The grand final matchup many of us were expecting came one week early when the Roosters hosted the Storm at the SCG on Saturday night. The Roosters were without Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, the Storm were without Suliasi Vunivalu, and both teams were coming off some of their spottiest kicking of the year. The winner would play Canberra in the grand final, as Richmond’s overwhelming win over the Giants filtered into the atmosphere, making me wonder whether we be in for a dramatic scoreline here too.
Twenty seconds in both teams were reduced to twelve men, as Sio Siua Taukeiaho and Nelson Asofa-Solomona were sent to the bin at the close of the very first tackle. Tempers flared, NAS sent out an open-handed slap, and Taukeiaho responded with a dummy punch. The Roosters came out of it better, though, since they were awarded a penalty, as Mitchell booted the first two points of the game through the uprights.
Neither team scored their first try with Taukeiaho and NAS off the field, although the Roosters came close after getting a pair of penalties just as the two frontrowers returned – a dangerous tackle from Justin Olam, followed by a second effort from Josh Ado-Carr ,as he tried to drag Joseph Manu over the sideline. For a moment, the Roosters seemed to be consolidating, but Mitchell lost the ball, and Ryan Papenhuyzen broke through the line on the next set, only for Mitchell to make up for his error by catching the footy on the full in goal to get his team seven tackles.
The Roosters scored at the end of the next set, which got a boost when James Tedesco poked his nose through the line on the fourth tackle, before Luke Keary kicked to Daniel Tupou in the left corner. The Giraffe leapt up over Will Chambers to secure the Steeden, but faced a monster tackle from Chambers, Papenhuyzen and Curtis Scott when he returned to earth. Nevertheless, he somehow got his arm free, and kept the footy out of the reach of the Storm defenders, before popping it across to Boyd Cordner for the first four points of the night.
It remained four when Mitchell shanked the conversion away to the left of the posts, although the Roosters were a converted try ahead with the penalty kick earlier in the game. Still, they couldn’t rest on their laurels for very long, as Keary coughed up the footy on the restart, actually kicking it straight into the hands of the Storm to give them a full set within the twenty without having to delay play for a scrum. In the first of many spectacular clutch moves for the Tricolors, however, Tedesco cleaned up a low kick from Cameron Munster, as the Roosters got rolling once again.Embed from Getty Images
The Storm got a sustained period of field position just after the twenty minute mark, starting – oddly enough – with a bad kick from Cameron Smith that got the Chooks seven tackles. An error from Victor Radley gave the Storm another sustained chance within the Sydney City twenty, before Tedesco made one of his most heroic efforts of the night, diving beneath Cameron Smith to curve his torso around the Steeden, only for a handling error from Mitch Aubusson to set up the Storm for even more field position.
Keary now took out some of his frustration with a dangerous tackle and hair pull on Felise Kaufusi, who was taken off the field for an HIA, allowing Tui Kamikamica to come onto the park as a free interchange. At first, this seemed like a canny move for Melbourne, but their second rower remained off for the rest of the game, after the doctors realised he’d broken a rib in the tackle. The Roosters survived the next set, and got a scrum feed, despite a late tackle from Manu on Papenhuyzen, before a leg pull from Brandon Smith propelled them even further away from the Storm’s sustained period of possession.
Both teams got big chances at the half hour mark, but Melbourne botched theirs when Munster mistimed a pass to the right edge, sending Craig Bellamy absolutely livid in the coaches’ stand. The Roosters got a repeat set shortly after, and Tedesco tried to crash over on the second tackle, before setting up a play-the-ball so quick that Hughes was pinged for not being square at marker – and fortunate not to get sent off for a professional foul – as Mitchell booted through his second penalty kick of the game.
The score remained 8-0 heading into the break, which was a big deal for Melbourne, who have only been kept to zero during the first stanza once in 2019 – in Round 19, against the Sea Eagles, who ended up winning in golden point. On the other side of the Steeden, the Roosters hadn’t scored in second stanza during their last three clashes against Melbourne – the 2018 grand final included – setting up an intriguing back forty minutes of football here. Melbourne got three repeat sets in the first six minutes, including the first dropout of the night after Smith trapped Cronk in goal, but once again the Chooks survived, in possibly their best period of defence so far.
