ROUND 9: Melbourne Storm v. Parramatta Eels (Suncorp Stadium, 11/5/19)

Melbourne and Parra were separated by one win and two competition points when they met for Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium – technically a neutral venue, although Melbourne were the hosts, and have a better record at Brisbane’s home ground, with Cameron Smith actually celebrating his 50th career game at the venue. Meanwhile, Blake Ferguson and Will Chambers were both celebrating their 200th games, while Melbourne were in a bit of a vulnerable space following two out of three losses – including a two-point loss to the Sharks the week before – suggesting that we might be in for a relatively close match, or even a strong win from Parramatta, given their confident victory over the Dragons at Bankwest in Round 8.

Instead, the Storm put in their most damaging game of the 2019 season so far, racking up a 54-point win to come away with a 64-10 scoreline. They made great metres on the very first set, when Chambers glimpsed some space on the left edge four tackles in, forcing Clint Gutherson to start his team’s opening set right on the Parramatta line, before Dale Finucane leaked the first penalty of the game with a ball strip. Tepai Moeora, Daniel Alvaro, Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane barged Parra up the middle of the field, and Mitchell Moses bombed to the corner on the last, where Fergo risked an one-handed offload to Takairangi, only to watch his fellow backliner being dragged into touch by a determined Melbourne defence.

The purple army made good metres once again, and were halfway up the park by the fourth tackle, but Gutho proved just as reliable under a Smith bomb, while managing to bring the footy fifteen metres up the field this time as well. Once again, Parra got a penalty early in the tackle count, due to a hand in the ruck from NAS, but they lost the ball on the first play, when Josh Ado-Carr spearheaded a driving defensive move that forced Marata Niukore to knock on the footy after collecting an offload from Tepai Moeroa. NAS made up for his penalty now by taking the first tackle, and tempting Moeroea into a slow peel, as the Storm seemed to be settling into a pointscoring groove only for Felise Kaufusi to put down the ball a second later.

This was uncharacteristic from the Melbourne second-rower, and momentarily galvanised the Eels, as Moses almost sent Moeroa through the line, before kicking again to the right edge, where Cameron Munster collected the Steeden as if he’d been its intended recipient all along. Jahrome Hughes then ended the next set with the best kick of the game so far – an epic seventy-metre effort that sailed over Gutho and Fergo, forcing Ferguson to wait for it to bounce before being swallowed up at the ten metre line by the Storm defence. Moses tried to replicate the kick on the next play, but it didn’t go as far, or challenge Suliasi Vunivalu as much as Hughes had challenged Fergo.

Munster now made the best run of the game so far, busting through a couple of tackles, in the first real consolidation the Storm had seen in these opening stages. A minute later, and after a call of six again, Jesse Bromwich crashed over, albeit without scoring a try, since Gutherson got in beneath him, and stripped the Steeden from his grasp. Still, it felt like only a matter of time before Melbourne would manage to make good on Munster’s speed and momentum. For the moment, they had the dropout, and they got another one when Brodie Croft rolled the footy off the front of his boot, forcing Gutherson to ground it in goal, and so concede another fresh set of six.

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This time Munster made good on his run, building on some deft left edge work by Smith to pass to the footy to Kenny Bromwich, and then receive it again in second phase play as Takairangi launched himself on the big Melbourne second-rower. From here, Munster showcased some superb footwork to elude both Gutho and Moeroa as they converged on him, leaving them to collide with each other – or try not to collide with each other – as he slammed the Steeden to ground, getting the Storm a six point lead after Smith booted the conversion through the posts.

Fergo made his best take at the end of the next set, running fifteen metres and leaping high in the air to catch Munster’s bomb. Moses then kicked on the fourth, trying to split the defence, but counting without Ado-Carr, who scooped up the Steeden and started accelerating towards the forty metre line, before copping the biggest hit of the night so far in the form of a low tackle from Moeroa. Scott almost broke through the defence a tackle later, Munster almost made a second tryscoring run on the third, and NAS almost reached the line on the fourth, so it felt inevitable when Dale Finucane smashed over Peni Terepo beneath the posts on the last, channeling the energy that the Storm’s big men had brought over the last few sets.

