ROUND 12: Melbourne Storm v. Newcastle Knights (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 2/8/20)

The Knights were coming off a shock loss to the Bulldogs when they rocked up at Sunshine Coast Stadium for a home game against Melbourne on Sunday afternoon. The Storm got the first restart two and a half minutes in, and a few plays later Jahrome Hughes set up Felise Kaufusi to offload on the ground for Suliasi Vunivalu, who crashed over on his first touch, joining Billy Slater as the only player in Melbourne history to score in eight straight matches against one opponent. Cameron Smith was kicking directly into the sun but still made the conversion, clocking up fifteen straight seasons with at least a hundred points. Yet Kalyn Ponga stayed safe under the next bomb, the Knights got their first restart, and Bradman Best scored as effortlessly as Vunivalu before him – perhaps even easier – collecting the footy from Kurt Mann at the twenty, maintaining his balance through a low tackle from Marion Seve, scooting past Ryan Papenhuyzen, and leaping over a last-ditch effort from Hughes to put down the first try for Newcastle. After such a fast start from the Storm this was a critical early hitback from the Knights, levelling the scoreline once Ponga booted through the extras from the sideline He let the next Cameron Munster kick bounce, presumably because he’d seen that Jesse Bromwich was offside downtown, and the Knights got rolling again.

They swept left on the fourth play, and Mann dummied twice, but still sent the Steeden straight into the upraised arms of Vunivalu, who leaped above Best to take it in the air, while Ponga slipped into Hughes as he secured the next bomb, although this clutch take seemed to galvanise Newcastle, who got a set restart as Mitchell Pearce almost sent Lachlan Fitzgibbon over the line with a short flat ball, only for Hughes to save the try with a terrific tackle, and Mann to kick too hard on the last, conceding a seven tackle set to the Storm after Papenhuyzen ushered the footy into touch. Still, the Knights survived, and got their third restart, as Pearce tried to repeat the same play with Mitch Barnett, and Ponga sent an absolutely enormous pass out to the right wing that was a mile too high for Hymel Hunt, who could only get fingertips to the football before it continued over the sideline. Kenny Bromwich looked primed for some strong post-contact metres on the next set, but ended up losing the ball with David Klemmer on top, leading to a Captain’s Challenge from Pearce to contest whether this was a strip from the ex-Bulldog. In slow motion, Klemmer was clearly just bringing an arm in for the tackle, although the Storm recovered pretty quickly, as Dale Finucane made a huge hit on Jacob Saifiti, Papenhuyen took Pearce’s kick on the full and won an aerial tackle penalty from Mann, and then started a sequence of sublime Storm linebreaks.

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It was scary to see how easily Papenhuyzen sliced through the defence off the tap, even if Ponga finally disposed of him – and Hughes took advantage of the acceleration to force the first dropout of the match, while the Storm’s big men continued to ramp up the speed on the next two tackles. For a moment, it looked like Papenhuyzen might assist Ado-Carr, but the cut-out pass didn’t leave quite enough space, as the Fox found himself dragged over the sideline by Hunt. Barnett tried to cement this shift in momentum with a big hit on the Melbourne fullback on the next set, and then combined with Pearce for a double tackle on Brandon Smith, but he went too far on this second effort, and found himself pinged for a dangerous hit in the process. Meanwhile, Melbourne went just as fast on their next set, although this time Smith kicked too far, gifting Newcastle seven tackles, only for Kenny Bromwich to follow Munster with another seamless linebreak on the next set, opting to pass the ball inside to his captain to score despite Ado-Carr howling for a certain putdown on his left. Full credit to Smith for the putdown, then, since he came to ground just short, but maintained control as he rolled over Enari Tuali to finally make contact with the turf.

