ROUND 3: Melbourne Storm v. Canberra Raiders (AAMI Park, 30/5/20)

Melbourne started Saturday night’s game with a strong set, forcing Canberra to work the ball back from deep within their own end, but there was a big change in pace when the Raiders got six again towards the end of their first tackle count. This was probably the most impactful six again call in Round 3 so far, setting up Jack Wighton to run into the defensive line on the last tackle, and execute a well-weighted kick that Suliasi Vunivalu was forced to tap into touch. Cameron Smith went 75 metres with the dropout, and once again the Raiders were forced to bring the football right back, but Wighton was just as good this time around, dummying and passing for Jarrod Croker, who followed with a sublime catch-and-pass in the face of Vunivalu, keeping the ball as flat as possible to give Jordan Rapana space to score the first try in the left corner. There couldn’t have been a more rousing way for the Raiders to score after Rapana’s return from Rugby Union, and they were a point a minute after Croker put the goal through the posts.

Six and a half minutes in, Melbourne got their second set, but Nick Cotric was safe beneath an end-over-end kick from Cameron Munster, despite a strong kick chase from the Storm. The purple army now amped up their defence, forcing ex-team mate Curtis Scott to cough up the footy early in the tackle count, and secured their first dropout, thanks to a short grubber off the left boot from Munster, that Cotric was forced to take into touch. Nelso Asofa-Solomona busted through a couple of tackles on the third play, in his first starting game this year, and Smith followed Munster with a short kick on the other side of field, sending the footy into open space beyond the try line. The next sequence required a bit of Bunker analysis, since both Croker and Jahrome Hughes arrived at the Steeden, but neither got it down. In slow motion, it looked like Croker had pulled his arm away just in time to avoid a penalty, or a penalty try, but this was still a frustrating call for the Storm, and a big momentum-killer after their first really energetic bout of field position since the opening set of the game.

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No surprise, perhaps, that Smith was penalised for a verbal dissent a few minutes later, following another six again call, which cost Melbourne even more metres, and steeled the Raiders to put down their next try, meaning they remained at almost a point a minute when Croker added his second conversion. The key play came on the fourth tackle, when George Williams sent a sublime harbor bridge pass across to the right edge, where Cotric caught it and leaped into the air, contorting his body around the corner post to elude Josh Ado-Carr for four more. This was the perfect way for Williams to cement his signature with the team, especially given the Lachlan Lewis-like languor he exuded as he dummied before the pass, allowing him to execute one of the most symmetrical arcs of the Steeden in 2020 so far – a perfect fusion of strength, precision and control that made Canberra feel just as unassailable here as they had during their splendid run to to the finals at the back end of the 2019 season.

That said, they didn’t get much of a restart, as NAS made a huge hit on Dunamis Lui to dislodge the Steeden early in the tackle count, setting up Melbourne for a near-try that was as spectacular as any four-pointer this round. Finding himself caught up in the maelstrom of Scott, Joseph Tapine and Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad, Ryan Papenhuyzen reached out a hand, in the midst of all that muscle, for what initially seemed like one of the softest putdowns of the year. This calm in the heart of chaos was spectacular, so it was unfortunate when the replay showed that the Melbourne fullback had lost control just as the Steeden hit the ground. Still, this was a power move, and led to a slump from the Raiders, as Wighton lost the footy on the next set, and Tapine gave Melbourne some additional field position with a pretty mild shoulder charge on Papenhuyzen a minute later.

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The Storm of old would have capitalised immediately here, but instead they came apart on the last, with a forward pass from Smith to NAS that ushered in one of their most challenging periods on the park this year. The next bounce defied Vunivalu, and Rapana came close to a double, before Felise Kaufusi made the fourth Melbourne error, briefly losing control of the Steeden beneath a pile of Canberra players. Soon after, Dale Finucane made good metres, and Ado-Carr got on the outside of Tapine, but Tapine forced him to rush the kick, allowing CNK to get the ball back. Things got worse for Ado-Carr when he knocked on under the next high ball, gifting Canberra the scrum feed, and their next brilliant set, which ended with a kick from Josh Hodgson that bounced awfully for Vunivalu, who was forced to concede a dropout for the second time when he took it into touch. The whole game was aligned for the Raiders to score here, so there was a big shift in rhythm when Hodgson undid his last-tackle kick with a forward pass next time he had ball in hand.

Finally, Melbourne got into full gear, as an early kick from Brandon Hughes bounced so high that Croker had to leap into the air like he was securing a bomb before knocking it into touch. Things accelerated quickly from here, as the Raiders opted to go relatively short, Papenhuyzen caught the fooy on the full, dodged away from Tapine and Horsburgh, broke through the line and almost scored then and then. Three tackles later, the Storm consolidated, as Smith sent out a short ball on the line that Finucane caught on the full in front of the posts and slammed down with Tapine on his back. Yet the Raiders recovered their twelve point lead almost immediately, and had the final word, after George Williams dummied to the right, and broke past Munster and Brandon Smith, before sending the Steeden back to CNK to mirror Finucane’s effort with an even more confident try beneath the posts. Scoring this quickly seemed to neutralise the Melbourne try, and shut down any rhythm it might have spurred, so Canberra headed to the sheds as confident as in the opening minutes of the match.

