ROUND 4: Melbourne Storm v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (AAMI Park, 5/6/20)
Melbourne had won their last fifteen games against South Sydney, but suffered a very un-Storm-like loss to the Raiders, when they met at AAMI Park on Friday night, so they were keen for a dramatic victory for Latrell Mitchell’s 100th match in the NRL. No surprise that the purple army were clinical in their first set, despite the absence of AAMI Park supporters, but the Rabbitohs were clearly in consolidation mode too, as Adam Reynolds took responsibility for all the opening kicks, rather than making way for Troy Dargan as he had against the Roosters. Still, Melbourne got the first offload, and Souths made the first mistake, when Tom Burgess knocked the footy while trying to strip it from Cameron Smith, before conceding the first penalty, when Troy Dargan was called offside shortly after. The Storm opted to tap and go instead of taking the two, as Kenny Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi and Brenko Lee all drew in pack efforts from the South Sydney defence to hold them up as they progressed towards the right edge.
Brandon Hughes targeted the right edge again with his kick, but Alex Johnston leaped up and caught it on the full to guarantee his men the first seven tackle set of the match. The Bunnies now had their best attack so far, and Reynolds his best kick, aiming for Ryan Papenhuyzen, who only just avoided a dropout when he brought the ball half a metre back into the field of play. Nevertheless, the Melbourne fullback recalibrated pretty well a tackle later, when he collected the footy to score off an inside pass from Suliasi Vunivalu, who executed a brilliant short side raid after receiving a short ball from Brenko Lee down the other end of the field. Smith’s kick sailed in front of the posts, and Souths did a good job to keep Melbourne in their own end on the restart, forcing Smith to send through a low fast kick to limit the Bunnies’ field position, even as a second effort from Kenny Bromwich got the visitors back to the halfway line immediately – a pretty unusual outcome given the strength and speed of the first Storm try.Embed from Getty Images
Campbell Graham came closest to crossing over, with a twist-and-spin on the last play, but he was no match for Cameron Munster’s trysaver, which gave the Storm a fresh burst of confidence. Brandon Smith now collected a risky offload out of a maelstrom of Melbourne players, and Josh Ado-Carr accelerated up the field, determined to get the Storm out of their own half more rapidly this time around. That just made the next stoppage more dramatic, when the Fox was abruptly downed after Dane Gagai tumbled over him in the tackle, returning to his feet a minute later, but wincing and gingerly feeling his chest at regular intervals over the rest of the game. This took the wind out of Melbourne’s attack, as Latrell collected Smith’s ball pretty easily, albeit with a massive chase to hold him up right on the line. Nevertheless, the rhythm was shifting back towards the Bunnies, who got their first restart a few seconds later, and set up for some of their best field position so far, with Latrell making his best run yet on the right edge, where for a split second he seemed about to send Gagai through the line.
Damien Cook sent through a deft grubber on the final play, and Vunivalu became the second Storm player to only just avoid a dropout, before a forward pass from Jahrome Hughes further compounded the Bunnies’ field position. Accordingly, Jayden Su’A came closer than any Rabbit to crossing over, before it all came together on the left edge of the attack, where Dargan shifted the ball to Latrell, who drew in Brenko Lee, registered Johnston unmarked on the wing, and soared the Steeden above Vunivalu to send his winger across for the first South Sydney try of the night. Full credit has to go to Johnston, too, who showcased his trademark speed and footmark to get to the corner as Hughes tried to make up for the forward pass that started it all by bundling him into touch. With Reynolds sending through a superb strike from the sideline, the Bunnies were ahead for the first time as the second quarter approach – and their body language seemed to shift on the restart, as if the game as a whole had suddenly been reset too.Embed from Getty Images
The Storm got a lucky break a moment later, when Smith’s kick ricocheted off Ethan Lowe and was held to be played at – and an even luckier break when Kenny Bromwich chased it down, fumbled it, and rolled his entire body over it, but without being deemed to have moved it forward. Still, this was starting to resemble the Storm’s performance against Canberra the week before, as Justin Olam denied Ado-Carr a try with a forward pass in the left corner, and Papenhyzen made a forward pass next time they had ball in hand. The Rabbitohs really needed to score now to consolidate their momentum, and so Latrell went for another harbor bridge pass when he got close to the line – this time out to the right wing, where Gagai was unmarked – but he was held up by a sea of purple jerseys. Even so, Souths had their most scintillating set a minute later, accelerating and accelerating until Liam Knight was held up on the left edge. They looked so certain to score that they resorted to a Captain’s Challenge to try and prove that Jesse Bromwich had got a touch to the footy on its way from Reynolds to Knight, and thereby continue this splendid passage of play before they lost too much energy.
