The Cowboys put up a valiant effort against the Storm in Townsville on Friday night, but ended up remaining tryless in the second half much as they had against the Roosters in Round 21, with only a lone try from Jake Granville and a penalty goal in the first stanza putting them on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, the Storm offered a mouth-watering preview of how they might soar during finals football, with Suliasi Vunivalu, in particular, putting down three equally dexterous tries to score more points than any other previous top-tier rugby leaue player in Australia in their first two years of football.
You’d imagine that the Cowboys would have wanted to make a clean break with their loss to the Roosters the previous week, but if anything the first couple of minutes felt like part of the same game, not least because of two key moments involving Kyle Feldt, the first of which was disappointing, the second downright disastrous for North Queensland. A couple of minutes in, he looked set to have stamped his mark on the game with a try in the right corner, but the grounding was uncertain and the referees called a knock-on earlier in the tackle anyway.
At the end of the subsequent Storm set, the big winger totally choked – there’s no other way to describe it – under a bomb from Cooper Cronk, getting himself in perfect position to catch it and facing minimal contention from Melbourne defence, only to somehow let the Steeden fall through his hands and hit the turf beneath him. It was a move so inexplicably and uncharacteristically clumsy that it almost inevitably provided the purple army with the confidence they needed to put down points quickly, and sure enough Suliasi Vunivalu added four more off the following scrum, dancing around Antonio Winterstein, skipping out of an ankle tap from Kane Linnett and then ploughing forward under a full-body tackle from Lachlan Coote to ground the Steeden in the corner as courageously as he ever has.
In a mirror image of Feldt’s opening grounding the initial on-field ruling was no try, only for the replay footage to show that the big winger had managed to keep his right elbow a fraction of an inch above the ground before making contact with the Steeden, factoring Coote’s tackle into his putdown as seamlessly as if it had been part of his plan all along. With Gavin Cooper taken off the field in the opening minutes of the game, and Antonio Winterstein taken off shortly after Vunivalu’s try, the Cows looked set to replicate their disappointing form of the week before, only for Jake Granville to rebuild a bit of momentum with the kind of one-man effort that can so often rehabilitate a team at these moments of frustration.
Collecting the Steeden right on the line, the North Queensland hooker briefly dummied to the right, forcing Billy Slater to come out wide and open up just enough space for him to smash through. As it was, Billy the Kid managed a pretty impressive tackle, but it was too late, as Granville bounced off Jesse Bromwich and then somsersaulted over the try line with the Melbourne fullback on his back, with Cameron Smith arriving too late to clean things up.
With Smith having failed to convert Vunivalu’s try, Ethan Lowe adding the extras, and then clocking up a penalty goal a couple of minutes later, the Cowboys had doubled the Storm at 8-4 by the halfway mark – hardly a decisive lead, to be sure, but certainly a comeback from the direr opening moments of the game, especially because Granville’s four-pointer seemed to coincide with an odd diminution of focus on Melbourne’s part, with their goal line defence around Granville as uncharacteristic as Feldt’s spill. Right on the twenty-minute mark, Slater coughed up a direct pass from Smith right on the North Queensland line, and it finally felt as if the Cows had settled into some kind of groove, managing to hold their own against the Storm, even if their lead still felt a bit precarious as well.
That said, all the Storm had to do to get back in the game was resume their consummate professionalism, since the Cowboys were undoubtedly vulnerable, especially with Scott Bolton sent off shortly afterwards with what was technically a scheduled interchange, but felt more like a medically mandated interchange, since the big prop’s right arm had appeared to have gone dead shortly before, forcing him to nurse it gingerly as he headed into the sheds.
As if sensing that this was a good moment to consolidate, Melbourne put in one of their cleanest, leanest and most clinical sets of the night so far – a set that should by all accounts have ended in points, with only the most extraordinary good luck preventing them crossing over after the Cowboys failed to quickly clean up a crossfield bomb from Cronk, with some of the North Queensland players actually turning their back on the ball before they’d fully contained it. Their luck didn’t last long, however, with Melbourne gaining a penalty in the process, and then putting down four points on the back of one of their most standard combinations and set pieces – a quick pass from Cronk to Slater, a wide ball from Slater out to Will Chambers, and a brief dummy to the right from Chambers before he outran Coen Hess, looking very uncomfortable in this position, to storm over the line.
Sure, Felise Kaufusi’s dummy run behind Slater might have added a bit of a different twist, but this was essentially bread-and-butter stuff for the Storm, and the best way for them to consign the anomalous blip of their goal line defence against Granville to a thing of the past, especially since this represented a bit of a historic moment for Chambers as well, who found himself in the upper echelon of Melbourne pointscorers. With Smith adding the extras this time around, the Storm seemed to be back on track, as they bunkered down to consolidate their two-point lead before heading into the sheds.
