The Roosters had almost doubled the Sharks in Cronulla, while the Storm had only beaten the Cowboys by a converted try in Townsville, when they met at AAMI Park on Friday night for their first clash with Cooper Cronk in Sydney City colours. Up against Brodie Croft in his old halfback jersey, Cronk put in one of his most visceral stints of the year so far, which was fortunate, given that the Roosters were playing with their most inexperienced bench since early 2016.
Not only was Sio Siua Taukeiaho ruled out of the clash just before kickoff, but two of the Sydney City players – Sam Verrills and Josh Curran – were making their NRL debut. With dew coating the field and football with moisture, the stage was set for one of the most exciting matches of the first part of the season. Sure enough, the result came down to a Latrell Mitchell field goal in the final minute, with both teams scoring three tries and three kicks apiece before the one-pointer sealed the deal.
Croft made a statement with the first bomb of the night, but Daniel Tupou collected the footy without too much trouble, before Luke Keary answered with a bomb of his own at the end of the next set. The Roosters got an early surge after a high tackle from Jesse Bromwich – the first penalty of the game – responding with a rapid left sweep that started with Keary taking the Steeden deep into the line, and drawing in Curtis Scott, before shifting it back at almost ninety degrees to James Tedesco.
Teddy followed his five-eighth’s example, running into the line, dummying, and sending the Steeden out to Tupou, who crashed over in the left wing for the first four points of the game. The Roosters were at a point a minute when Latrell sent the extras through the uprights, proving early on why they’re the best attacking team in the competition in 2019. In fact, they very nearly went back to back when Tedesco outleapt Jahrome Hughes beneath Cronk’s bomb of the night, for what would have been a classic Tricolors try if he hadn’t spilled the footy five metres out from the line.
This rare handling error from Tedesco was compounded by the first penalty for Melbourne after Mitch Aubusson was pinged for working on the ground, but the Roosters survived, before Keary got their mojo back with his second bomb. Suliasi Vunivalu now leaked a second penalty, attempting a pass after his elbow had hit the ground, and Mitchell added two more points. Sydney City felt particularly galvanised on the next set, which revolved around a pair of successive offloads from Angus Crichton and Victor Radley, despite Cronk knocking on at the tail end of a Keary kick.Embed from Getty Images
Cameron Munster now tried to take control of the game with a 40/20, but Tedesco scooped up the Steeden on the edge of the field and the Roosters got rolling again. Still, Munster’s ambition set the stage for a sustained period of Melbourne possession, which started with a knock-on from Lindsay Collins, and proceeded through a knock-on from Keary, who reached up to take control of a harbour bridge pass from Mitchell, but instead lobbed it forward, and over Tupou’s head, into touch.
This was the best attacking opportunity so far for the Storm, especially once Cronk was pinged for being offside. Jesse Bromwich responded with a big hit-up that cleared space for him to shift the footy to Cameron Smith, who drifted across to the left edge of the attack where he was only just bundled up by the Roosters defence. While the Steeden came loose, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves had already made a slow peel, providing the Storm with the final burst of energy they needed for Curtis Scott to find a Brodie Croft kick in goal.
This was the logical conclusion to all the Storm’s accelerating field position, so they took a big hit when the Bunker replay showed that Scott had coughed up the footy while trying to take control of it. All night, both teams had been struggling to negotiate a slippery Steeden, so it was only a matter of time before the dewy conditions had an impact this big. Sydney City now capitalised much quicker on the shift back in their favour, moving the footy rapidly from the left wing to the right before centring the play with a Keary kick off the left post.
Jared Waerea-Hargrevaes read the move perfectly, storming in to slam the footy to ground, and setting up Latrell for the easiest conversion of the game so far. The Roosters had scored off a single set after the Storm had failed to score off a series of sets – and this disparity seemed to motivate the purple army, with Smith and Croft putting in a pair of a big bombs, and the home team racking up their first dropout. Once again, though, the Roosters scored as soon as they got a good chance, which came this time around on the back of an error from Felise Kaufusi.
Latrell now made his best single play of the season so far, collecting the footy on the left edge of the field, and making the most mercurial dummy I’ve ever seen, rolling the Steeden to the tips of his fingers with Curtis Scott at his back, before regathering it in one hand, and fending off both Scott and Vunivalu with the other. By the time he’d reached the left corner his trajectory was so improbable that there was more than enough space for him to lob the footy over to Tedesco to score.Embed from Getty Images
To make things even better, Latrell was able to add the sideline conversion, bringing the Roosters to a staggering twenty-nil lead as the last ten minutes of the first half got underway. Yet these would be the last points that the Roosters scored until Latrell’s field goal at the eighty-first minute, as the Storm got rolling with their comeback, starting with a fairly questionable try on the back of an error from Sititli Tupouniua, followed by their second dropout of the night.
