FINALS WEEK 1: Melbourne Storm v. Canberra Raiders (AAMI Park, 14/9/19)

The second game of finals footy started dramatically at AAMI Park, as the Raiders got their first interchange before the game even started. After Joey Leilua was injured by shrapnel from the fireworks in the tunnel, he was taken back down to the sheds, and replaced by Bailey Simonsson, who shifted over to the left side of the field. While Canberra were permitted to draw on Ryan Sutton or Siliva Havilii, both had to warm up, and were unlikely to come on before the second half of the match.

Yet this opening setback seemed to galvanise the Raiders, who proceeded to put in twenty of their most plosive minutes of football all year, playing like they were in the final stages of a sudden death showdown. Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad got things rolling by milking a flop from Jesse Bromwich, before a huge pass from Jack Wighton sent Simonsson over in the corner, where he slammed through Ryan Papenhuyzen to put down the first four points of the match.

Jarrod Croker promptly added the extras, and Simonsson broke through the line on the first tackle of the restart, running thirty metres and enticing Papenhuyzen into a dangerous tackle. Down the other end of the park, the Raiders headed left and looked set to score again, but Felise Kaufusi pounced on a lost ball from Dunamis Lui, and the Storm got their first penalty off a dangerous tackle from John Bateman.

Although Cameron Smith’s grubber was cleaned up pretty easily, this was a critical moment from the Storm, who were in danger of conceding another try if the Raiders had racked up much more field position. Ten minutes in, Joey Leilua was back on the bench, but it would take an interchange to get him back on the field, while the Raiders were starting to amp up their defense. They’d started with a pair of massive hit-ups on Papenhuyzen and Josh Ado-Carr, and now a trio of tackles from Whitehead, Soliola and CNK forced a double movement from Nelson Asofa-Solomona, robbing the Storm of their first major tryscoring opportunity.

The next big chance from Melbourne came when a Cameron Munster offload was knocked back by three Storm players before Sezer was unlucky enough to knock on. Two tackles into the next set, the play paused after Nick Cotric caught Papenhuyzen’s boot in the face, allowing Leilua to return to the field without an interchange. Joey had just had a small piece of shrapnel removed from his eye, but he seemed OK to play, and Canberra survived the set after Will Chambers knocked on a critical pass from Papenhuyzen on the right wing.

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Sezer kicked obliquely at the end of the next set, forcing Papenhuyzen to shepherd the Steeden into touch, getting the Raiders the first dropout of the night. They didn’t score, though, and lost some of their momentum over the next series of sets, due to two disappointing efforts from Jordan Rapana, starting with the wiry winger being pinged for a dangerous tackle, only for the Raiders to get the footy again after Jesse Bromwich was held to have lost it on the first tackle of the next Melbourne set.

The Raiders now executed their most promising tryscoring sequence since the opening minutes of the game, as Sezer kicked to the right corner, where Ado-Carr was unable to secure the Steeden in the air, despite leaping higher than any of the chasers. CNK knocked it backwards, Bateman collected it and sent an over-the-head pass to Rapana, who completed the sequence by receiving the footy in his left hand, shifting it to his right and then gathering it into his chest and slamming it down.

Since Rapana had been offside earlier in the play, this was a big let-off for Melbourne, but they responded with a pretty average set, culminating with Justin Olam being cleaned up on the last tackle before they could get to their kick option. The next set wasn’t much better, as Dale Finucane came close to getting the first Melbourne linebreak, only to lose the footy under pressure from Bateman. Try as they might, however, the Raiders were unable to capitalise on this messy Melbourne play, instead losing momentum after Croker missed two successive penalty kicks.

The first came when Kaufusi tackled Wighton without the ball, and saw the Canberra centre shank the Steeden away to the left of the posts. While Croker got another chance on the restart, following a flop from Olam, it was clear that he was unable to risk missing two kicks in a row. Nevertheless, the instruction was to take the two, and once again Croker swerved the footy away to the left of the uprights, despite this kick being taken from the right side of the Canberra attack.