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There were less points in the second stanza, which started with a pair of seven tackle sets from the Storm, who continually seemed on the verge of restoring their mojo over these back forty minutes, but didn’t manage to score another point. Vunivalu had the confidence to wait until the last minute for a Wighton kick to tumble into touch, and the Raiders made an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge to contest a knock-on from Cotric, but then recovered some focus when Williams made a huge tackle on Papenhuyzen, before an Olam flick pass to Ado-Carr sailed over the sideline under pressure from the Canberra defence. The Raiders got a set restart immediately after, and then a penalty after Christian Welch stripped the footy from Emre Guler with three in the tackle, before Williams showed more of his magic with a short ball to Croker, who made an even more spectacular flick pass for Rapana, only for Papenhuyzen and Seve to converge on the star winger, forcing him to cough up the footy in goal.

This led to another good burst for Melbourne, as Munster almost put Olam across the line, prompting a strong trysaver from Scott, before CNK was wrapped up in goal for the next Storm dropout. Yet the purple army couldn’t capitalise here, and didn’t opt for a good Challenge opportunity shortly after, when Seve allowed the Steeden to slide down his arms, but still seemed to maintain control, before Rapana ripped it from his grasp with three in the tackle. The referee called it a knock-on from Melbourne, instead of a strip from Canberra, and Timo Faasuamaleuai took out some of his team’s frustration with a crusher tackle on CNK a play later, getting himself put on report for his troubles. Hodgson responded with a dangerous tackle on Papenhuyzen a minute after, and the game started to grind into a sludge, despite regular moments of kinetic brilliance from the Raiders – most notably a superb trysaver from Williams, who slammed in to knock the Steeden out of Kenny Bromwich’s hands when the big second-rower got an arm free with CNK around his waist right on the Canberra try line.

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Despite a fairly even allocation of errors for the next part of the game, Raiders still felt like the strongest team on the park here, with Lui making a strip on Papenhuyzen, and Max King then being penalised for an illegal strip. The Raiders took a big hit, though, when Horsburgh lost the ball while trying to offload back to Hodgson on the first tackle, since this marked the start of the last really sustained field position from the Melbourne Storm. The hosts got six again on the last, and then Papenhuyzen somehow cleaned up a wobbly pass from Smith without the referee noticing a slight knock-on. Munster kicked on the second, and Olam reached the bounce in goal at just the right time, but the Raiders responded with arguably the greatest defensive sequence of the year so far, along with Brett Morris’ three-part effort the night before – and a monster trysaver from Tapine in particular, who got his whole body underneath Olam, holding him up long enough for Scott and CNK to storm in and finish the job.

Melbourne still had two tackles up their sleeve, and this time Munster kicked to the left, where Vunivalu leaped up and tapped the footy into touch, but not without Rapana collecting a penalty for tackling in the air. This was the most adrenalin-packed set for Melbourne since the siren, and they had a real chance of a win or golden point if they managed to score here. Canberra cleaned them up on the left edge with the first two tackles, before Hodgson made a one-on-one strip on the third play, culminating a stellar period of Raiders defence that had been every bit as valuable as a try. Hodgson now compounded his vision with the first and last 40/20 on the next set, but his next kick, on the second tackle, wasn’t great. Once again, though, Canberra compensated with defence, keeping the Storm in their twenty by the third tackle, and shutting down a near-linebreak from Seve, before bundling Vunivalu into touch, and bringing Melbourne’s last attacking sequence of the night to a neat close.

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For the next couple of tackles, Canberra seemed to be slowing down the play, content to just wait out the final minute and a half to maintain their twelve point lead. Yet Williams put the icing on his brilliant performance by setting up a fairytale ending with a dummy and pass to Scott, who chipped off the right boot for Cotric on the outside edge. Cotric sped up the sideline, and seemed to be channeling Rapana’s iconic game against the Tigers when he made a second kick off the right boot at high speed for Tapine, who scored the final try of the match with thirty seconds left on the clock. In slow motion, the play looked even better, as the footy landed in goal, eluded every player, and almost skidded away before Tapine reached out a hand and turned what could easily have been a knock-on into the best read of a bounce all night.

Michael Oldfield got to the ball a second later, and the prospect of a simultaneous putdown by two Canberra players said everything about the Raiders’ resilience over the course of this magnificent match. They’d waited for the final minute to score the only try of the second half, but it was worth it, since this scoreline cemented a historic match – the first time they’d started the season three from three since 2005, the fourth time they’d done so in their team history, and the first time they’d gone for three straight games keeping the opposition to six points or less. That achievement was all the more impressive given the stature of the Storm, and the home venue of AAMI Park, so the new green machine will be looking to continue this momentum – so redolent of their finals push last year – when they take on the Knights at Campbelltown next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a big enough upset to get Craig Bellamy out of his chair, so you can be sure the Storm will be keen to come back big when they host the Rabbitohs for the next Friday night blockbuster.

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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