This was Smith’s first try since Round 20 last year, and he followed it with a perfect kick that initially swerved to the right of the posts but sailed back at the last minute to cement the best pointscoring sequence from either team so far. Another linebreak now ensued, this time from Seve, who flicked the footy back to Vunuvali, who in turn managed to save it from going over the sideline, setting Munster up for such a huge kick that Ponga had to bump it over the sideline from three metres in front of the try line. Munster dummied inside and out on the next tackle, Nelson Asofa-Solomona bobbled and recovered the ball, the Newcastle defence held up Vunivalu and Hughes, and then Brandon Smith sent the last play across to Tino Faasuamaleuai, who lost it into a clash with Ponga. Klemmer got it back, Munster stripped it off Saulo, but Faasuamaleuai’s knock-on was the critical error here, and so the Knights got the ball back. Nevertheless, Melbourne continued their long-range attack on the very next set, when Papenhuyzen leaned over to catch a Ponga kick on the ground, and then out-Ponga-d Ponga, getting away from the Newcastle fullback with a terrific left foot step, and continued to accelerate despite Best and Saulo closing in, finally dancing through a low tackle from Tuala at the twenty to ice the most epic individual effort of 2020.

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Smith, however, was down in backplay, and as Papenhuzyen missed a conversion into the sun, word emerged that the game’s best player was suffering a shoulder injury that would keep him on the sideline for the rest of the game, while Newcastle took their own manpower hit when Fitzgibbon and Chris Randall clashed heads pretty brutally, and were both taken off for HIAs as Barnett and Phoenix Crossland trotted onto the park. With Crossland conceding an offside penalty right on the cusp of half time, Munster added the penalty kick to make it a two converted try lead, while the Knights wasted a few good opportunities as they returned from the sheds, and somehow allowed Vunivalu to pick up the football surrounded by Newcastle jerseys right on the line, and make his way to the Newcastle forty before he was brought to ground. The Knights took another hit when Saulo was binned for an egregious late low tackle a full two seconds after Hughes had got his kick away, while Munster added a second penalty goal when Crossland conceded a second offside error. Despite these mistakes, however, Newcastle weren’t playing that badly – for the most part, they were doing all the right things, or at least most of the right things, but just couldn’t match Melbourne’s speed or energy as the last quarter approached and the sun set over Sunshine Coast.

They got their last really big chance at a comeback when Tom Eisenhuth was pinged for not being square at marker, especially once Pearce forced a dropout with a fast grubber beneath the posts that Nicho Hynes knocked on in goal. Ponga double pumped for Aidan Guerra to twist and spin through Munster and Ado-Carr, and then added the extras straight into a spectacular sunset to narrow the deficit to eight points, but the Knights suffered their worst moment of the game immediately after, when neither Mann nor Crossland managed to contain Munster’s kick, as a Newcastle restart abruptly turned into a Melbourne dropout. The Storm nearly resumed their fourteen-point lead on this very set, as Hughes paused, Lachlan Lewis-like, on the last play, taking stock of the situation out on the right wing before booting the ball to the chest of Vunivalu, who initially looked certain for the try, only for the replay to show that the arc of Tuala’s arm had knocked the footy out of his grasp just before he got it to ground. This was a massive letoff for the Knights, who needed to score on these next seven tackles to really capitalise on the Storm’s shock – Craig Bellamy had actually got to his feet – but instead gave the ball back off a pair of forward passes from Crossland and Best.

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Worse, Melbourne now showed how clinically they could self-correct, as Hughes scooped up and saved a risky offload from Christian Welch, and popped it across to Faasuamalueai, who hit the Steeden at speed at the twenry, and took it all the way past Ponga and Moga. The Knights got one last surge off a superb sequence from Moga, who collected a wide ball from Pearce and bounced off Vunivalu on his way back in field, finally drawing in a three-man effort spearheaded by Papenhuyzen, before scoring a few tackles later off a tricky kick and an awkwardly rolling ball, which he scooped up five metres out and launched over the line. This was the best putdown or performance from any winger in the game, but Melbourne predictably kept Newcastle out for the last five minutes, coming away with a ten point win and a third position berth on the NRL ladder. They’ll be keen to keep flexing their muscles with those long-range plays when they take on the Bulldogs next week, while the Knights will be raring to return from back-to-back losses, especially since this evening’s performance didn’t do much to quash the trauma of losing to the Dogs at home during last Sunday’s torrential match. Saturday evening’s game against the Tigers should be a good one, then, since both teams definitely have something to prove when they take the Steeden, as the second half of the compressed 2020 NRL season gets into full swing.

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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