Melbourne and North Queensland both had something to prove when they met at AAMI Park on Thursday night for the first game of Round 3. On the one hand, the Storm had suffered their most ignominious loss in recent memory to the Wests Tigers the week before, and were keen to regain AAMI Park with their second successive home game in two weeks. On the other hand, the Cowboys had come off a frustrating loss to the Broncos in the Queensland Derby, and were clearly keen to recoup the form they’d demonstrated against the Sharks two Friday nights before.
It took a while for a try to be put down, with the Storm coming very close in the first couple of seconds only for some terrific trysaving efforts from the visitors to keep them out. Shortly afterwards, a forward pass from North Queensland combined with a couple of penalties from the Cows ended with a penalty goal for Smith, although this just seemed to whet the visitors’ appetite, with Antonio Winterstein and Michael Morgan putting in a terrific pair of tackles on Will Chambers and Cameron Munster during what should have been the momentum-consolidating set for the Storm.
The Cows consolidated things further shortly after, with a nice crossfield bomb from Johnathan Thurston resulting in a penalty from Cameron Smith for being offside, allowing J.T. to level the score with a two-pointer of his own. From there, things got a bit messy, with Thurston offloading to nobody at a critical point in a subsequent North Queensland set, only for Dale Finucane to cough up the Steeden a couple of tackles after Melbourne had regained possession on the back of Thurston’s error.
It was the kind of indeterminate opening that the Storm are so good at turning to their advantage, so it was no surprise to see Billy Slater lurking around the back of the ruck during the next Melbourne set, waiting for an opportunity to sync up with Smith. Three times he made an effort to do so, almost sending Nelson Asofa-Solomona through the line on the second, only for the North Queensland defence to bring the big man to ground just in front of the chalk, but not without the Storm having made a significant inroad into Cowboys defensive territory in the process.
On the next tackle, however, the Smith-Slater magic paid dividends, with Smith collecting the ball quickly and then spinning around to send it across to Slater, who responded in turn with a perfectly-timed one-handed pass out to Joe Stimson on his right. It was a dazzling display of timing and synergy, and to his credit Stimson made the most of it, pivoting off the right boot and scooting around Ben Hampton to stretch out his hand and slam the Steeden to ground a couple of seconds after.
While Stimson may have technically executed a twist-and-spin, this wasn’t your traditional putdown, since with only Hampton standing between him and the line he didn’t need to lean into the tackle as emphatically as if there had been a bigger pack of Melbourne defenders. Instead, Stimson twisted and spun around the North Queensland fullback rather than through him, continuing Slater and Smith’s dexterity in what felt like a definitive statement of purpose from the purple army.
If it felt predictable that Melbourne would take control of the game in such a dramatic way, then it felt equally predictable when Vunivalu broke through the line a couple of minutes afterwards, with Josh Ado-Carr burning up the field behind him in what initially looked like the consolidation and cascade of points that so often follows on from an early Storm tryscoring effort. It was doubly dramatic, then, that the Cows managed to shut down this play, with Hampton smashing Vunivalu to the ground to make up for having let Stimson through line a couple of minutes before.
While full credit has to go to Hampton for his initiative, however, this was also Vunivalu’s doing, with the big winger showing some uncharacteristically bad timing over the last part of his run. Despite the fact that he had run half the field, and the fact that Ado-Carr was now in prime position to score, he chose to dummy the ball to accelerate forward and pick up a couple of extra metres, setting himself up perfectly – and weirdly – for Hampton to come in and punch the ball from his hand.
A couple of minutes later the Storm slotted through another penalty goal, but their momentum had been well and truly quashed, at least for the moment. No surprise, then, that the Cowboys were the next to score, nor that they gave Melbourne a lesson in orchestrating offloads, as Thurston collected a long ball from Jake Granville right on the visitors line and then hovered as Cameron Munster and Ryan Hoffman came in off their line to commit to the tackle, or at least get in place for whatever horizontal movement that JT was planning to organise around his upcoming pass.
However, in a piece of timing to rival Smith and Slater’s link-up earlier in the game, the North Queensland magician took advantage of Munster and Hoffman’s movement to pop the ball back to Coen Hess, who slammed forward and between the Melbourne no. 6 and no. 12, finding himself bursting into open space and completely unmarked as he curved around to plant the softest try of the night. As much of an optical illusion as anything else, it was just the display of dexterity that the Cowboys needed to get back in the game on the back of Stimson’s four pointer.
In true Storm fashion, however, the purple army managed to have the last word before half time, with Hoffman putting in a powerful run to get the team right up in the Cows’ faces, and Smith popping the ball across to rookie Christian Welch to slam through the line and ground his debut NRL try. Only Hampton made a realistic effort at preventing the four points, with Ethan Lowe coming in too late to make much of a difference, in one of the most disheveled moments for the visitors’ defence so far.
