The Storm were still smarting from losing in golden point to the Roosters when they hosted the Warriors in AAMI Park on ANZAC night. While the Warriors had suffered a more substantial loss to the Cowboys in Auckland in Round 7, it was probably Melbourne who had the most to prove, especially since this game ended up having more in common with their game against the Chooks the week before. It may not have gone into overtime, but it was only decided by a late penalty goal and field goal, making for a closer match than either team might have been expecting.
The Warriors were without Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Blake Green, but Peta Hiku and Tohu Harris proved themselves early in the fullback and halfback jerseys. Four minutes in, Hiku almost broke through the line, but was held up by a low tackle, and couldn’t quite get the offload away, despite searching for a well-positioned team mate. Nevertheless, he applied enough pressure for Christian Welch to get pinged for crowding, gifting New Zealand the first penalty of the game.
They chose to take the two, which turned out to be the wrong decision given the final scoreline, and Hiku followed up with a strong carry at the start of the next set, only for Kenny Bromwich to strip the football from Issac Luke a tackle later. The Storm now had their first substantial field position of the night, and Cameron Munster tried to capitalise on it by executing a dropout, but the ball went too far, resulting in a seven tackle set for the Warriors instead.
New Zealand made the most of it, making their way up the other end as quickly as possible, where Luke sent a wide ball to Harris, who responded with a short, hard run – only a couple of metres, but just long enough for him to pop the footy across to Adam Blair, who sliced between Munster and Bromwich, before dancing over an ankle tap from Will Chambers to score the first try. It was a cathartic moment for Blair, given some of the questions raised about his form recently, and a strong start for New Zealand, who were 0-8 once Chanel Tevita-Harris added the extras.
The next Tevita-Harris kick was cleaned up pretty efficiently by Cameron Smith, and the Storm got rolling immediately, but their momentum was halted when Chambers lost the football during a tackle from Bunty Afoa. Luckily for the home crowd, the Warriors made a similar gaffe on the counter-attack, as Hiku got Ken Maumalo possession out on the left edge, and the big winger opted for a one-handed flick pass back inside. If it had found Blake Ayshford, New Zealand would have had another try, but instead the Storm came up with the Steeden, and resumed their attack.Embed from Getty Images
Munster now stepped up, forcing the next dropout with a perfect kick. Despite that, Craig Bellamy seemed infuriated in the coaches’ box, perhaps because Chambers didn’t arrive at the footy soon enough to ground it, or perhaps because Munster had chosen to kick on the third just as the Storm were starting to apply some serious pressure. With hard runs from Nelson Asofa-Solomona on the third tackle of the dropout, and from Cameron Smith on the fourth, Melbourne looked set to score, especially once Maumalo was unable to clean up the Steeden in goal at the end.
Fortunately for the Warriors, Tevita-Harris was able to just bring the footy back into the field of play. Still, this was the fourth set in which the Storm had forced New Zealand to start attacking from deep within their own end. Without a penalty, or some change in momentum, Melbourne seemed likely to score – and that’s exactly what happened at the end of this set, thanks to an extraordinary collaboration between Munster and Josh Ado-Carr that must count as one of the Storm’s best moments this year.
The play started with a midfield kick from Munster, who chased down the ball just in case he could be of use. It was the best decision he made all night, since Ado-Carr leapt in the air beneath it, and tapped it a good seven or eight metres back, volleyball-style, until it cleared the contesting cluster of players around him, and found Munster on the full. All the Melbourne five-eighth had to do was gather the footy into his chest and slam over, completely catching the Warriors by surprise.
So elegant and seamless was this play that it was almost as if Munster had caught his own kick. It made me realise how rarely we see this kind of volleyball-styled play, and how effective it can be, since Ado-Carr had basically taken the entire ball contest out of the picture, thanks to Munster’s vision in making himself available at the other end of the kick. Despite that brilliance, however, Munster didn’t add the extras, keeping the Storm a try behind as the second quarter of the game got going.
The Storm remained four behind as they headed into the sheds, fumbling some good opportunities at the end of the first half, culminating with an awkward and uncharacteristic play from Cameron Smith. The spray from Bellamy in the sheds must have worked, however, since it only took them two minutes to score when they returned to the park, partly because this stanza didn’t start as well for the Warriors’ stand-in halfback and fullback as their combination for the opening try.Embed from Getty Images
A minute in, Harris made his first kick, but it hung and landed awkwardly, resulting in a knock-on from Adam Blair. At the end of the next set, Smith seized control of the game, grubbering over to the right edge of the Melbourne attack, where Jahrome Hughes scooped up the Steeden, broke out of a tackle from Hiku, and scored beside the posts, setting up Munster for one of the easiest kicks of the night, and putting the purple army ahead for the first time.
It was a simple try, but its power lay in its simplicity – testament to the shock of a Melbourne side that had followed up their first loss of the season with a first half of football in which they had never once been ahead on the board. It didn’t take the Warriors long to correct their kicking game, however, and at the end of their next set Isaiah Papali’i caught the high ball under considerable pressure from Munster and Vunivalu, trying to offload before opting for a kick instead.
Somewhere, in the chaos that ensued, Lachlan Burr came up with the footy, getting his team six again. Before the Melbourne line could fully form, Tevita-Harris sent the Steeden to the left of the field, where a superb cut-out pass from Hiku sent Maumalo across in the corner. Once again, the Warriors were in front, but it remained a two point lead after Tevita-Harris’ kick bounced off the uprights.
Both teams had scored in quick succession, both teams had scored relatively simple tries, and both tries had an air of self-correction and consolidation about them. All in all, then, it felt like both teams were resetting the game, using this second stanza as a way of rewriting and reworking what they’d been hoping to achieve in the first. It was all the more dramatic, then, when ten, fifteen and twenty minutes passed without points, until the game was decided in the five minutes before the siren.
At the seventy-five minute mark, a crowding penalty from Papali’i gave Munster the chance to boot through two points, while Brodie Croft prevented the game going into golden point by sending through a field goal two minutes later. It was an agonising conclusion for the Warriors, who will be looking for a big comeback when they take on the Knights at Mt. Smart next week, but it was also a bit of a shock for the Storm as well.Embed from Getty Images
After losing their first match of the season to the Roosters in golden point, Melbourne came very close to golden point here, and could easily have lost the game if they hadn’t received a penalty at just the right minute. Between these last two games, then, the purple army feel more precarious than usual, and will be looking for a really decisive win – replete with some big playmaking options – when they rock up to Shark Park to take on Cronulla next Friday night.