes in a single tackle, only for Whitehead to opt for a kick that skidded across the try line and allowed Melbourne to bring home one of their most rousing wins of 2017 – and a win all the more rousing for this unusual epilogue at GIO Stadium.
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