The Storm came away with their best win of the season when they met with the Panthers at Carrington Park on Saturday night, putting down five unanswered tries, and keeping Penrith to a solitary penalty kick, scored in the first five minutes. Yet this was a more evenly paced game than that might suggest, with the Panthers managing to notch up 75% possession at one point in the first half, while defending well enough to keep Melbourne to only one try in the first stanza as well.
This was also one of the more atmospheric games of Round 3 – a perfect home venue for the mountain men, as the wind chill brought the temperature below zero, and the modest lighting at Carrington created a huge void of black space above the field that made Nathan Cleary and James Maloney’s kicks even more dangerous than usual. As a result, Penrith started strong, with Josh Mansour putting one foot over the sideline to catch the high ball, and Melbourne leaking a pair of back-to-back penalties – first a slow peel from Nelson Asofa-Solomona, then a strip from Felise Kaufusi.
Despite being pretty energized, and despite the fact that they would be kicking into the wind, the Panthers elected to take the two, as Maloney booted through the only points they would score all night. Melbourne didn’t take long to score the first try after this, during a chaotic period of play at the tail end of an offload from Jahrome Hughes and kick from Cameron Munster. Dallin Watene Zelezniak tried to clean it up, but was unable to take possession. Neither was Josh Ado-Carr, who tumbled over his opposing winger as the ball bounced dangerously all around them.
The next man in on the play was Dylan Edwards, who raced forward and tried to scoop it up, only to see the Steeden slip out of his hands – the first of two errors from the Penrith fullback that would result in tries for the Storm. Once the ball left Edwards’ paws, Munster scooted in, collected it and scored the first four points. The home crowd perhaps had a bit to complain about, since you could argue that Ado-Carr had pushed DWZ from behind, rather than shoulder-to-shoulder, but the try was cleared and became six points once Smith kicked through the conversion.
Penrith now recovered the football on the first tackle of the next set, following an error from NAS, starting a period of such sustained field position for the Panthers that they would have reached 75% of possession by the time that Melbourne got another sustained attacking opportunity. The mountain men opted for a sweep to the left on the third tackle, before sending the footy back inside, where James Tamou straightened the play with a pummelling run from short range.Embed from Getty Images
They got a repeat set after an offside penalty for Brodie Croft, and then a dropout after Suliasi Vunivalu was forced to punch a Maloney grubber into touch. Some big pressure from Scott and Vunivalu on the second tackle meant that Edwards was unable to collect a pass from Cleary, but the Panthers quickly regained possession following another mistake from NAS, who lost the football on the first tackle after not properly packing the scrum, leading to even more field position for Penrith.
This time, Maloney chipped to the corner, but Vunivalu had learned his lesson, and cleaned up the footy right on the line. Yet It was only a matter of time before a crowding penalty from Munster, another offside penalty from Croft, and then a knock-on from Smith right on the line, on the back of a Cleary grubber, gave Penrith the advantage once again. Smith actually looked pretty confident with the pickup, but was frazzled when NAS second guessed him – a rare display of miscommunication in the Melbourne ranks, culminating a pretty spotty period of play from the big prop.
The next set ended with a second dropout from the Panthers, after Croft punched a Maloney kick over the line before Edwards could arrive at it in time. The rain now really started to pelt down, as Smith opted for a low, driving kick that was taken confidently by Cleary. Once again, the mountain men made a sweeping movement to the left, but this time Tamou ended up dismantling it rather than consolidating it, losing control of the footy after Maloney sent out a perfectly poised pass.
Despite this enormous period of possession and field position, the Panthers had been unable to score. Having survived such a long period of defence, the Storm felt as if they’d scored several tries, and were galvanised as much as they were exhausted by this sustained effort at their own end. First and foremost, they were careful to make sure Penrith couldn’t get another shot, with Croft wrapping his arms around Cleary at the end of the next set before he could get boot to ball.
