The Storm and the Roosters went head to head for one of the most suspenseful matches in weeks at AAMI Park on Saturday night, for a game that could have belonged to either side at any point across the eighty minutes. With an unlucky call going the way of both teams – the Roosters in the first half, the Storm in the second – and an extraordinary sequence of spectacles across the back forty minutes, this was possibly the hardest that Melbourne had had to fight for a home win all year, with the Tricolors and the purple army forcing each other into some of the most memorable moves of the 2017 season so far.
Storm games can often be a bit boring to watch, not simply because of their clinical, streamlined style of play, but because theyusually outclass the opposition to such an extent that there’s no genuine sense of competition. This, however, was one of the more dynamic Melbourne games of the 2017 season, with the Roosters putting up a terrific fight, and an aggressive style of defence that felt more like attack, after they the game going with a massive kick return from Conor Watson, who ran a jagged line and got all the way to the thirty, gaining his team a penalty in the process.
Moments after, Jake Friend kicked on the third tackle to secure the Chooks the first goal line dropout of the game, leaping over the defence to almost reach the ball itself. On the other side of the Steeden, the Storm seemed quite disheveled and even disoriented by this early burst of energy from Sydney City, with Billy Slater collecting the ball from Cooper Cronk at the beginning of the subsequent set, only to mistime his pass and send it out behind Suliasi Vunivalu, where it skidded over the sideline and returned possession to the Roosters.
On the next Melbourne set, Slater cleaned up the high ball from the visitors, but only just made it back into the field of play, while Josh Ado-Carr was almost dragged over the line on the second tackle and Cronk botched the kick, aiming for a torpedo from the thirty metre line only to strike the Steeden off the side of his boot instead. Combined with the Roosters’ sterling defence, it was an uncharacteristically sloppy period for the Storm that initially made it look as if we might just be in for a landsdlide from the Tricolors.
Two turning-points, however, put a bit of a dent in the Roosters’ momentum and started to shift things Melbourne’s way. The first was a cough-up from Isaac Liu as he was trying to opt for a quick play-the-ball midway through an especially promising Roosters set. The second came after Cronk chipped the ball to Slater, and Mitchell Pearce diverged slightly from his line to obstruct the Melbourne fullback in response. While Billy the Kid probably wouldn’t have made it to the ball, the clampdown on obstructions in recent weeks meant that this had to be a penalty goal, and as Smith took the two right in front of the posts he joined Jason Taylor as the time all-time highest NRL pointscorer behind El Masri and Johns.
To make things worse for the Roosters, these two points – almost as momentous as a converted try, in their own way – were followed by a terrific kick from Smith and an even better kick chase from Vunivalu, both of which trapped Watson right on the Roosters line, making it clear that the purple army were determined not to allow him to repeat his game-opening run if they could help it. This was followed by a compressed set in which Pearce was compelled to boot the ball halfway through the tackle count to diffuse some of the mounting pressure on the Roosters, and yet while Slater might have coughed up the ball on the second tackle of the next set, the Storm quickly regained momentum, racking up a penalty count on the back of another Cronk-Slater combination.
It was a stunning display of intent and determination, then, when Latrell Mitchell managed to get a hand to the Steeden on its way from Will Chambers out to Vunivalu on the edge, for what had initially looked set to be a certain Melbourne four-pointer, and the logical conclusion to the Storm’s accumulating possession and field position over these last five minutes. Shortly after Melbourne got another penalty, and then yet another, opting in each case to attack the line instead of taking the two, with Smith eventually grubbering on the final tackle only for Mitchell to pick up the Steeden one-handed and hold his ground as the Storm tried – and failed – to drag him into touch.
After three successive and punishing sets from the Storm, this was a terrific display of defence from the Roosters, who had almost felt like the attacking team here, and the catharsis of that effort propelled them forward, with Pearce running up to the Melbourne line and then slotting the ball over to Aidan Guerra, who broke through and stormed halfway down the field, only for his momentum – and the Roosters’ whole momentum – to be dispersed by the single worst referring call in some weeks; a penalty for a knock-on in the play-the-ball that the replay showed simply hadn’t been there.
At such a critical juncture, and after such a sustained period of defence, there was no way that a mistake like that from the referees couldn’t harm the Chooks’ focus, and sure enough they racked up two more penalties in the next minute, along with an official warning. Once again, then, Smith got an opportunity to take the two, now surpassing Taylor to become the NRL’s all-time third-highest pointscorer. The look on J.T.’s face in the Roosters box said it all, and things quickly declined hereafter for the Roosters, with a lifting tackle from Dylan Napa and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves giving away another penalty shortly after, and Vunivalu actually racking up a penalty try – the first try of the game – after Mitchell dragged the Melbourne winger away from the Steeden as he was trying to get it to ground.
For me, this was also one of the worst calls in some weeks, since it was by no means certain – not absolutely certain – that Vunivalu would have managed the putdown, with the ball bouncing away at a right angle that made his trajectory far from a foregone conclusion. Sure, Vunivalu might well made got it – and has certainly managed more difficult putdowns – but given that a penalty try can only be awarded with absolute certainty, and given the conservatism around awarding one, it was hard not to feel that the Roosters’ escalating string of penalties had played a role in the decision here as well.