Compared to the Roosters’ showmanship, this was a pretty standard four-pointer – a left sweep that started with Munster and ended with Josh Ado-Carr crashing across in the corner, but not without a forward pass from Kenny Bromwich as try assist. Nevertheless, the Bunker deemed it to be a try, and Croft added the extras, only to lose the footy on the restart and give the Roosters one final shot at the Melbourne line. The good news for the Storm, though, was that the Fox was back in play immediately, after having appeared to injure his knee during the previous putdown.
A pair of penalties from Latrell (second effort) and Tetevano (escorts) closed the first half. The Storm chose to tap and go after the frst, and take the two after the second, bringing them from a twenty-nil deficit to a two converted try deficit as Croft slotted the ball through the posts and the final siren rang out. When they returned to the field, the game got back into first gear immedediately, with a big collision from Hughes and Ikuvalu at the end of the first set beneath a Brodie Croft bomb.
Hughes was penalised for a high tackle, but made up for the turnover by defusing a kick on the last tackle of the next set – a superb sideline-to-sideline play that was looking dangerously like the buildup to JWH’s try in the first half. The next penalty also came beneath a Melbourne bomb – this time from Munster – as Vunivalu took a slide to get Latrell pinged for an obstruction, getting the Storm another set of six right on the Sydney line.
The purple army were really galvanised by this good luck, and it took all of Tupouniua’s strength to hold up Tui Kamikamica beneath the posts, before Cronk was forced to ground Croft and Smith kicks for two successive dropouts. Melbourne were now deep into the possession groove that had fizzled with Scott’s putdown during the first half, and almost capitalised on it with a harbor bridge pass from Munster to Chambers that cleared up space for Ado-Carr in the left corner.Embed from Getty Images
Luckily for the away crowd, the Sydney City defence jammed in, but the Storm now took a leaf out of the Roosters’ playbook, ferrying the footy rapidly to the opposite sideline, before straightening up the attack. Smith then made one the best decisions of the game, realising that after two straight dropouts it was probably better to run the ball than kick for goal. Audaciously, he sent a cut-out pass to Kamikamica right on the line, but worked, allowing the big second-tower to get by Crichton right beside the posts, setting up Croft for his easiest conversion so far.
Seeing Kamikamica make good on his near-try from two sets before expunged the spectre of Scott’s loose carry, especially since the Storm had now made proper use of a sustained period of field position. Only a converted try behind, they were getting down to business, with Croft executing his best chase at the end of the next set by running down Keary, who looked certain to make his way back into the field of play, to secure yet another dropout and bout of field position for Melbourne.
They looked dangerous from the very start of this set, but the key play came when three Roosters – Mitchell, Keary and Tetevano – only just managed to hold up Felise Kaufusi on the right edge. It took so much energy for them to stop Kaufusi that they were unprepared for Scott to simply scoop up the footy from dummy half, scoot around them, and slam the ball to ground, with only Tetevano glimpsing what was happening, but nevertheless realising much too late to make a difference.
If Kamikamica’s try had relegated Scott’ putdown to the distant recesses of the game, then Scott’s try brought the team full circle – especially when Croft managed one of the hardest sideline conversions of the night to follow up. The Storm had gone from twenty-nil to twenty-all without the Roosters scoring a single point, suggesting that we might be in for a proportionate response from the Tricolors, or else a fight to the death for the final points that would decide the match.
As it turned out, it was the latter, with both teams struggling for field goals during the last ten minutes of the match. Mitchell missed one, Croft missed two – and the second came eight seconds before the final siren, sending the game into golden point. For a moment, it looked like the Roosters might come away with a bigger win margin than one, thanks to a linebreak in the eightieth minute from Tupouniua, who was having one of his very best games with Sydney City.Embed from Getty Images
Instead, however, Mitchell added the field goal a minute later – an appropriate end to a game that had been partly shaped by one of his very best try assists on the wing. This was just the victory that the Roosters needed to motivate them for their annual ANZAC Day clash against the Dragons at the SCG, and should make next Thursday’s match even more exciting to watch. On the other side of the Steeden, these are the kinds of defeats that Melbourne are meant to create, not experience, so they’ll be keen for a big win when they host the Warriors at AAMI Park the same night.