It was one of the coldest nights of the year so far, and very still, meaning that the Tigers and Storm had a dewy, slippery surface to contend with when they met at AAMI Park, with the visitors opting to warm up in the sheds, rather than venture out to the field. Nobody would have predicted that 3rd would be hosting 6th for this match, and the stakes felt even higher since both teams had come off dominating wins during Magic Round – the Tigers by 26 over the Panthers, and the Storm by an even more staggering 54 over the Eels. That said, Wests had struggled to maintain consistency – they hadn’t had consecutive wins since the first two weeks of the season, while their 24 points in the first 20 minutes over Penrith marked the first time that they’d managed to score in the opening quarter of a match all year.
The Tigers almost got a dropout on the first set, but Will Chambers’ footwork got him back into the field of play – a good way to celebrate his 200th match in Storm colours. The visitors also got the first penalty a minute later, when Dale Finucane was pinged for a slow peel, and swung left and right before making good on their dropout, as a Luke Brooks kick forced Ryan Papenhuzen to storm in from the short side, and collide with the right post, to clean up the Steeden in goal. The purple fullback was trapped again at the end of the dropout, this time by an early kick from Benji Marshall, before Cameron Smith kicked the footy out on the full, setting up Esan Marsters to slot the first two points of the night through the uprights.
This was a strong start from the Tigers, especially after their rousing win over Penrith the night before, and Robbie Farah was restless on the second tackle of the next set, burning his way up the left edge of the park before Robert Jennings continued his momentum with a big run that took some stopping at speed from Nelson Asofa-Solomona. Nevertheless, Papenhuyzen proved reliable under Benji’s high ball, and NAS got a chance to make some metres of his own on the second tackle of the next set, only to become the second Storm forward so far to concede a slow peel. Once again the Tigers had another prime attacking opportunity, but they botched it when Matt Eisenhuth lobbed the footy forward right on the Melbourne line.
Moses Mbye got things rolling again by cleaning up a 40/20 attempt from Smith, circling around the Steeden and scooping it up in his right hand before sending a bold ball across to Corey Thompson as the Melbourne kick chase accelerated down the field. Benji now followed Smith by kicking out on the full, sailing the footy over Suliasi Vunivalu’s head, before Papenhuzen leapt over the sideline and blatantly sent it forward back over the chalk. Frustrated by this sudden change in momentum, Brooks conceded an offside penalty almost immediately, and Smith got the chance to make up for his botched dropout by levelling the score with a two-pointer.
It didn’t stay level long, though, as Jesse Bromwich lost the footy on the very first carry, before an offside penalty from Smith canceled out his penalty goal, putting Marsters in place to boot another two through the posts. With Smith conceding a second offside penalty a moment later, and Marsters clocking up another two points, the Storm seemed to be desperately devolving, so it was a massive boon when they got a huge one-man effort from their best man of the game so far – Ryan Papenhuzen. Bringing the footy back from a Luke Brooks bomb, the no. 1 got away from Brooks, and broke out of a low tackle from Farah, before running eighty metres to score right beneath the posts, setting up Smith for an easy conversion.Embed from Getty Images
Papenhuyzen’s speed and strength seemed to breathe new life into the Melbourne attack, especially during the last stage of his run, when he accelerated light years beyond Jennings and Mbye, who gave up converging on him about thirty metres out from the line. Yet the Tigers made the most of the next Melbourne penalty – a dangerous tackle from Finucane – as Josh Aloiai launched himself over in the left corner on the back of a brilliant set play that divided the defence in half and freed him up for a David and Goliath one-on-one effort. It was initially called no try due to a suspected obstruction from Chris McQueen, but then deemed to be Brandon Smith’s defensive decision that prevented him from getting to the football in time.
Marsters now made the sideline conversion, putting the Tigers four points ahead with five minutes to go until halftime, as Smith and Papenhuyzen looked grim in the Melbourne huddle, aware that Aloiai had taken the edge off Papenhuyzen’s splendid run. In fact, Smith kept his men behind the line for about thirty seconds after Marsters’ kick had sailed through the posts, trying to rouse them into a late comeback. Yet despite two successive penalties from Thomas Mikaele – for working on the ground and holding down – that were themselves bookended by errors from Mbye and Mahe Fonua, the Storm were unable to capitalise before the siren, leaving the Tigers somewhat unexpectedly ahead as they headed into the sheds.
The second stanza didn’t start well for Brodie Croft, who found himself with the footy at the end of the first set, but chose to run it at an inopportune moment, leaving himself open for a big hit from Matt Eisenhuth to dislodge it. Brooks showed Croft how running the ball looked at the end of the next set, when he collected the Steeden from Farah right on the line, dummied right and then collided with Vunivalu. Nevertheless, he took advantage of the ricochet, retaining control of the football and veering away from the tackle to put it down with one hand, cascading the Tigers to an eight point lead after Marsters swerved the kick away to the left of the posts.
