ROUND 14: Sydney Roosters v. Melbourne Storm (Sydney Cricket Ground, 13/8/20)

The Roosters and Storm had already gone to golden point once in 2020, and gone to golden point in three different cities out of their eight last meetings, when they met at the SCG for the first game of Round 14. Nevertheless, the Sydney injury roster prevented this particular fixture being so close, as the absence of Munster, Cordner, JWH, Crichton, Radley and Brett Morris allowed Melbourne to quadruple them with a 6-24 win.

The Chooks had won their last three games without these key playmakers on the park, but their confidence and huge win margins of the early part of the season had started to diminish, and the Storm’s huge performance at the SCG finally undid them. That said, the visitors only made a 24-metre gain on their first set, and James Tedesco almost broke through on the fourth tackle of the next set, but Josh Ado-Carr steadied the ship by collecting the footy on the full in goal, while Melbourne got the first penalty on the very next play, when Morris was pinged for an illegal ball strip.

Sydney City remained strong with their defence, but Kenny Bromwich followed Teddy by poking his nose through the line midway through the tackle count, and Brandon Smith responded with a barnstorming run up the left edge, before Suliasi Vunivalu mirrored the Fox’s brilliance under the high ball by collecting a Jahrome Hughes kick under pressure. After taking the tackle, he shifted the ball back to his halfback, who received it at the ten, threw a big dummy to the left, careened over a low tackle from Luke Keary, and reached out his left hand to slam the Steeden down.

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This was a terrific opening for the Storm, not just because of how seamlessly they had corrected after their first truncated set, but because the entire passage had been bookended by Hughes – the perfect way for him to step up and assert the Storm’s dominance from the halves with Munster off the park. Teddy looked restless next time he had ball in hand, but even his best efforts couldn’t make many metres against a renewed Melbourne defence, and if anything Ryan Papenhuyzen looked like the alpha fullback during these opening minutes, lunging forward at the end of the same set to catch a Lachlan Lamb bomb on the full.

Teddy started to get into first gear with his next kick return, but Matt Ikuvalu fumbled the play-the-ball against his right knee a tackle later, setting up the Storm for the first really sustained burst of field position after they received the first restart late in the subsequent tackle count. Ikuvalu got some joy by cleaning by Christian Welch before the Storm could get to their final kick, the Chooks got out of their own end quickly with their own restart on the first play, and Keary made good metres up the middle on the third, but one again Papenhuyzen won the battle of the fullbacks, popping the high ball back for Ryley Jacks to scoop it up and get Melbourne rolling back down the field.

For the first time all night, Hughes now kicked early, and Teddy didn’t seem prepared for it, slipping beneath the ball to concede another burst of field position that Christian Tuipulotu seemed to offset with a linebreak on debut, only to be called after an obstruction from Sio Siua Taukeiaho.

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The fastest Roosters play so far had just become the platform for Papenhuyzen to boot through the first penalty goal, and while Ikuvalu continued to compensate for his earlier error with a huge hit on Justin Olam, the Roosters had suffered from the aborted acceleration of Tuipolutu’s almost-linebreak, putting in a fairly standard set on their next carry, before Ado-Carr showed them how it was done with a legitimate linebreak on the kick return, sufficiently disheveling the Sydney City ruck for another restart on the second tackle.

Jesse passed to Kenny on the last, brother to brother and Vunivalu climbed up over Tuipulotu as the ball falconed off the young Roosters’ head, but knocked it on in the process, preventing Felise Kaufusi’s putdown a second later being deemed a try. This was a massive letoff for the Roosters – the biggest so far – but once again they couldn’t capitalise, as Nat Butcher got away with a dropped ball on the second tackle, only for Joseph Manu to cough it up on the very same play, on the other side of the park.

Vunivalu was restless to cross over on the second play, but the Storm shifted right on the third, where Jesse Bromwich carried three defenders in the tackle, and Hughes kicked to the right edge, hoping to dishevel Tuipulotu but instead finding the young winger up to the contest with Vunivalu this time around.

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Tino Faasuamaleuai took the next big carry after rotating onto the park, and everything accelerated from there, as Papenhuyzen shifted the footy out to the Fox, who offloaded it back to him on the ground, giving his fullback space to complete another outside pass for Olam to stroll across untouched. This was clinical stuff from the Storm, and one of Ado-Carr’s fastest runs off the mark – possibly the fastest short-range run of his career – putting them fourteen ahead when Papenhuyzen capped it all off with a superb conversion.

Things got worse for the Chooks when Lachlan Lam copped an ankle injury, remaining on the field for a few moments but eventually leaving for good with what turned out to be a syndesmosis –  a big blow given Trent Robinson’s decision to bench Kyle Flanagan for this critical match in the Sydney City calendar. Their leaders needed to step up, and Jake Friend did a good job to slam the footy out of Faasuamaleua’s grasp, forcing the first Melbourne error of the night and getting his men their first set within the Storm twebty, but it came to nothing when Lindsay Collins put down the ball on the second play, and Ado-Carr reclaiming purple field position with another early linebreak on the subsequent set.