However, given that the referees had made an erroneous penalty goal at a critical point in the game for the Roosters – possibly the critical point – you would have thought they might be a bit more circumspect and cautious in the case of this particular try, but they awarded it anyway, with Smith adding the extras shortly after. Given the excitement and energy with which the game had started, there was something a bit frustrating – almost anticlimactic – about seeing the first points put down in this way, especially given the call against the Roosters. As a result, it felt as if the match needed another try pretty quickly – ideally from the Chooks – to reset it after this penalty try decision.
As it turned out, that’s just what the visitors delivered, with Keary putting down the first four points from the Tricolors minutes after on the back of a deft kick from Friend and, further back, a hard, urgent run from Watson that recalled his mad dash in the opening minutes of the game and got the Roosters a bit of additional field position by forcing a Melbourne penalty – an important symbolic achievement after such a rapid string of Roosters errors.
For a moment, it looked as if Vunivalu might have been taken out of the field of play by the ex-Rabbitoh on his way to the ball, but the replay showed that the big winger had already ceased being a part of the play by the time that Keary shoved past him. While it couldn’t reverse the frustration of the penalty try, there was something a little cathartic for Roosters fans in seeing the obstruction on Vunivalu replayed by to their own advantage this time.
After such a contentious opening act, it was only natural that the second stanza provided us with some of the most dramatic, theatrical and downright dangerous moments of the 2017 NRL season so far. In the first, Blake Ferguson put in one of the most gymnastic efforts of his career to try and achieve a putdown in the wing as he was slammed out of the field of play by Curtis Scott, jumping even higher than usual to try and get above and around the tackle.
Usually, Fergo’s gangly, lanky frame means that he can acclimatise himself to these kinds of contorted postures, but this time he’d jumped a little too far, and twisted himself a little too much, meaning that he not only failed to get back into the field of play, but landed on his shoulder from an enormous height, in what initially looked as if it might almost be a season-ending injury, only for him to get up a couple of minutes later and then return to the game as if nothing had even happened.
The second big moment occurred shortly after, at the end of a Roosters set, as Keary kicked, Aubusson knocked the ball on, and Slater scooped it up with no advantage, getting it across to Ado-Carr who ran the length of the field in classic Fox-like fashion for what initially looked like a game-winning moment for the Storm, only for the referees to call it back with an erroneous penalty decision against the hosts.
Sure, this was a frustrating moment for the purple army, and sure they should have got the points, but it wasn’t really all that much more of a mistake than that against the Roosters earlier on, as much as Smith’s indignant outburst might have suggested it was the most transgressive decision made in the history of rugby league. From there, tempers flared and players tired, with Mitchell, in particular, losing it a bit, compounding what appeared to be a shoulder charge on Vunivalu on at the end of the first half by failing to make much of an effort with the Roosters high ball a couple of sets later, leaving it to Watson to run twice as far to pick it up, before collecting it from him to cough it up on the second tackle anyway.
There can be no doubt, however, that the strangest and most spectacular moment in the game came from Vunivalu, in a two-part play that showcased the Melbourne winger at his very best and at his very worst. The first part occurred as he was bending on the Melbourne line to accommodate the high ball, finding the Steeden slipping through his hands only to catch it – somehow – between his knees, fall to ground, but still manage to pop it back up and regain possession.
So strangely brilliant a piece of play was that this it seemed to take Vunivalu himself by surprise as much as anyone, generating a burst of adrenalin that saw him acting more like a NFL player than a NRL player, trying to leapfrog over Watson and actually collecting the Roosters backliner in the face with his knees, giving away the oddest Melbourne penalty of the night, in a sequence that will surely fill NRL highlight reels for years to come. With that kind of brainsnap, and the pause in play, it wasn’t surprising that the Chooks managed to regain the momentum, as Aubusson crossed over seconds later on the back of Vunivalu’s error, and that Mitchell added the extras from a difficult sideline conversion, levelling the score to 12-12 for an extraordinarily suspenseful final quarter.
At first, it looked as if it might be the Roosters’ game, with the Tricolors gradually building some precarious momentum over the closing ten minutes of the match. Eight minutes t from the end, Pearce booted the ball from twenty-five metre out following a sustained period of dominance from the Storm, and while it may have been a bit of a Hail Mary kick from the future Knight, it forced something we rarely see from Slater – a pure, simple, unforced error, with Billy the Kid coughing up what initially seemed like a fairly easy catch.
One minute later, Keary followed up on his halves partner with a field goal, forcing the Chooks to defend a one-point lead – a precarious situation against any team, but especially against the Storm at home. Yet when Ferguson chose to kick from the side of the field late in the tackle count rather than running the ball, he gave away a seven tackle set that saw the Storm escalate their field position and possession once again, a sequence that concluded with Stimson getting the ball to ground two minutes out from the end. With Smith failing to add the extras, the Storm had won with an unusual 16-13 lead, but in truth both teams had played an outstanding game, flexing their muscles a bit before taking on some less challenging opposition in the Knights and Wests Tigers next week.