The Bulldogs travelled to Melbourne for their fortieth fixture against the Storm on Sunday afternoon. They were riding high following their win over the Tigers last week, having demoted their western rivals from their first ever stint at the top of the table. Meanwhile, the Storm were equally galvanised by having kept the Panthers tryless at Carrington Park, making for a remarkably energetic game of football, almost Origin-like, at moments, in its focus, determination and intensity.
Four minutes in, a Jack Cogger kick was charged down, and then scooped up by Cameron Munster, who made it all the way to the twenty-metre line, before the play was called back for an offside penalty from Jesse Bromwich. Taking advantage of this sudden shift in fortune, Lachlan Lewis sent a superb cut-out pass to Kerrod Holland midway through the next set, positioning the Canterbury no. 3 to get through Curtis Scott and Suliasi Vunivalu to crash over in front of the Slater Stand for the first four points.
With Jayden Okumbur waiting on his outside, Holland had a back-up plan, but he was able to beat Jahrome Hughes comfortably, while Rhyse Martin added the extras as reliably as ever to put the Bulldogs six ahead. Things lagged for a moment, thanks to an ankle injury from Dylan Napa, and a leg buckle from Nick Meaney, both of whom stayed on the field as the Storm started to apply pressure. Yet the Dogs started to get the upper hand, partly by targeting the rearranged right edge of their opponents, and partly by playing quickly enough to prevent the Storm from bringing in multiple men on critical tackles.
Canterbury got their next surge when Holland found some space on the left edge, before popping a one-handed pass back inside to Okunbur. At the end of the set, the Storm let the ball bounce between three defenders, while at the start of the next Canterbury set Okunbur broke through the line early in the tackle count, skipping over Dale Finucane and making his way up the middle of the field. It was such an unlikely run that no Bulldogs were there in support, and with Corey Harawira-Naera knocking on during the next tackle, the momentum started to shift back towards Melbourne.
A slow peel from Rhyse Martin gave the hosts some field position on the next set, but the Dogs now doubled down on their defense, with Josh Jackson leading Nick Meaney and Aiden Tolman in a huge effort to hold up Nelson Asofa-Solomona on the fourth tackle. At the end of the set, Munster’s kick was too big for even Vunivalu to get a hand to it on the side of the field, as the Storm lost their momentary edge, and the Bulldogs remained ahead on the board.Embed from Getty Images
This survival was slightly soured by Napa leaving the field, heading straight into the shed to nurse his ankle injury, rather than returning to the benches. Still, Adam Elliott added his trademark energy to the game, and was perhaps even more energized than usual for coming on earlier, getting stuck in immediately as the Dogs started to consolidate once again. Two tackles into the next set, Cameron Smith tried to break through the line, but was held up by another monster tackle from Jackson, while Reimis Smith caught Munster’s kick comfortably on the chest.
In the process, Munster obstructed during the kick chase, allowing the Bulldogs to start their next set halfway down the field. With an error in the play-the-ball from Vunivalu right on the Melbourne line, Canterbury got their best field position of the game so far, and made the most of it, with two big opening runs from Okunbur and Elliott depleting an already exhausted purple defense. On the third tackle, they opted for a sweeping play to the left, where Lewis tapped the footy on to Martin, who got it across to Holland in turn.
Holland could have probably scored here, since he’d managed to get on the outside of Felise Kaufusi by the time he gathered the footy into his chest. In a reversal of the Bulldogs’ first tryscoring formation, however, he now popped the Steeden out to Okunbur, who slammed over, unmarked, for his first try in the NRL. It was the perfect conclusion to such a sterling opening for the Canterbury winger, and took the Dogs to a 0-12 lead once Martin had booted through his second conversion.
The Storm now suffered two aborted tries, both of which revolved around Finucane. In the first, Finucane himself was the potential tryscorer, collecting the footy at speed from Smith before crashing over the line, where Martin somehow managed to get beneath and hold him up, with some good back-up muscle from Elliott. Shortly after, Christian Welch crossed over and got the ball to ground, only for an obstruction from Finucane in backplay to prevent the Storm getting four on the board.