Full credit has to go to Smith, too, who made as if to head left, before spinning around to feed the footy back to Finucane. Once again, NAS followed with the first hit-up – he’d now made 12 runs for 120 metres, inside 20 minutes – and Finucane almost broke through the line on the fourth, but Fergo proved safe again under Munster’s high ball, which made it even more distressing for the Eels when he spilled it under pressure from Ado-Carr and Kenny Bromwich. This was a massive blow for the Eels, and particularly for Fergo, who compounded his error by not packing the scrum in time, allowing Smith to take a penalty shot from right in front of the posts, rocketing the Storm beyond a converted try lead.

Nevertheless, a pair of slow peels from Jesse Bromwich and Kaufusi set up the Eels for their first four points of the night, which came off a brilliant piece of timing and leadership from Mitchell Moses. Finding himself with the footy ten metres out from the line, Moses looked out the back as if waiting for one of his big men to run a hard line, but instead shifted a short pass across to Lane, who danced through a low tackle from Croft and accelerated until he was too strong for Hughes right on the line. For a moment, Parra were back in the game, and probably could have ensured a very different second stanza if they’d scored again quickly here, but instead the Storm responded with their most spectacular try of the 2019 season thus far.

The play started with an offload from Vunivali to Kaufusi on the right edge of the field, paving the way for a rapid left sweep that ended with a sublime kick from Munster that both eluded Fergo and found the Foxx in one dexterous movement. Gathering the footy into his arms, Ado-Carr managed to slam it to ground moments before his opposing winger bundled him into touch, culminating a dispiriting couple of minutes for Ferguson, and slotting up another twelve points for the Storm after Smith added the goal.

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Melbourne had been brilliant so far, but this was prodigious – a team effort that converged on one of the best one-on-one contests of the year so far – as we started to glimpse the enormous number of points that the Storm would pile on in the second stanza. They got another mammoth individual effort a minute out from the break, when Niukore turned over the footy in the Eels’ half, and Munster responded with a rapid shift out to the left edge, where it found Hughes. From there, Hughes careened out to the sideline at the twenty-metre mark, where he danced around Ferguson before heading back inside, bouncing out of a combined tackle from Gutho and Takairangi at the ten.

With the Steeden still secure under his arm, he got to his feet, and continued inside, finally barging through Terepo to reach out his right hand and score. Hughes had managed to compress several tackles into a single run, in a superb one-man effort that brought the Storm to quadruple the Eels at 24-6 as they headed into the sheds. Parra have been the best second-half team in 2019, so they needed to draw on their previous games when they returned to the park, but instead Melbourne almost scored on their first set, when Chambers glimpsed space on the wing midway through the tackle count, and then again on the last tackle, where he kicked into Hughes, before Ado-Carr grounded the footy just in case the backplay was cleared.

The call was no try, but this was still a worrying sign for Parra, who had to work their way back from the ten metre line for their first touch of the football. On the third tackle, Takairangi was dragged over the line, and managed to pop the Steeden back inside, but Munster came up with it at the end of a brief scramble, as Parra’s second set abruptly shifted into the Storm’s second set. Brandon Smith now made a run right beside the posts on the third tackle, and was followed by Hughes in the same spot on the fourth, evoking a Melbourne outfit determined to grind out more points. Once again, though, they didn’t quite get to a try, as Munster’s final kick went too long.

With seven tackles, the Eels had to do something drastic to reverse the momentum of the game – ideally a play involving their wingers, who had only glimpsed about a quarter of their regular run metres across the night so far. Yet Ferguson got his biggest challenge so far on the next Storm set, when Scott burst through the line and outran the Parra no. 5 so conclusively that the refs didn’t even both to go upstairs to see whether he had grounded the footy beneath the posts. This was easily the most epic run of the year so far, since Scott collected the Steeden right on the Melbourne try line, before running a full hundred metres – or more than a hundred a metres, since he swerved and curved considerably to make his way up the park.

So fast was Scott that he didn’t even need Ado-Carr, who was initially coming up in support, but faded away when it became clear that his no. 4 was going to outrun Fergo. The biggest challenge to Scott actually came when Gutherson and Paulo converged on him about a third of the way up the field, but he still managed to dance around them, combining superb footwork with scintillating speed for his best play of the year so far. Meanwhile, things went from bad to worse for Parra on the next Melbourne set, as Lane was penalised for a slow peel, and Maika Sivo was sent to the bin and put on report for taking the Eels’ frustrations out with a brutal late tackle that saw Hughes taken off the park for the remainder of the night.

