ROUND 19: New Zealand Warriors v. Melbourne Storm (Mt Smart Stadium, 22/7/18)
Both the Warriors and the Storm were coming off wins when they met at Mt. Smart Stadium on Sunday afternoon, albeit wins of a very different nature. Whereas the Storm had only just managed a one-point victory in a nail-biting match against the Sea Eagles the week before, the Warriors had enjoyed a spectacular twenty-point drubbing of the Broncos – a performance they were keen to consolidate with a home win at Mt. Smart Stadium.
Still, the match had more in common with the Manly-Melbourne game, not merely because the Storm once again came away with the chocolates, but because this was a relatively austere afternoon in terms of point-scoring, with only three tries clocked up in total, and all of them in the first forty minutes. The first came a couple of minutes in, thanks to a superb no-look pass from Jahrome Hughes that completely disheveled the New Zealand defence, sending Solomone Kata, in particular, back towards Billy Slater, to contain a run from the Melbourne fullback that never came.
Instead, it was Will Chambers who was the target of Hughes’ deceptive move, gathering the footy and running the length of the field before pivoting away and bouncing off Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to crash over for the first four points of the night, thereby maintaining his splendid tryscoring record against the Warriors. While Smith’s conversion attempt might have faded away to the right, this was still a classy start for the Storm, and a good way to dent the momentum that New Zealand were carrying over from last week.
The Warriors got some good luck immediately after, though, as an apparent strip from Shaun Johnson was called as a loose carry from Ryan Hoffman. From there, a forward pass from Mason Lino was cleared, and the home team got a penalty to boot, following a slow peel from Kenny Bromwich. At the other end of the field, RTS almost broke through on the third tackle, only to be held up by a clutch trysaver from Cameron Munster, and Johnson and David Fusitua capped things off with a classic Warriors last tackle option.
It started with a deft crossfield kick from Johnson to the Warriors’ right corner, where Fusitua put in one of the best aerial moves of the year so far, leaping up to catch the Steeden, two-handed, above his head, in a sequence that looked more like a basketball set play. Even in the New Zealand’ no. 2’s playbook this was a special moment, as he popped the ball back for Gerard Beale to cross over and score.
While Johnson might have added the extras, these would turn out to be the last points scored by New Zealand, as the Storm dug in to consolidate. It took them a while, though, since this was one of their least organized games in weeks, as well as one of the least convincing in terms of Smith and Slater’s synergy, or even their individual performances. A flop from Adam Blair about 22 minutes in gave the purple army a good opportunity, and an offload from Nelson Asofa-Solomona to Curtis Scott shortly after felt like a pivotal moment, only for the young no. 4 to lose the footy under some fairly minimal pressure from Simon Mannering seconds later.
If Hoffman’s loose carry had been ambiguous, then this handling error was painfully clear, and yet the Warriors were unable to make the most of the Storm errors either. For a moment, a great run from Beale and a slow peel from Ado-Carr looked like the shift in fortune that New Zealand needed, but when RTS passed to nobody on the restart, and Suliasi Vunivalu scooped up the Steeden, the home team were almost back where they had started from.
Almost, but not quite, since the Warriors were still able to neutralise Slater on this following set, thanks to a brilliant hit-up from Fusitua on the first tackle and some additional pressure midway up the field. By the time that Billy popped a cut-out pass to Ado-Carr towards the end of the set, he was so disheveled that his one-handed offload not only sailed clean over his winger’s head, but over the head of the sideline referee as well, in one of his most awkward moments of play since returning from injury.
Between the abrupt end to Asofa-Solomona’s offload on the left edge, and the bizarre spectacle of Slater’s cut-out pass on the left edge, this amounted to one of the weirdest passages of football from the Storm in some weeks. Whether they were spooked by the memory of their clutch win over the Sea Eagles, or whether they were decelerated into complacency by a Warriors outfit that couldn’t ever quite gel, they were in danger of losing their advantage if they didn’t score again before the first stanza was out, especially since New Zealand were still two points ahead.
An inside ball from Isaiah Papali’i to Ken Maumalo initially looked like a key tryscoring opportunity two minutes out from the end, only for the replay to show that it had actually been forward. Instead, it would be Melbourne who would score the last try of the first half – and of the game – a minute later. While the next forty minutes would be pretty dour, this was a great statement of defiance from the purple army, mirroring and outdoing Johnson, Fusitua and Beale’s combination thirty minutes before.
As with that New Zealand combination, this try involved a kick to the right edge, a catch and a putdown. There were, however, two key differences this time. First, it was Hughes who kicked – a less confident kicker rather than a veteran kicker, making it even more spectacular when the footy found Vunivalu so elegantly and precisely. Second, Vunivalu compressed the last part of the tryscoring sequence, grounding the footy himself instead of offloading to a third team mate to complete the play.
Vunivalu’s putdown was pretty spectacular on its own terms as well. After catching the Steeden two-handed in the air, he almost landed on Fusitua, only to reach out a hand to use the New Zealand winger’s back to steady himself, before fending off Kata to slam down the football one-handed. In a game where Ado-Carr had been relatively quiet, it was critical for the Storm to see at least one of their wingers showcasing the kind of dexterity that has been so important to their game this year.
Nevertheless, these would be the last points scored by either side, leading on to a slightly drab second stanza in which neither team was quite able to captalise on their performance in the first half, or take advantage of the other team’s inability to capitalise either. Only two penalty kicks from Smith notched up the scoreline, making for a win that was every bit as marginal as the Storm’s game against the Sea Eagles the week before, and making them even hungrier for a decimating performance when they take on the Raiders at AAMI Park in Round 20.
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