The Storm had a quick turnaround after their defeat to the Sharks last Sunday, but that didn’t prevent them stamping their signature on the first half of Friday night’s match against the Eels in Melbourne. Despite a strong start from Jarryd Hayne and Mitch Moses, which was quite reminiscent of their massive opening against the Dragons, the purple army took control of the field immediately with five successive sets that culminated with the first try of the evening.
The Melbourne field possession started with an error from Michael Jennings, who tackled Suliasi Vunivalu in the air just before he cleaned up the high ball. From there, two bounces worked in the hosts’ favour, the first of which came at the end of the next set, where the Steeden set up horribly for the Eels. While Jennings might have made a valiant effort to catch it and bring it back towards the goal line, the kick had goal line dropout written all over it, and sure enough the Storm held him up.
At the end of a seemingly endless series of Melbourne attacking formations, Billy Slater ran right up into the line before sending through a grubber for Will Chambers. This time, the bounce was perfect, and the Queensland backliner made the most of it, slamming it to ground for the first four points of the evening, which became six once Cameron Smith booted the footy through the uprights a minute later.
For the rest of the first stanza, the Storm would dominate possession and field position, while the Eels would leak penalties and clock up one frustrating error after another. Nevertheless, Melbourne also wouldn’t score until the beginning of the second stanza, by which time Smith would have been taken from the field with a back injury and the Storm would have used up their entire bench.
Until then, however, the hosts were dominant, with Hayne now ushering in a period of particularly acute frustration for the Parramatta faithful. First, he overran the play on the last tackle, giving Slater space to luxuriously let the Steeden bounce into touch. While Hayne may have made up for his hastiness by catching a difficult ball from Cameron Munster at the end of the next set, he was bumped into touch a set later by Josh Ado-Carr.
From there, the spotlight shifted to Jennings, who contributed a pair of penalties that sank Parra even further into despair. The first came after Corey Norman slid through the line, only for the mildest of obstructions from Jenko on Munster during the decoy run to disqualify the try. No doubt, Munster milked it for all he was worth, but the original error had been Jennings’ – and a totally unnecessary error at that, since it would have only taken a step away from the Melbourne five-eighth for Norman’s try to go through.
Two tackles later, Jennings racked up another penalty for a flop, while another penalty from Reed Mahoney for a hand in the ruck gave the Storm the opportunity to kick for goal, turning their six point lead into an eight point lead. There may have only been one try scored, then, but all the momentum was with Melbourne, especially since the penalty count was starting to get pretty serious for the blue and gold army.
The aftermath of a brilliant Corey Norman bomb a couple of minutes said it all. In one of the fortuitous moments that the Eels just couldn’t seem to capitalise upon, the footy ricocheted off Slater, allowing Mahoney to catch it and surge forward for what would have been a repeat set of six, and quite possibly a tryscoring formation, if Clint Gutherson hadn’t been called offside. Worse, the Storm themselves got six again at the end of the next set, although a combined tackle from Tepai Moeroa and Nathan Brown momentarily quelled the purple momentum with a back injury to Smith, who looked more debilitated than at any other moment in his career.
While the Queensland hooker might have returned gingerly to the play, it was a display of vulnerability that required a proportionate show of leadership from Slater. Billy sure delivered, responding with a ballsy thirty metre wide pass to Curtis Scott at the start of the next Melbourne tackle count – a move that dishevlled and refocused the Parramatta defence enough for Peni Terepo to clock up a penalty a tackle later, resulting in Gutherson being given a formal warning on behalf of his team.
Still, the nadir for Parramatta came shortly after, when Norman was penalised for a late dropout, resulting in another penalty kick for Smith. Sure, Norman might have claimed that the dropout siren didn’t correlate with the clock, while a two point lead was probably a good outcome, all things considered, for Parra, given what Melbourne might have managed to do with a repeat set. It didn’t hurt, either, that Smith was now led from the field, forcing the Storm to contend without their best player after a shaky match against Cronulla the week before.
Yet despite all those issues the dropout penalty was a bad look for Parra – the culmination of a scrappy first stanza in which they’d only completed seven sets to Melbourne’s fifteen. To their credit, though, they came back from the sheds revitalized, and clearly determined to make the most of Smith’s absence, surging immediately thanks to some good work from Moses, resulting in a linebreak from Jennings and a pass back to Moses – or, rather, a pass forward to Moses, which brought all this newfound momentum to a rude ending.
Taking advantage of that sudden deflation, Slater contributed his own linebreak a minute later, getting the footy across to Ado-Carr who was only just cleaned up on the left edge. All of a sudden, the Storm were back in control of the field, and shortly after Nelson Asofa-Solomona crashed through Moses, Niukore and Norman to slam down what was – incredibly – only the second try of the night for Melbourne.
It was a rousing display of strength from the big frontrower, and a particularly cathartic moment for Storm supporters given how hard they’d struggled to translate their considerable advantage in possession and field position into points. Nevertheless, without Smith’s leadership, the team’s focus started to wane, resulting in an escalating series of penalties, and a formal warning to Slater, that culminated with Munster being sent to the bin for ten minutes as Jenko had in the first half.
These reversals of fortune often work as turning-points, but the Eels couldn’t capitalise it, remaining pointless during Munster’s entire stint in the bin. Worse, the Storm scored as soon as the sturdy five-eighth returned, thanks to a brilliant platform from Ado-Carr, who wove his way through the Parramatta defence out of dummy half for the single best run of the night.
From there, Munster made up for his time in the bin with his best kick of the night – a short chip that Hayne foolishly chose to let bounce, not judging how perfectly the Steeden would bend backwards and into the hands of the surging Melbourne attack. It was Curtis Scott who caught it, but a tackle from Gutherson, and a deft offload from the big centre, meant that it was Croft who grounded it, slamming over the line for two competition points and the most triumphant try of the evening.
For the first time, it felt as if Melbourne were really getting into gear, since while they’d scored two tries and a couple of penalty goals, they’d struggled to build any genuine pointscoring momentum over the course of the night. A one-handed, cartwheeling try from Gutherson three minutes out from the end undercut that a little bit, and gave the Eels a bit more pride, especially since it involved a brilliant catch-and-tumble on the back of a last-tackle chip from Norman.
With Moses unable to add the extras, and called offside before grounding the footy on the next set, the Storm ended up five times the Eels at a final score of 20-4. In another context that might be an impressive margin, but it was a pretty good outcome for the Eels, all things considered, even given the resurgence of form they’ve managed to showcase over the last few weeks. They’ll therefore be looking to treat this game as a mere interlude in their late season resurgence when they take on the Cowboys for Johnathan Thurston’s final game in Townsville next Friday.
Meanwhile, this was a good win for the Storm, but still not good enough for where they want to be at this point in their season. Combined with Smith’s injury, and his general susceptibility to injury over the course of 2018, that’s going to necessitate some soul searching and teamwork to come away with a really decisive win over a triumphant Titans outfit on the Gold Coast on Saturday.