With five minutes to go, and depleted of Cooper and Scott, the North Queensland forwards were clearly exhausted, to the point were it seemed almost unavoidable that the Storm would be able to overrun them for at least one more try. It was an extraordinary moment, then, when Michael Morgan managed a 40/20 under extreme pressure, in yet another example of how effectively he’s filled Johnathan Thurston’s massive boots over the last half season.
Yet, in one of the most heartbreaking moments of the game for North Queensland fans, the Cows were unable to make good on Morgan’s vision, getting right up to the Melbourne line only for Vunivalu to knock the ball out of Justin O’Neill’s hands just before he was set to pass to Feldt, who was waiting, unmarked, on the wing. Just as there’s something about the spectacle of Feldt scoring that always seems to rouse and galvanise the spirit of the Cowboys in a special kind of way – call it an echo of the 2015 grand final – so the spectacle of Feldt failing to score can be particularly deflating.
Given that the first stanza had been bookended by two of these spectacles – with his poor form under the high ball between it – this was a significant shift back in Melbourne’s favour, so it was no surprise when they crossed over on the following set. No surprise, either, that they chose to follow much the same formation as their previous try, with the critical difference this time being that Slater momentarily hesitated as if to pass to Chambers, only to opt for a perfectly threaded, longish grubber to find Vunivalu in the corner.
If Slater’s vision was immaculate, then Vunivalu’s completion was astonishing, with the big winger appearing to have read Slater’s decision before Slater had even made it, running to just where the ball would be – a pretty difficult thing to judge – and then leaping up to catch it on the chest as if he’d been waiting there for it all along, negotiating an oblique bounce back to the inside as effortlessly as he’d incorporate Coote’s tackle for his first four-pointer. If Chambers’ try was historic, then Vunivalu’s was even more so, garnering him the highest number of points in the first two seasons of a first-grade rugby league career ever – a pretty astonishing statistic given that he made his first-grade debut in Round 7 2016 and that this was only Round 22, with the Storm guaranteed to extent their season deep into the finals.
With two historic tries behind them, and their third try in the southwestern corner of the field, the Storm had more than re-established the clinical precision and focused professionalism that makes them so unassailable, while the fact that the buildup to this try had largely replicated the buildup to the last one – that ever-reliable conjunction of Smith, Slater and Cronk – made it feel as if Melbourne had returned to the machine-like functionality that is almost impossible to beat when they’re playing at their best.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Smith put in his best kick of the game so far – a kick that was Thurston-like in the precision and elegance of its hook, with the Steeden curving around just before it reached the posts to add two more points for the Storm, who’d managed to keep the Cowboys scoreless since they’d doubled them at 8-4, and had now doubled them in turn at 8-16 in turn.
Five minutes into the second stanza, Feldt had a terrible moment of déjà vu, coughing up another fairly catchable bomb as the Melbourne kick chase drew in. Luckily the Cows got a penalty for the Storm chasers being called offside, since this would probably have been the point of no return if they hadn’t. From there, both sides set in for a bit of a grind, with North Queensland putting in some of their best defence in weeks to keep the Storm out for a good twenty minutes.
Around the hour mark, Melbourne glimpsed some space when Cronk broke through the line before sending the Steeden across to Slater to grubber it forward, only for Feldt to slam down to clean it up right on the line before Billy could put down four more points. It should have been the turning-point for the Cows, but instead they knocked on one tackle into the next set, returning possession almost immediately to the Storm, who now put in their single most sustained attack of the night so far, thanks to series of restarts that saw them assault the North Queensland line for a good four or five minutes.
Twice Kaufusi crashed over – the second time he was held up in goal by Hess – forcing the Cowboys to put in some magnificent defence, with Fensom contributing to close to fifteen tackles in his efforts to keep the purple army at bay. Something had to give, however, and with the Cows popping the ball back to grant Melbourne yet another repeat set the visitors took their chance, as Slater once again grubbered over to the right edge, where Vunivalu put down the Steeden in the midst of an ankle tap from Linnett, who was clearly struggling with the shift from centre.
Three times Vunivalu had been faced with an impediment on his way to the ground – a tackle from Coote, a difficult bounce off Slater’s boot, and now an ankle tap from Linnett – and three times he had coasted through them as if he’d already predicted and pre-empted them in advance, in possibly the most stunning testament to the seamlessness and assurance of his tryscoring abilities across the entirety of the 2017 season so far.
By the time Josh Ado-Carr slipped out of a tackle from Feldt and Lowe and ran the length of the field in second gear, the Storm had more than made their point, with the North Queensland defence barely bothering to even make a show of catching up with him. While Chambers may have missed the final conversion, it didn’t really matter, since Melbourne had more than asserted their dominance, while the Cowboys had been kept out in the second half for their second successive game – a pattern they’ll need to rectify when they take on the Panthers at Pepper next week.