This was a critical gesture of leadership from Brooks, and a sterling way for his team to start the second half, but Vunivalu regained some pride at the end of the restart, where he made the catch of the night as he slid over the dewy surface and then reached out his hands to clean up the Steeden just before it touched the tip of the grass. The Tigers got another boon on the next set with a fourth-tackle penalty off a slow peel from Seve, but their rapid right sweep came to nothing when Chee Kam and Fonua failed to properly communicate around a Benji pass to the outside edge. Between Vunuvalu’s kick and this error, the Tigers had lost some headway, and with Eisenhuth conceding a slow penalty the Storm were finally ready to strike.
Admittedly, Mbye recovered some ground by collecting a Cam Smith kick right beside the posts, and bringing it back into the field of play, but a hand in the ruck from Matulino set up the Storm with the field position they needed to score again. Croft consolidated with good passes to NAS and Papenhuyzen on the second and third tackles, but the points came from Kaufusi, who leapt up to catch a Munster kick on the full, before planting it down for the most elegant try of the night. There was a brief pause to consider obstructions and offsides, but it was cleared, narrowing the margin to two points after Smith booted another goal through the uprights.Embed from Getty Images
Brooks was closest to the footy when Munster kicked, but didn’t make much of a play at it, perhaps because he seemed more concerned with preventing Papenhuyzen reaching it. This was a bit of a letdown after his splendid run at the line off Farah’s pass, so it was a big letoff for the Tigers when NAS made a mistake in the play-the-ball early in the restart. The visitors went left until abruptly shifting back to the centre of the park on the third tackle, where Ryan Matterson took a big hit from Brandon Smith, and Farah commenced another rapid leftside play that culminated with a Benji classic that sent Marsters over right where Brooks had previously scored.
This was a fantastic – and necessary – rejoinder to the Storm’s last try, proof that the Tigers could take advantage of an error just as efficiently as the home team. Yet Marsters’ subsequent conversion would be the last points they scored, as the purple army now dug deep to come away with the two tries that won them the game. They didn’t come quickly, despite the Storm recovering a Munster floater a few sets later, marking one of the most rapid changes of possession in the entire game, since Kamikamica promptly sent the Steeden across to Brooks, who just as promptly made his way down the field. Vunivalu now got some closure for letting Brooks through the first time around, downing him before he could get close to the try line.
Still, the Tigers had the football, and Kenny Bromwich gave them some more possession with a ball strip, although they decided to ignore the sideline call to take the two – the wrong decision, as it turned out, since a penalty goal here would have taken the game into golden point, all other things being equal. As it was, Matulino and Matterson were cleaned up in front of the posts, with the ex-Rooster taking a while to get to his feet after a big hit, giving the Storm some time to reform and reorganize their defensive line. By the time Mbye surged at the left corner on the last tackle, Papenhuyzen and Brandon Smith were in place to bundle him up, denying the Tigers their last big tryscoring opportunity for a while.
For a moment, it looked as if the Storm must score off a scintillating linebreak from Papenhuyzen, but the Tigers scrambled and managed to clean up the subsequent set right on the line. So dangerous was Papenhuyzen looking that Farah stuck out a boot to prevent a Croft kick reaching him at the seventieth minute, conceding six again and the platform for the next Melbourne try. They only needed the first tackle, and a rapid right sweep, as NAS drew in the defence and sent a one-handed offload out to Seve, who crashed to ground in the corner with a mass of Wests Tigers jerseys on top of him, before Smith added another conversion to bring the score to 18-22.
This ushered in the most suspenseful final ten minutes for either team this season, as the Tigers desperately tried to hold onto their precarious lead, and the Storm tried just as desperately to thwart it. As the time ticked by, it looked as if the visitors might end up getting the best of the game, and coming away with an upset win, but Melbourne regathered with one of their finest set three minutes out from the end – a massive run from Vunivalu at the back of a Luke Brooks bomb, a near-linebreak from Papenhuyzen on the fourth, and then a harbor bridge pass from Cameron Smith that found Kenny Bromwich on the left, who dodged away from Fonua and offloaded to Chambers for the winning try.Embed from Getty Images
You could see the look of frustration on Farah’s face when he looked up to witness Chambers scoring beside him, since this was a match that the Tigers probably should have won. The fact that Marsters had enjoyed one of his most consistent kicking games made the two-point deficit even more frustrating, so his team will be looking for an equally rousing game, but a bigger win margin, when they rock up to ANZ to meet the Bunnies next Saturday night. On the other side of the Steeden, this was, in its own way, one of the most exhilarating victories of the year for the Melbourne faithful, and the Storm will be keen to take that energy on the road when they face an even more devoted fanbase at Belmore for their game against the Bulldogs on Sunday.