This time last year it would have seemed strange to label a Melbourne victory over Newcastle “rousing,” and as it was the Storm came away with a pretty big win margin over the Knights at McDonald Jones Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Yet in its own way this was one of the Storm’s most rousing matches of the back end of the season, and will probably turn out to be their major momentum-builder as they set their eyes on the trophy in the weeks to come.
In part, that’s because Newcastle have finally graduated into a force to be reckoned with over the last couple of weeks, which doesn’t mean that they’re a top eight team, but that they’re finally playing like a consistent first-grade team. Some commentators believe that Nathan Brown has put in one of the best coaching efforts in the NRL over the last eighteen months – it’s just that he has had to set a new foundation at the club – and it does seem as if his long-term plan for the Knights is starting to bear some fruit.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Storm came away from Saturday afternoon’s game with the minor premiership, and while that might seem to have been all but guaranteed, nobody could have predicted how eloquently the win would encapsulate the growing continuity between older and younger Melbourne generations. While resting and replacing Cooper Cronk with Brodie Croft may have turned a few heads, this ended up being a watershed moment in the young halfback’s game, with three tries and two try assists momentarily making it feel like the Smith, Slater and Croft show.
The fact that Newcastle scored first also made the Melbourne victory feel that little more hard won, with Craig Fitzgibbon putting down points four minutes in, for his sixth try in twelve games, an excellent track record for the flourishing forward. It didn’t hurt, either, that the build up was so simple, with Brock Lamb opting for a good strong run that brought him right up to the Melbourne line, where he forced Cameron Munster to commit to the tackle, only to pop the ball back to his second rower, who was bursting up from behind.
The four points felt all the more dramatic in that they came on the back of a professional foul from Jesse Bromwich two sets earlier as Jamie Buhrer was chasing the ball over the line. While there wasn’t sufficient evidence for the Bunker to award a penalty try, it wasn’t entirely out of the question that Buhrer would have grounded it either, and even with Bromwich sent to the bin there must have been some sense of grievance amongst the Newcastle side, as there clearly was amongst the Newcastle fans.
Yet, as fate would have it, the Knights wouldn’t score for another hour. Bookended by those two solitary four-pointers, the Storm managed to put down four unanswered tries, the first of which came from young gun Curtis Scott a mere four minutes on the heels of Fitzgibbon. It started with Joe Wardle inadvertently popping the high ball back Munster, who sent it over to his centre in yet another instance of the cool-headed decision-making that has rendered him so invaluable to the Melbourne spine, since the young five-eighth could almost have gone over himself but instead opted for the safer and more generous play.
Thirteen minutes later, Dale Finucane crossed over, putting Jesse Bromwich’s pre-game comments about direct football to effect, running a strong, hard, slightly diagonal line on the second tackle to come up behind Smith just as his skipper was looking for options. So seamlessly did the Steeden change hands that it didn’t even really feel as if Smith had passed to Finucane – just handed it to him on his way to the try line – as the big lock strode just enough of an oblique angle to surprise the take the Newcastle defence by surprise.
As impressive as these two four-pointers had been, however they were the mere prologue to the Brodie Croft show, which started at the end of an especially convulsive period seven minutes later. After a frustrating couple of sets the Knights suddenly found themselves with some speed and field position, only for Fitzgibbon to opt for a bit of a risky and unnecessary offload that allowed Josh Ado-Carr to put enough pressure on Lamb to cough up the ball and return possession to the Storm.
From there, Nelson Asofa-Solomona put in a barnstorming run and a brutal fend on Dane Gagai to almost break right through the Newcastle defence, and yet Ado-Carr lost possession as the ball made its way over to the left side of the field. Nevertheless, the Steeden had come off a Newcastle player, gifting Melbourne the scrum and providing them with the possession and field position they needed to go over for a third time.
As with Finucane’s four-pointer, it was a disarmingly simple piece of play, with the young halfback receiving the football and opting for a show-and-go so rapid that it was really just a straight go, dashing between Trent Hodkinson and Danny Levi before the Newcastle line even knew it had been breached, let alone that it had left itself so wide open to attack.
As if that wasn’t enough, Croft put down four more points nine minutes into the second half, bookending the break for what will surely come to be seen as his watershed game at a first-grade level. This time it started with a deft offload from Bromwich to Smith, but full credit has to go to Croft, who took advantage of the fractured Newcastle defence with some of the most brilliant acceleration and footwork of the afternoon, in what felt like an extended director’s cut of his four-pointer just before the break.
At this point, it was clear that the Knights had to deliver something, and under the pressure of that desperation Fitzgibbon managed to put in a good fend on Smith to twist and spin through the Melbourne line, waiting until Suliasi Vunivalu had come right in for the tackle to offload to Joe Wardle, who curved around to plant the Steeden right beneath the posts. It culminated a bit of a rough set for Smith, who had been slammed to the ground by Peter Mata’utia a tackle before, but for that very reason it felt like an especially rousing four points for the Newcastle fans.
The Knights weren’t able to relish their momentum for long, however, with Will Chambers crashing over on the next set in one of the Storm’s most distinctive set plays – Billy Slater running to the line and gesturing for a false kick from Croft, even as the Steeden made its way over to his centre instead, who slammed it over the line and erased all but the faintest memory of Wardle’s four points.
From there, things just got better and better for the visitors, with Croft putting down four more points a couple of minutes later for what felt like the match-winning try. It must have been doubly satisfying for Melbourne fans to see Bromwich set up the play after his earlier stint in the sin bin, with the big prop taking the ball straight to the line and then showcasing his aptitude for late footwork to skip through the defence and send the Steeden straight onto Croft.
By this late stage, there could no doubt that the Storm had broken the game wide open, and they continued their surge at the seventieth minute, when Vunivalu puts down points off the second try assist from Croft. It was the final piece of the puzzle for Melbourne, whose wingers had been a bit quiet up until this point, with Ado-Carr making a rare error of judgement twenty-four minutes by planting a foot on the sideline the midst of one of his deftest groundings in weeks.
By the time Asofa-Solomona went over one minute out from the end the game had more or less become a Melabourne victory lap, with the big forward celebrating the minor premiership with a brutal bust at the Newcastle line. Breaking through a tackle from Fitzgibbon and eluding an ankle tap from Gagai, he sprawled over the ground to slam the Steeden to earth in an incredible and emphatic final statement from the Storm.
From here, the sky’s the limit for the boys in purple, while the Newcastle side will be looking to regroup and see their season out with a bang over the next couple of weeks. Yet there were plenty of good signs for the Knights on Saturday afternoon, including Shaun Kenny-Dowall, who may have been targeted by the Storm out on the wing but nevertheless managed to put in a sterling effort in attack. With over fifteen hit-ups by the one hour mark he often felt like a member of the forward pack in his drive and defence, and will surely prove critical to how Newcastle see out the end of their 2017 season.