The Storm have skipped a week in the finals, as most commentators assumed they would, after a home victory over Parramatta at AAMI Park. Nevertheless, this wasn’t the kind of landslide victory that might have been expected from Melbourne’s performance over the last few weeks, with the Eels putting in some terrific, scrambling goal line-defence, and making the most of Cameron Munster’s ten minute sin bin in the first half, to ensure that only a penalty goal separated the two sides by the time the final whistle blew.
Of course, there were other factors that made this feel like a more emphatic victory for Melbourne, including Cameron Smith breaking Darren Lockyer’s record for numbers of finals games played, and Billy Slater setting a new record for finals points scored – a particularly impressive achievement for Slater given that it wasn’t a sure thing that he would even return to the game after his shoulder trouble last year. To see him putting in some of the best moves of the night was rousing no matter your allegiance, and whatever the grand final result it’s clear that Melbourne’s Big Three will play their last few matches together in style.
At first, it looked as if we might be in for another Storm landslide, with Josh Ado-Carr putting down the first points five minutes in. Nevertheless, this wasn’t quite as dramatic as the opening tries that Melbourne have dished out over the past few weeks, partly because the points came off a pass from Curtis Scott that may have been touched by Kirisome Auva’a on its way to Ado-Carr, but which multiple replay angles suggested had already been travelling forward by the time the Parramatta winger laid hands to it.
Appropriately, it was Auva’a himself who scored the next try (and almost the one after that), shortly after Munster was sent to the bin for ten minutes. It had been a bit of a spotty night generally for the Storm five-eighth, who had put out his hand prematurely for a try attempt on the second tackle earlier in the game, in one of those gesture of pre-emptive impatience that can sometimes unsettle even the most secure players under the finals spotlight.
To their credit, the Eels made the most of his absence, with Corey Norman taking advantage of the depleted Melbourne line with a terrific bit of footwork. Pivoting off the right boot, he managed to get on the inside of Ado-Carr, who had surged in off his wing expecting to shut down the play, only to find the Parramatta five-eighth sending the Steeden past him to Auvu’a, who outpaced Curtis Scott to ground it just short of the dead ball line.
It was only a couple of minutes before the Parramatta halves generated another try, this time for Will Smith. The set started with a terrific spiralling bomb from Mitchell Moses that Suliasi Vunivalu was simply unable to contain, leaving space for Manu Ma’u to knock it out of his hand and almost pass it across to his inside man, only for Slater to slam in with a trysaving tackle.
Nevertheless, the Eels retained possession and a set later Moses executed what is coming to be one of his trademark set pieces in the blue and gold jersey – a decoy dash to the right combined with a backwards pass to the left that found Smith at just the right moment to send him over the line. Given how renowned the Storm are for just these kinds of stealth plays, it was especially empowering for the Eels to have thwarted expectations in such an elegant way, especially considering that this game marked Moses’ first finals footy appearance.
For a team that thrives on structure, the Storm were clearly feeling the absence of such a key part of their spine over these ten minutes, and the Eels had managed to take advantage of their dishevelment quite effectively. Indeed, they had almost made it three tries, with Auvu’a crashing over again, after an apparent knock-on from Kenny Edwards under the high ball meant that Ado-Carr didn’t both to clean up the Steeden, despite the fact that it was only the slightest of forward movements – so slight that it initially appeared as if the visitors might have scored the least contested try of the year against the competition leaders.
At the same time, this kind of frustration often works well for Melbourne, who have come back from the break a few times this season with a renewed sense of purpose and focus. Sure enough, five minutes into the second stanza they received exactly what they needed, with Kenny Bromwich crossing over for the most spectacular four points of the evening so far.
A classic team try if ever there was one, the ball passed through virtually every Melbourne player before Bromwich brought it to ground. The set was all the more impressive in that the Eels defended resoundingly over the first four tackles, and for a good portion of the fifth tackle, with the ball appearing to have gone dead a good four or five times. Across such a scintillating set there were multiple highlights, including Will Chambers’ effort to crash straight over the line out of dummy half, but the icing on the cake was a chain of offloads – from Felise Kaufusi to Nelson Asofa-Solomona and then to Bromwich – that finally stopped the guests dead in their tracks.
At the time, this seemed like the kind of try that was destined to blow the game wide open – the kind of momentum-building play that the Storm can use to cascade more and more points when they execute it as well as they did here. As it turned out, they only scored one more try, and pretty soon thereafter, with Billy Slater crashing over after he got a penalty from Ma’u, and setting a new tryscoring record for finals footy in the process – a nice complement to Cameron Smith’s record for most number of finals game played.
Unlike Bromwich’s previous effort, this was a relatively simple try, and yet its simplicity was also what made it so devastating for the visitors. It came off the back of a grubber from Ado-Carr that Slater read perfectly, and you could almost see himself reminding himself to stay onside so that he could set a good, hard run and launch forward to ground it right beneath the posts – an image that cemented his inspiring comeback in 2017 more than any other to date.
With the Storm gaining a penalty goal shortly after, it seemed as if they might be set to launch ahead to an unassailable lead, but Parramatta kept it a two point game after Semi Radradra responded with their own third try fifteen minutes out from the final siren. It started with another terrific high kick from Moses, which Semi managed to knock back and then get across to Brad Takairangi, who floated across the field before sending it back on the inside to Michael Jennings, who was running the kind of pre-emptive and determined line that makes him so valuable during these kinds of clutch sequences.
From there, Jenko sent back a risky bounce pass, only for Ma’u to scoop it up and send it back over to Semi to bookend the play by bending around to plant the ball beneath the posts, setting up Moses for his easiest conversion of the night. For the next fifteen minutes, both teams battled it out, and in what was arguably their strongest defensive stretch of the game Melbourne managed to keep the Eels at bay and come home with a two point lead.
As we might have expected, then, the Eels will be taking on either the Sharks or the Cowboys next weekend, while the Storm have a week to recuperate before hitting the park once more. Still, it feels as if there is still unfinished business between these sides – especially when it comes to finals football – and hopefully they’ll get a chance to meet again before the 2017 season is out.