Almost as soon as the home team got the ball back Jesse Bromwich was pinged for working on the ground, before Angus Crichton broke through the line and Mitchell followed up with a strong run up the left edge, where Chambers was pinged for lying in the ruck. The Chooks chose to tap and go, while Bromwich was taken off for an HIA after clashing heads with Hughes. In response, Smith made the most of his second run out of dummy half, milking an offside penalty from Nat Butcher to get the Storm another bout of field position.Embed from Getty Images
This yielded their one and only try of the night, as Hughes laid the platform with a strong run up through the ruck, before NAS caught a short ball from Smith, barged through a low tackle from Aubusson and Cronk, reached out a hand, and slammed the Steeden down on the line. It was exactly the barging, bullocking play that the Storm needed to get back on the board, narrowing it to a two point game once Smith booted through the extras, despite only having made 1/6 against Parra the week before.
For a moment, it looked like the Roosters had scored an even better try a few minutes later, as Manu and Munster competed for a Keary kick in the air, before Manu gained possession. The onfield call was try, but the play was sent to the Bunker to check whether Manu had made a clean strip, only for the referees to discern that the ball had come off Tedesco before Munster and Manu even contested it. The Roosters couldn’t have asked for a better way to strip momentum back from the Storm – literally – if they’d scored here, so Melbourne really felt as if they had the advantage now, despite being two points behind.
Sixty minutes in, the home crowd had a heart-in-mouth moment, when the Roosters backline let a bomb bounce, leaving space for Munster to take it into the left corner, and then offload to Kenny Bromwich, requiring another epic trysaving effort from the Tricolors. This felt like one of the key moments of the game, as Tupou cleaned up Scott on the right side of the park, before Morris scooped up a Smith kick and managed to make his way back into the field of play. All of a sudden, the Roosters had the rhythm again, getting a letoff that was even more dramatic than the relief that Melbourne enjoyed when Tedesco had been pinged for knocking on earlier.
It was starting to feel as if the next team to score would win – and twelve minutes out from the end it was the Roosters. The play began with Crichton breaking through the line, before Cronk almost got to the chalk, where he took the tackle and executed the quick play-the-ball needed for a rapid right sweep through Manu and Taukeiaho. It all ended with Tedesco, who scooped the footy under his arm, launched himself in goal, and managed to slide the Steeden past the knee of Papenhuyzen, who suffered a nasty head clash with Jesse Bromwich as they both converged on the Sydney City fullback.
Full credit has to go to Cronk, too, who made up for an awkward play and forward pass a few sets before by setting up Crichton for the linebreak in the first place. Mitchell’s kick was the most important of the night, and delayed as Papenhuyzen, blood streaming down his chin, was treated by the medical staff, before gingerly returning to his feet. Yet that just made it more cathartic when Latrell booted the ball through the posts, sending the crowd wild as Melbourne were forced to score two tries if they wanted a chance at a grand final appearance.Embed from Getty Images
Six minutes from the end, a heroic trysaver from Tedesco on Brandon Smith felt like the beginning of the end for the Storm. For a moment, the purple army glimpsed a chance when NAS tried to strip the Steeden from Cordner, but ended up wrenching him the ground, disheveling him enough for Cameron Smith to pop the ball out of his grasp when he returned to his feet. Yet Sandor Earl put down a Hughes pass on the next tackle, thanks to some big pressure from Radley on Hughes, while an error from Munster ninety seconds out got the Roosters ball in hand for the rest of the game.
Only in the final second did the Storm get the ball out of the scrum, but they didn’t have a chance of scoring, let along winning. The Roosters have therefore denied the Storm a fourth straight grand final appearance, and will be taking on the Raiders seventeen years after Ricky Stuart coached the Roosters to the 2001 premiership. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a sombre match for the Storm, who have won the minor premiership without a grand final berth, but for the moment all eyes should be on next week’s Roosters-Raiders clash, which promises to be spectacular.