With Smith adding the extras, the Storm were double the Cowboys at a more comfortable 16-8 – a good place to be as the boys headed into the sheds. It didn’t hurt, either, that the six points had come off a collaboration since Smith and Welch, since these kinds of linkups between veterans and young guns have been a hallmark of some of the Storm’s strongest moments – and most rousing displays of teamship and communal spirit – in the wake of Slater’s return and Cronk’s 2018 departure.
A minute and a half out from the sheds, Morgan tried to strike some magic with a crossfield bomb, and for a moment it looked as if Kyle Feldt might be about to bring home some of his last-minute magic for the wing. As it turned out, however, the big winger had to jump too high, swimming in space as Ado-Carr grabbed him securely around the waist and landing awkwardly on his shoulder. To make matters worse, the Storm secured a penalty on the last tackle – about half a minute after the siren – with Smith manging to boot through the football from about thirty-five metre out.
Not surprisingly, Melbourne returned for the second stanza determined to consolidate their momentum. Once again, Slater and Smith were fiting on all fronts, with Billy the Kid trying to take a quick tap early in an opening set, and making up for being called back by almost breaking through the line a couple of tackles later, looking back for an offload but not finding any purple jerseys coming up in support.
Still, Slater’s energy was the foundation for one of the strongest sets of the night – a set that initially seemed to signal Sam Kasiano as a key ingredient of the second half, especially alongside Slater and Smith’s increasing ingenuity with orchestrating Cronk-esque plays without Cronk on the field. At the end of this escalating set, Kasiano slammed at the defensive line harder than he has so far in Melbourne colours, with only a massive trysaving tackle from Hampton managing to drag him back across
As it turned out, however, Big Sam overplayed his hand, not only copping a HIA assessment for his troubles, but gifting a penalty to the Cowboys in his efforts to milk one for his team during the tackle. Seeing the ex-Bulldog led off the field was a critical momentum-shifted for the Cowboys, and shortly after another crossfield kick from Thurston – this time in the opposite direction paid dividends, as Chambers knocked the ball back and gifted North Queensland another set of six, and the start of their most sustained period of possession and field position of the game so far.
Midway through the next set, JT popped the ball back and Chambers once again got a hand to it, with Vunicalu starting a massive run down the other end of the field only to be called back to grant the Cowboys the scrum. Between Vunivalu’s run and Chambers’ touch, it was a moment of unwelcome déjà vu for the Storm, only reinforcing North Queensland’s confidence in the process. On the second tackle of the next set Jesse Bromwich hung on too long during the second tackle, while the Cows gained yet another penalty on the third tackle of the following set as well.
At one point in the game, the penalty count had been quite lopsided in the Storm’s favour, with the purple army having only conceded one to the Cowboys’ five. By this stage, however, Melbourne had crept closer with a 9-7 penalty count, in what was probably their weakest moment of the night – the point at which North Queensland had to put down points, and put them down well, to make the most of their surge.
It was particularly rousing, then, to see Hess put down a double, crashing in from the ten metres line after collecting the footy from Morgan, and slipping through Slater, slamming through a tackle from Hoffman, and eluding two other Melbourne big men to achieve the most stunning putdown of the night. Holding onto the Steeden with one hand amidst a swathe of Storm jerseys, the big second rower kept the football far enough away from his body to be able to get it to ground, but close enough that the mass of Melbourne defenders weren’t able to boot or punch it out of his grasp.
Combined with the kinetic chaos of the tackle, it was a masterpiece of ball handling under pressure, and with Thurston adding the two the Cowboys were back within four points of the Storm at 18-14. About ten minutes out from the end, Smith made it a converted try with a two-pointer, but there was still a sense that North Queensland could make this their game and night, at least until Chambers smashed over seven minutes out from the end on the back of a rapid play-the ball from Slater.
The cruel irony for the Cowboy was that Slater’s high-speed play-the ball had been facilitated by a low tackle from Thurston, who almost got Billy the Kid to ground only to lose him, leaving him largely unmarked to get the ball to Chambers as quickly as possible. With Brodie Croft adding the extras a minute later, the Storm had won the game, while the fact that Croft took the conversion symbolised the synergy between young guns and veterans that had made the game so great for the Melbourne side.
In a brilliant epilogue – an insistence that the win had been no coincidence – Asofa-Solomona crashed over two minutes out from the end, thanks in part to some quick timing from Smith who almost fell to earth shortly earlier but managed to keep the Steeden from grazing the grass. While Croft may not have added the extras this time he didn’t need to, since Melbourne had well and truly put their loss to the Tigers to bed with a 30-14 win over North Queensland, who are going to be even more desperate to make up for two weeks of losses against the Panthers next round.