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This tackle undercut a small victory for Parra at the other end of the play, where Gutho saved a try by smashing Vunivalu into touch, preventing the Melbourne no. 2 from breaking a considerable pointscoring drought. Yet Vunivalu didn’t have to wait long for his four-pointer, as a rapid set play on the very next tackle saw him crash over on the wing, on the back of a brilliant catch-and-pass from Croft, followed by a well-timed pass from Ryan Papenhuyzen. It didn’t help, either, that Gutherson was extremely agitated about the decision to bin Sivo, and so wasn’t as alert to Vunivalu as he had been on the previous play, although he was probably lucky that his winger hadn’t been sent off for the entire game, so blatant had his late tackle been.

While Smith missed the sideline conversion, the Storm were still 34-6 with thirty minutes left on the clock – and they would make the most of it, turning Sivo’s absence into one of the most damaging sinbins in NRL history. They started on the very next set, which ended with Munster sending Papenhuyzen through the line, and then swerving around to collect the footy again on his inside, effectively assisting himself to score another four points right behind the posts – the first double in his career, and his first multiple tries since playing the Titans in 2015. With nine linebreaks to Parra’s one, Melbourne was settling into the most dangerous kind of footy momentum – the kind where a team can score a try a set if unchallenged.

Sure enough, Papenhuyzen went from assister to tryscorer on the very next set, following one of the worst sequences so far for Gutherson, who failed to clean up Croft’s last-tackle kick, and then failed to nail the low tackle required to prevent Smith from culminating an incredible kick chase by offloading to Papenhuyzen for the next try of the game. Meanwhile, Sivo hadn’t yet returned to the field, and Ferguson had sunk into one of his quietest periods of the game so far, effectively neutralizing the Eels on their edges as the Storm just seemed to grow in strength in every part of the park, raring to score even more points with Maika in the sheds.

No surprise, then, that Papenhuzyen was able to chart his way fluidly from the centre of the field to the left edge on the very next set, looking like he was scoring a demonstration try as he popped the footy down with the right hand without any convincing resistance from the Parramatta defence. Neither Fergo nor Moses were able to get there in time, while Gutho skidded to the ground at the very last minute before Smith booted through the extras to bring the scoreline to 52-4. Since Sivo had left the field, the Eels hadn’t had a single touch of the football, with the exception of Gutherson’s handling error, while the Storm had scored four tries in four sets, in one of their most spectacular tryscoring sequences in club history.

Scott came close to another long-range try on the next Melbourne set, taking advantage of Sivo’s absence on the wing in the seconds before he returned to the field, but for some reason he didn’t choose to pass to Vunivalu for what would have been a certain four points. The Eels now had to score – or prevent the Storm scoring – to give them enough belief for next week, since this game had already made a massive dent in what had otherwise been a pretty promising start to their 2019 season. Yet Melbourne just kept on accelerating, as a Vunivalu intercept almost defied Sivo on the right edge a second later, before Jesse Bromwich set up brother Kenny to crash over the next time the Storm were on the Parramatta line.

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By this stage, the crowd weren’t even that raucous, and the try didn’t even feel that eventful, so dramatically had the Storm decimated the away team. Their biggest previous win over the Eels was 64-4 in 2013, and it looked as if they might rival or exceed that here, as Smith slotted through the extras for a 52 point lead, and then took an early leave as Brandon Smith trotted onto the park. Finally, with about ten metres left on the clock, Moses sent a cut-out pass to put Sivo over in the corner – a nice bit of closure for the no. 5 after his disastrous sinbin, and a small ray of comfort for the Eels, since it made it just that little bit less likely that the Storm would manage to top their 2013 win margin.

Nevertheless, Moses didn’t manage to tap into his status as the best sideline converter of 2019, and was outrun by Ado-Carr, who scored the final try of the night in the final minute of the game after a superb setup from Papenhuyzen. Seeing the Foxx careen down the field was the icing on the cake for the Storm faithful, who got to their feet to celebrate their most rousing game of the year – and the most magical game of Magic Round. Melbourne have therefore put the spottiness of their last few games behind them, so it’s hard to believe that they won’t be in for an easy win when they hosts the Tigers at AAMI Park on Thursday night. Meanwhile, this has been a big blow for Parra, who will be looking to come back just as big when they travel to Townsville to take on the Cowboys next week.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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