In the most eventful Captain’s Challenge of the year, detailed scrutiny of the Bunker footage did eventually show Bromwich’s fingertips bending back, and so Knight played the ball again to the left of the posts, only for Mark Nicholls to cough up the footy on the very first tackle. The Storm consolidated very quickly from here, thanks in large part to a linebreak from Munster, who put in his best footwork so far to dodge and weave his way through the defence, and then sent a wide ball out to Hughes, who booted it to the left edge all the way from the twenty metre line. For a second, it looked like Hughes had kicked too early, especially when the bounce seemed to favour Johnston, but at the last minute the Steeden careened back towards Vunivalu, who slammed in to put down Melbourne’s second try. The purple army came close to scoring one more time, in the last major sequence before the siren, but Cook followed Munster’s lead with a terrific trysaver, preventing Brandon Smith scoring another four points.Embed from Getty Images
The first ten minutes of the second stanza featured one crazy change in possession after another, culminating with both teams getting a penalty kick, allowing the Storm to retain their precarious two-point lead as the final quarter approached. Thirty seconds after returning from the break, Munster was penalised for working on the ground, but he more than made up for his mistake by leaping three metres over the sideline to pop Reynolds’ subsequent kick back in field to Ado-Carr. This was one of the most daring and flamboyant defensive efforts this year, and yet it came to nothing when Hughes made a harbour bridge pass that bounced in front of Vunivalu and over the sideline. Souths had the ball back, but now Graham coughed it up, and Tino Faasuamaleaui picked it up and got Melbourne going once more. All of a sudden, both teams seemed to be wrestling for the entire momentum of the game, desperate to put down the try that might just win them the contest during this second half of football.
Papenhuyzen now grubbered on the last play, and Latrell responded with some good organisation from fullback, sliding in and kicking the Steeden into touch for the next Melbourne dropout. Bromwich managed a good offload to Munster, the Storm got six again on the last, and Hughes ran straight through the line to score. In yet another twist, though, the try was called back for a pretty counter-inutitive obstruction call for Faasuamaleaui on Cook – a massive letoff for the Bunnies, until Jayden Su’A lost the footy on the first play. No sooner did the Storm have the ball back than Faasuamaleaui was penalised for a legitimate obstruction, setting up Souths to work towards a dropout at the end of the next set, when Vunivalu was bundled over the dead ball line by a trio of Bunnies defenders. Souths didn’t get a try, but Welch was penalised for an illegal steal on Knight, allowing Reynolds to level the scoreline with the first penalty kick of the night. On the restart, Latrell played two key roles in securing another dropout – helping Graham make some good metres on the right edge, and then catching-and-passing on the last to set up Graham for a kick to trap Cameron Smith in goal.Embed from Getty Images
South Sydney now accelerated on their right edge, where Reynolds popped a parabola ball across to Gagai, who went left, went right, and then reached out a hand right on the line, only for Munster to execute another terrific trysaver. Munster had been the critical difference between the two teams all night, helping steer the ship when Melbourne’s momentum was lagging, but also spearheading many of their most innovative and visionary plays. No surprise, then, that he assisted the next try with a kick to the left corner that Ado-Carr caught on the full and slammed down without having to run a metre. The Fox had gone four matches without scoring – the longest drought in his career at Melbourne to date – and had seemed muted after the rib injury and thwarted try assist from Olam in the first stanza, so the Storm really seemed to recover their mojo after he crossed over the line. Even better, Smith added a difficult sideline conversion to make it an eight point lead, before following Munster with a superb second trysaver on Gagai in exactly the same place he’d tried to score earlier.
In any other game, Melbourne would have been assured the win here, but in this particular match it felt like the Rabbitohs might make a comeback from only eight points behind. They got their last big chance after Ado-Carr knocked down the footy when Su’A was passing to Gagai on the edge – the third time a try for the South Sydney winger went begging – but Dargan overplayed his hand out of the scrum, and by the time that Johnston had crashed over in the corner the try had already been called back for an obstruction from Burns. Two minutes out from the end, the Storm made their final consolidation – an offload from Welch to Munster, a flick pass from Munster to Smith, and then a wide ball from Smith out to Ado-Carr, who shifted it back inside to Olam for the last four-pointer. The Storm have thus gone some way to proving themselves again after their loss to Canberra last Saturday night, and will be determined to continue this energy when they meet the Knights next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a frustrating end to a South Sydney match with some brilliant moments, so they’ll be looking for more consistency against the Titans on Saturday.
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