An offside penalty from Reagan Campbell-Gillard now got the Storm back down the other end of the park, where they were boosted by a pair of fresh legs after Brandon Smith subbed on for Jesse Bromwich. Shortly after, Cleary made a dazzling display of footwork to bring the ball back into the field of play, but Munster stole it from him on the first tackle. So sudden was the shift in direction that the Storm would certainly have scored here if Croft hadn’t slipped and kicked the footy prematurely, resulting in a seven tackle set for Penrith.Embed from Getty Images
They wouldn’t score, but neither would Melbourne, whose next set fell apart as well. Two wide passes got the footy across to Chambers, but he kicked too hard. Combined with the slippery ball and surface, that meant that Josh Ado-Carr wasn’t able to reach the play in time, ushering in a period in which both sides started to buckle under the rainy conditions, with Tyrell Fuimaono fumbling the football at the start of the very next Penrith set.
Only a penalty kick was added to the scoreboard in the last ten minutes of the first half, as Smith booted through two points following a pair of Penrith penalties – James Fisher-Harris for being offside within the ten, and Sione Katoa for working on the ground. With a scoreline of 2-8, the Panthers came back from the sheds with a real chance of winning the game, even if DWZ was off the park with an HIA following a knock sustained in the final seconds of the first half.
While Dallin would return to the field soon after, it wouldn’t help the Panthers to put down any more points. They were still playing well, epitomised by a good kick from Cleary at the forty metre line that may not have quite made it to the twenty, but still provided some valuable breathing-space for the Panthers as Melbourne packed the scrum. But the Panthers were more error-prone and less organized than the purple army, epitomised by the simplest and most frustrating try for a team so far this year.
It came off another handling error from Edwards, who fumbled the football at the end of the Melbourne set following Cleary’s kick. Having chased down the ball, all Croft had to do was pick it up to score the easiest try of the yeat so far for Melbourne. Ten minutes into the second half, a breakout run from Hughes gave the Storm their next big chance, but it was called back due to a supposed handling error from Vunivalu, following a knock-on from Mansour, that turned out to be non-existent.
It begged the question of whether this should be deemed a try, since Hughes’ run had ended with him wrestling his way out of a tackle from Dean Whare to get the football over the line. In any case, Melbourne wouldn’t have to wait long to score their next points, as their own sweeping play to the left led to Ado-Carr crossing over in the corner, off the back of a short ball from Chambers. Full credit has to go to Hughes, too, for running in to join the play with a catch-and-pass that dishevlled the Penrith defence just enough for the entire sequence to flow seamlessly.Embed from Getty Images
So seamlessly, in fact, that the Storm barely seemed to have scored, so easily had they crossed over, and so quiet had the home crowd at Carrington become. The crowd grew even quieter at the sixty-ninth minute, when Marion Seve scored in his first touch of the football, gathering a pass from Scott, dodging past Fisher-Harris and then skipping his way through the middle of the field. Eluding tackles more than busting them, he capped this magnificent one-man effort with a fend on Moses Leota before slamming over to put Melbourne twenty-four points ahead.
By this stage, the Panthers had gone from 75% to 59% of possession. What they needed was a consolation try, but the Storm now proceeded to stack on six more points, with Smith booting through a penalty kick following a slow peel from Frank Winterstein, and Bromwich crashing over a minute later following a second effort from Liam Martin. The Storm could have chosen to take the two again,but they were confident enough to have a shot at the line, and it paid off, as Bromwich simply steamrolled his way through the defence, coming to gound beneath a maelstrom of Penrith jerseys.
All in all, then, this was a pretty dispiriting game for the Panthers. It was only made worse by the gloomy, misty, wintery conditions, along with the memory of their rousing game against the Raiders at Carrington in 2017. They’ll be looking to bounce back against a wounded Wests Tigers outfit when they take them on at Panthers Stadium on Friday night, while the Storm will be keen to keep on flexing their muscles against a Bulldogs outfit pumped from beating the Tigers this round.