As with their opening match against the Broncos, the Storm started scoring early when they travelled to GIO to take on the Raiders on Friday evening. Despite Dale Finucane leaking the first penalty of the game for holding down, the purple army were dominant from the outset, culminating with a superb shift out to their right edge that saw Suliasi Vunivalu cross over on the second tackle eight minutes in.
This sequence of passes started with Cameron Smith, who sent the ball through Brodie Croft before a deft catch-and-pass from Felise Kaufusi allowed Jahrome Hughes to put Vunivalu across in the corner. The speed and strength of the big winger could be measured by the way he shrugged off Nick Cotric, who stormed in across the field with enough bulk and pace to send most players skittling into touch, but instead found himself ricocheting off Vunivalu and over the sideline.
The Raiders got a chance twelve minutes in, when Nelson Asofa-Solomona lost the footy under pressure from Aidan Sezer and Josh Papalii, with John Bateman crowding in as third man in the tackle. Yet with Bateman himself losing the ball three tackles later, while trying to offload, the Storm started marched back down the field, leading to a terrific sequence that started with Finucane poking his nose through the line to send the Steeden across to Jesse Bromwich, and ended with a Storm dropout when Jack Wighton was forced to clean up a Cameron Munster kick in the face of a big chase from Hughes.
Two enormous trysaving tackles from Jarrod Croker now looked set to get the Raiders back on track. The first saw him prevent Curtis Scott slamming over the line at speed, while the second, which took place on the next tackle, saw him hold up Hughes and get a hand beneath the ball after the Melbourne fullback had actually crossed over the line. For the moment, the Storm had been thwarted at close-range, but they compensated with a superb longer-distance effort on the very next set.
Finding himself about twenty-five minutes out from the line, Croft booted the footy down the right side of the field, managing to retain his aim and focus despite Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad crashing into him at the very moment he made contact with the ball. The bounce sat up perfectly for Vunivalu, who collected it into his chest, decelerated as he curved around behind the posts, and then bounced his whole body into ground to accentuate the showmanship of scoring the opening double.
The next chance for the Raiders came with some Rapana magic, as Joey and Jordan combined for the biggest hit of the night so far, slamming Will Chambers to ground to celebrate Rapana’s return from injury. With Cameron Smith pinged for an obstruction, Canberra felt on the verge of wresting a bit of momentum back from the game, but it all came to nothing when Sezer’s last-tackle kick sailed over Rapana’s head and into touch.
Over the next couple of sets, the Raiders at least managed to prevent the Storm from scoring again, but their energy flagged nine minutes out from the end, when another silky sequence led to Vunivalu notching up a hat trick. This time, it was a cut-out pass from Scott, and then a catch-and-pass from Croft, that sent the big winger over, as the Raiders started to get a glimpse of how Gold Coast had felt when they left them tryless at Robina the week before.
The period leading up to half time was a bit convulsive for both sides. Following a lost ball from Leilua, the Storm got some good field position, leading to a scintillating set that culminated with Kenny Bromwich offloading right on the ground, only for Hughes to fumble the pickup for what would have been a certain try. Yet with Sezer penalised for being offside, Melbourne got another six sets within the twenty. Still, the Raiders recovered quickly after Croft lost the ball to Whitehead on the first tackle, and Brandon Smith followed up with a penalty for working on the ground.
At the other end of the park, Hodgson aimed his last tackle grubber at the post, but the ricochet didn’t favour his team, careening straight into the chest of Cameron Smith, who looped it up in the air before recovering it comfortably beside the uprights. With Corey Horsburgh called offside downtown, the Raiders now leaked an alarming sequence of penalties – another grapple from Horsbrugh, a ball strip from Hodgson – as all the pressure of the Storm performance started to condense and converge on them as the half time siren drew near.
Fortunately for the home crowd, a Kaufusi obstruction let the Raiders off with forty-nine seconds on the clock, but they still went into the sheds fourteen points behind, with a good sense of how the Titans must have felt when they were left without points last weekend at Robina. Six minutes into the second stanza, Smith kicked through the first penalty goal of the game after Brandon Smith tempted Soliola into a flop, but the Raiders were the next to score, thanks to a man of the match performance from Bateman.
Collecting an offload from CNK, the young lock forward moved infield, passing to Horsburgh before recovering the ball back from his no. 17. From there, he danced along the front of the Melbourne defence, fending off Croft before throwing the footy, basketball-style, across to Croker, who put down the first four points of the night for Canberra. With Croker missing the subsequent kick, the Storm were still quadruple the Raiders at 4-16, but the home team were clearly galvanised, putting in some of their best sequences over the next couple of minutes.
It started with Cotric catching the high ball and popping it backwards, where Scott knocked it on and gave the Raiders a terrific chance within the twenty. On the fourth tackle, Horsburgh put in one of the hardest short-range runs of the night, twisting and spinning through the defence and reaching out his right hand for what would have been a certain try if Hughes had not also put in the trysaver of the night, reading the play perfectly to get beneath the ball just before it hit the ground.
This was a bit of a turning-point back in the Storm’s favour, who scored again shortly after, on the back of a Kaufusi intercept and offload to Vunivalu that saw the two of them run up the middle two-thirds of the field before the Melbourne no. 2 was cleaned up on their right edge. The momentum of his run, and brief prospect of his fourth try, continued over into the rest of this set, culminating with Nelson Asofa-Solomona storming through CNK, Papalii and Tapine from five metres out, coming close to a double movement but relying on his bulk and strength to simply get him through the combined tackle.
Clearly, the Raiders had to score again to remain in the game, or retain any vestige of pride, so the home crowd breathed a sigh of relief when they notched up their first converted try of the match sixty-seven minutes in. It came off some good work from Hodgson and Wighton, but depended primarily on an error from Scott, who wrenched the football free, only for it to sit up perfectly for Croker to score his own double, before adding the extras shortly after.
As it turned out, these were the last points of the match, but it didn’t matter much to the Storm that they didn’t score again, since they had easily been the best team on the park. At times, their superiority had seemed so effortless that it felt more like a training run, as they exuded an easy and certainty they’ll be keen to repeat against the Panthers next week. Meanwhile, this has been a pretty lopsided start to the season for Canberra, who’ll be looking to stabilise when they meet the Knights at GIO next Friday night.