ROUND 13: Melbourne Storm v. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 8/8/20)

Nico Hynes got a shot at fullback when the Storm hosted the Bulldogs at Kawana Waters on Saturday afternoon, helping steer the purple army towards some of their most fluid football in weeks, although the match started – quite incongruously as it turned out – with a big burst of Bulldogs possession. Justin Olam would have broken through the line on the first Melbourne set if not for an ankle tap from Lachlan Lewis, while Josh Ado-Carr got the first restart a play later. Still, the Storm didn’t complete, despite a strong pair of runs from Tino Faasuamalueai, since Jesse Bromwich lobbed the footy over Kenny’s shoulder, but didn’t time it right, forcing his brother to make a play at and so send it ricocheting off his upper torso and back into Canterbury’s hands.

The Dogs had only lost by two to Parramatta the week before, and had beaten Newcastle before that, but they haven’t got a great record when starting in 2020, so it seemed like a good sign for them when Melbourne again failed to get to their kick, thanks to a risky early offload from Suliasi Vunivalu that Felise Kaufusi collected with a boot on the sideline. Canterbury now had the first real attacking momentum, as Ofahiki Ogden took the first tackle in his first starting game of the year, tempting a penalty from Brandon Smith for working on the ground. The Dogs played it safe by opting to take the two, only for Jake Averillo to miss his second goal of the season, shanking the Steeden away to the left from right in front, in one of the weirdest kicks of the year.

The visitors had another set, however, and Meaney and Raymond Faitala-Mariner made good metres up the left edge, but this early Canterbury advantage seemed to come to an abrupt end with another poor kick – this time from Lewis, who sent the last one over the dead ball line off the side of his boot. Nevertheless, the Melbourne errors continued to accumulate, as Napa slammed in for a low hit right on the football, dislodging it from Faasuamalueai’s grasp on the second tackle, before Meaney condensed his earlier left side run and almost broke through the line.

Lewis took a big tackle in front of the posts, Lafai caught-and-passed on the left wing, and the Dogs chose to tap and go when Vunivalu was called offside, but once again Lewis was an issue on the last, sending out a wide ball that Josh Ado-Varr intercepted to run the length of the field, shutting down this early surge of Bulldogs possession in the most clinical and spectacular way imaginable.

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The Fox was well ahead of any chasers by the Melbourne twenty, and barely seemed to accelerate into full gear as he finished his ninety-five metre run to get the footy down behind the posts. Watching him stroll down the field was like witnessing the purple army gradually awaken, as Cameron Munster stepped up in Cameron Smith’s absence to boot through the first conversion ten minutes in, before sending out a brilliant offload for Hynes to almost break through a Luke Thompson tackle midway through the restart.

The Storm got six again on the last play, asking big questions on both sides of the park, neglecting a gap left by Ogden on the right, but finding an even bigger hole on the left, where Hynes cemented his vision at fullback, taking advantage of Averillo and Josh Jackson coming in to hold up Olam, by scooting through the line to put down his first try in first grade football untouched. Once again Munster added the extras, and the Storm were almost a point per minute, while Canterbury’s early surge of field position had receded to a distant memory.

They exceeded a point per minute on the restart, when Hynes went from scorer to assister, once again receiving the footy from his five-eighth, and now getting on the outside of Lewis to discern a gap between Averillo and Dallin Watene Zelezniak. He opened it up for Olam, who channeled Ado-Carr’s momentum with a compressed run and goose-step to break through Meaney right on the chalk, making it 16-0 once Munster missed his first one from the sideline.

This had been a stellar start in the no. 1 jersey for Hynes, who looked set to break through again on the third tackle of the restart, while the Storm capitalised off the Dogs’ next touch of the football, when a poor kick from Lafai ricocheted off the defence and back into the hands of Vunivalu, who fended off two plays, got to the sideline, and finally came down at the Canterbury thirty, setting up the Storm for a rapid left sweep that ended with a Kenny Bromwich kick. Olam now followed Hynes by trying to turn scoring into assisting, sccoping up the big man’s kick and getting it back inside to him, but not without pulling back Reimis Smith for the obstruction that eventually denied the try.

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Nevertheless, this was another massive acceleration for the Storm, who recorrected seamlessly off the next Bulldogs error – a lost ball from Marcelo Montoya – for Kenny to get his try after all. Both teams got some breathing-space as the scrum was corrected, and Melbourne burned through a series of big runs before Kenny simply received a short ball from Brandon Smith right on the line, hitting Ogden at speed, and losing the footy in the same movement.

Yet he never actually lost it into the big Canterbury prop, regathering it to slam through Lewis and Meaney and score. This was bad luck for the Dogs, and perhaps galvanised them into their first try, five minutes after Munster slotted through his third conversion, off an accidental crusher tackle from Bromwich on Sausao Sue. Canterbury now executed exactly the simple, strong play they needed to steady themselves – a strong dummy and run from Foran deep into the line, followed by a high ball across for Lafai to slam down his first try since donning the Bulldogs jersey.