The Dogs had followed up two terrific attacking sequences with two terrific defending sequences. On their third try, the Storm would get the chocolates, but under contentious circumstances. At first, this looked like a third trysaver for Canterbury, with Reimis Smith chasing down Will Chambers, who was himself chasing down a Munster grubber. In a way, the kick was too good, or at least too dangerous, forcing Chambers to decelerate and wait until he could get a hand to it.Embed from Getty Images
Meanwhile, Smith accelerated, meaning that he reached the footy at the same time as Chambers. From some angles, it looked as if the Canterbury winger had made contact with Chambers just before he had the ball, while from other angles it looked simulateous. While a penalty might have been in order, then, it was more surprising to hear the refs decide upon a penalty try, since it didn’t seem certain that Chambers would have made the putdown, especially as he’d already had to slow down to get a hand to the football in the first place.
Nevertheless, the Storm got the four points, and with Smith booting through the extras they were only a converted try behind. Nine minutes into the next act, Okunbur made another heroic linebreak, not even making a show at working his way around the defence, but steamrolling into Hughes, who made an equally epic defensive effort. With another handling error from Harawira-Naera, it all came to nothing, but a fractional forward pass from Nelson Asofa-Solomona to Kenny Bromwich meant that Melbourne didn’t get a chance to push ahead either.
Following on from this mistake, the Dogs started to accelerate again, but they were too keen on the Melbourne line, resulting in an offside penalty for Elliott. The Storm got a second penalty from Harawira-Naera a minute later, thanks to a leg pull that was partly milked by Smith, forcing Lewis and Martin to put in one of their biggest defensive efforts of the night on a huge run from Asofa-Solomona. Smith now caught the Steeden in both hands above his head before sending out a cut-out pass to Tui Kamikamica that isolated Harawira-Naera, who couldn’t complete a low tackle, and Cogger, who couldn’t prevent the play right on the line, to give the Melbourne no. 16 his first try in the NRL.
With the score level, both sides ground in, leading to a series of sets that were Origin-like in their speed, precision and consistency, including two very good takes under the high ball from Meaney. A potential tipping-point came when some pressure from Asofa-Solomona led to Lewis shanking the footy out on the full, while a pair of offloads from Nelson got the next Melbourne set rolling as well. It came to nothing when Smith was penalised for holding back Will Hopoate, only for some bad right edge play from Hoppa to Smith on the next Bulldogs set to giveMelbourne the ball once again.
Despite a huge run from Bromwich on the fourth tackle, Brodie Croft didn’t manage to send the football beyond the defensive line on the next play. It took a Canterbury effort for the Storm to score again, as Okunbur spilled the football under pressure from Vunivalu, who put in a mammoth run – the sharpest acceleration of the game – to spook the new Bulldogs winger into losing possession. All it took was one run from Munster to translate that into a try, as he gathered the footy straight out of the scrum, dummied to the left, got on the outside of Elliott, and then slammed the ball to ground.Embed from Getty Images
These two runs from Vunivalu and Munster were a statement of purpose from the Storm, who shot ahead for the first time in the game, and managed to keep the Dogs out until the last two minutes, when Hoppa caught the high ball in the air, and popped it across to Harawira-Naera, who in turn sent it over to Smith for the third Canterbury try of the night. Full credit has to go to Lewis, too, for the towering kick that set up the play.
Hazem El Masri had been on everyone’s minds during this match, since by this stage Smith was only two points behind him as the NRL’s top tryscorer, but the comparison with Martin felt more apposite as the Canterbury second-rower set up his last kick of the game. Despite having only missed three misses in his NRL career (he was now on his 45th attempted goal), the Bulldogs sharpshooter now shanked the footy away to the left, actually making contact with the tee for the Storm to regain possession with thirty-six seconds on the clock.
No surprise, then, that Melbourne came away with the win, although this was a close enough match for them to need a pretty decisive victory when they meet the Cowboys in Townsville next weekend. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have suffered the most heartbreaking loss of the 2019 season so far, and will need to regroup, and gather around Martin for support and strength, before they head to Jubilee Stadium to take on the Dragons in exactly a week.