Melbourne had the ball for the last two minutes, as they searched and scrambled for a way to score. While they seemed to be cleaned up on the left edge by a massive Canberra pack a minute out from the end, they got another shot at the line after Sezer was pinged for not being square at marker following a surprise offload. Still, Canberra held strong, until the final seven seconds, when Joseph Tapine was put on report for a chicken wing tackle on Brandon Smith, allowing the other Smith to boot through his 100th goal of the season.

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To their credit, Canberra had prevented Melbourne scoring a try, but the Storm came back strong in the second stanza, starting with a big carry from Asofa-Solomona, and proceeding quickly to their first try, as Suliasi Vunivalu jumped a few feet above Simonsson to collect a Hughes kick in the right corner. This felt like Melbourne resetting, trying to reduce Simonsson’s try to a mere anomaly, even if the score remained locked at six all after Smith missed a difficult sideline conversion.

Nevertheless, the Storm scooted ahead pretty quickly, as Josh Hodgson threw out a lazy arm on the next set, and got pinged for a dangerous tackle in the process, allowing Smith to put the Storm in front for the first time in the game. Smith booted through another penalty kick a set later, on the back of a massive run from the Fox that the Raiders only just managed to clean up. Still scrambling, Croker was pinged for holding down, and was lucky not to be sent off for a professional foul, despite conceding another two points to Smith’s boot.

Smith’s back-to-back penalty kicks were arguably as dispiriting to the Raiders as a try, not merely because they put the Storm four ahead, but because they contrasted so pointedly with Croker’s back-to-back misses at the end of the first half. The Storm had replicated the Raiders’ momentum in the first stanza, and yet the tryscoring dried up just as quickly for them, as Vunivalu missed a pass on the edge, and then took out his frustration by denying Simonsson a similar opportunity a few sets later.

Fifteen minutes out from the siren it was one try all, as Wighton and Whitehead cleaned up Hughes on the final tackle before he could pass or score. Hughes responded with a great kick at the end of the next set, securing a much-needed dropout after Simonsson was cleaned up in goal, and yet it all came to nothing when Asofa-Solomona put the footy down for a second time, thanks to a bone-rattling low hit from Hodgson.

Still, the sudden shift in fortune was nothing compared to the final six minutes of the game, which have to rank as some of the most suspenseful in recent finals history. This nail-biting sequence started with Canberra losing the ball, and Munster scooping it up, only to knock on in the process, getting the Raiders the scrum feed. They got a dropout at the end of the set after Papenhuyzen was forced to take a Hodgson grubber dead, but the Melbourne fullback made up for it by collecting the footy on the last tackle of the restart.

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In a galvanising twist, however, the Storm coughed it up on the first tackle, as a big hit-up forced Ado-Carr to fling the footy out of his hands and back into the Canberra attack, where it ricocheted backwards off the left arm of Tapine, before Leilua knocked it backwards with a finger, and then scooped it up and sent a flick pass to Bateman. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and the young second-rower seized his opportunity, curving around behind the posts to score in his first NRL final.

The game wasn’t done yet, though, since Vunivalu made the play of the night to collect the footy after Smith opted for a short kick on the restart. He was pinged for putting a boot over the sideline, even though the subsequent replay showed he had remained in the field of play, for what could easily have been the match-winning move had the sideline judge not already awarded the scrum to the Raiders. Even then, though, the win wasn’t secure, since a dangerous tackle from Bateman gave the Storm one final chance, as Smith booted the footy into the air.

This final play of the night ended with a bomb from Munster that bounced back dangerously enough for the Storm to have a genuine chance at scoring off it, making it even more momentous when Whitehead gathered it into his chest to get Canberra the win. This was only the Raiders’ second away win during finals footy in twenty years, and felt as epic as that sounds, getting them a week off while the Storm get set to play the winner of the Eels-Broncos sudden death match tomorrow afternoon.

About Billy Stevenson (487 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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