Five minutes out from the break, the Storm had their first really messy moment, when Albert Vete decelerated on the final play, forcing Hughes to boot through an awkward ball that Meaney and Brandon Smith both slipped over and missed, before Olam knocked it on right on the Mebourne line. Vunivalu followed with a loose carry getting up from a Jackson tackle, but the Storm’s defence proved strong as their attack, setting them up for Munster to add a flex field goal right on the siren.

The second half was a mirror image of the first, featuring one try from Canterbury and about twenty points from Melbourne, although this time the Dogs put down first points, thanks to some late pressure from Faasuamalueai, which opened up  about  unexpected field position two minutes in. The visitors responded with their most forward-heavy passage of play so far, as Sione Katoa made a strong run down the middle on the first carry and nearly made it over the chalk, Sue twisted and spun right in front, Napa received the footy as first receiver, and Jackson collected another handful of Melbourne defenders, before Lewis and Foran finally got Meaney five metres out on the left.

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Foran abruptly changed the direction of play with a kick to the right, where Reimis Smith climbed over Munster and Olam to catch it on the full and slam down to score. Lafai now took over conversion duties with Averillo off with a hip pointer injury, and narrowed the deficit to thirteen points, but the Dogs got their last glimpse of a comeback when Foran bombed to the left corner a minute later, and Lewis put in a second grubber off the right boot, only for Munster to offer up the chase of the night to pop it out with his left hand before DWZ could put down back-to-back tries.

The momentum continued to turn against Canterbury when Aiden Tolman took his time scooping up the next kickoff, allowing Brandon Smith to get in place for a strip, before Lewis ended the next Melbourne set with a brutal high tackle on Munster, receiving a report and sin bin while Christian Welch was also formally warned after storming in to try and settle the score himself.

This was the low point of the game for Canterbury, since Munster was fumbling the footy anyway, and the Storm had no tackles left, and yet the Melbourne five-eighth seem to take it a little too personally, attempting to crash over himself on the last tackle of the subsequent set instead of opting for a better kick or pass strategy. While the Bulldogs now had to work the ball back from their own line, forcing Foran to kick within their own thirty, and while Olam might have busted through a few tackles to make his best run of the night three plays into the next set, the Storm once again failed to get to their kick, settling into an oddly sluggish period despite their advantage in manpower and momentum.

For a moment they seemed to get their mojo back when Lafai knocked on out of dummy half, but instead lost even more energy when Munster’s knee buckled under a tough tackle from Jackson, forcing him to sub off with a medial ligament injury that will remove him to the sideline for at least the next few weeks. Hughes put the footy down before Munster was even off the park, and Welch conceded a penalty immediately after for not being square at marker, as the Bulldogs settled into their most sustained attacking momentum since the opening five minutes, continuing last year’s trend of teams actually doing better with twelve men.

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Just as Ado-Carr had ruptured that opening rhythm, however, so his winger in crime stepped up here, since Vunivalu now kicked on a bouncing pass from Jackson, scooped it up within the Storm’s forty, and ran half the field to crash over untouched, racking up a nineteen point lead once Hynes booted through his first conversion of the afternoon.

Jesse Bromwich took the first hit on the restart, and Kenny was restless to break through on the third, eventually putting down a double off another lazy play from Tolman, who got in front of Jeremy Marshall-King just as he was shaping and searching for space to kick. Hynes almost sent Kenny through the line on the very first play, before starting a superb right sweep through Tom Eisenhuth that saw Vunivalu held up by Faitala-Mariner a full metre in goal.

This was fluid, limber footy, and yet another testament to Hyne’s confidence in the fullback jersey, so it felt inevitable when the Storm shifted left with the same breezy confidence, where Bromwich sliced between 7 and 17 before shooting out a big right-hand fend on Jackson to get the Steeden down. There were seventeen minutes left after Hynes added his second conversion, but it felt like the death knell for the Dogs when DWZ sent the kickoff out on the full, with a linebreak from Meaney proving to be the last big Canterbury gesture before a series of errors and penalties that culminated with Ado-Carr concluding the Melbourne point scoring as clinically as he’d commenced it.

Ninety seconds out from the end, Montoya lost the ball in the final Bulldogs error, Melbourne packed the scrum with only forty-five seconds for their final play, and Hughes booted through a big bomb on the first. Ado-Carr simply beat Meaney to the footy, popping it forward for his own try assist as the sun turned golden over Sunshine Coast, propelling Melbourne into their blockbuster clash against the Roosters at the SCG on Thursday night.

About Billy Stevenson (731 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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