Vunivalu nearly came up with another try assist nine minutes out from the end, when he popped back a Papenhuyzen kick for Papenhuyzen to surge over the line, but the call came down from the Bunker that the wiry no. 2 had twisted his left boot onto the sideline, meaning they didn’t even need to question whether Kaufusi had knocked on the ball before his fullback got it down.

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The Tricolours started to awaken during the last five minutes, galvanised by a superb one-man effort from Teddy, who collected a Hughes kick a metre out from the dead ball line, and then put in the best footwork of the match to swivel around Vunivalu and pivot away from Hughes to make his way back in the field of play.

A ruck infringement from Smith and an error from Kaufusi followed, but the purple defence stayed strong, while the Chooks got two big injury blows – learning that Lam wouldn’t be rejoining the field, and watching Mitch Aubusson limp off the park in his 301st game, on the cusp of a club record, after his way crushed under a huge tumble from Nelson Asofa-Solomona and some friendly fire from Lindsay Collins. The Roosters had to resume this moment, however qualified, after the break, and tried to recapitulate it by using their Captain’s Challenge to argue that a knock-on from Collins was a strip from NAS.

Even in real time you could see that the play was too ambiguous for the Bunker to reverse the on-field decision, so the only result was that NAS got the big men rolling again on the next play, taking the footy again on the fourth to reset the rhythm after Drew Hutchison skittled Ryley Jacks on the third. Hughes targeted Tuipulotu again, resulting in a contest in the air that went Vunivalu’s way, but would have been a much better option for Sydney’s Captain’s Challenge, especially Olam scored a double on the very next play.

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This sequence started awkwardly, with a last-minute effort from Welch in front of the posts to Smith, but ended seamlessly, as the burly hooker settled the play with a good run across the defence and a soaring ball across to his left winger, who collected it low, got away from Many and smashed through Ikuvalu to rack up the next four points. After two tactical tries, this was pure guts from Melbourne – Smith didn’t even seem to be expecting the pass from Welch – and just as effective, putting them three converted tries ahead after Papenhuyzen missed his first kick.

He didn’t have to wait long for his next two-pointer, since Melbourne only needed a couple more tackles to score, winning a restart early in the restart, before Hughes dummied, broke past Keary and Tupouniua on the right, and Liu on the left, and sailed downfield to send the Steeden back inside to Kaufusi, who had surged in from the right edge to collect it at speed and end up beneath the posts. The Storm’s next restart was just as fast and fluid, bookended by two great runs from Welch, so it was almost surprising they didn’t score again, or at least get a repeat set – just as surprising that they didn’t score another point over the next thirty minutes.

In its own way, this last half hour was a small victory for the Roosters, and a testament to their resilience in defence, as they worked hard to stave off the landslide of points that seemed likely after the Storm had completed 7/7 (compared to their own 1/4) since returning from the break. Among other thing, that meant self-correcting more seamlessly, starting a Morris offload that went nowhere two plays into their next set.

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Morris compensated immediately when Vunivalu and Tuipulotu permitted Hughes’ next kick to bounce, scooping it up off the ground to get the Roosters rolling, but even then this was a pretty qualified victory, and immediately upstaged from Vunivalu, who stood completely still to receive the next high ball, which Keary couldn’t have aimed more squarely at his chest if he’d tried. Taukeiaho came close to a try a few sets later, drawing in four Melbourne defenders to hold him up over the line – a sobering reminder that the Chooks had to barge over when and where they could, rather than trying to out-strategise the consummate strategists in the competition.

In a neat summary of their night, however, Taukeiaho’s near-try was succeeded by a simple error, as the big prop took his eyes off a Keary pass at just the wrong moment, setting up yet another burst of field position for the purple army. It was becoming clear that the Roosters were only likely to score off a Storm error, or a string of Storm errors – and they got it a minute later, when Teddy turned out to be the next victory of the perennial Vunivalu-Tuipulotu contest in the right corner.

Both sides took a breather after Vuni copped a hit in the head from Tupouniua, but the real worry now was Keary, who was reeling from a Brenko Lee tackle earlier in the match, and was in such visible pain that you had to think that only Lam and Aubusson’s absence were keeping him on the park. Two minutes later, he was off the field, as paramedics were calling to the dressing-room, and an ambulance called to the SCG five minutes after that, for what was suspected to be internal bleeding, a ruptured spleen, broken ribs or another serious internal injury.

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While the Roosters couldn’t afford to focus too heavily on losing yet another key playmaker, they only had room for one more acceleration before they started to lose steam. Luckily for their spirit and energy over the next week, they scored off this last big burst, which ironically started with another potential tryscoring sequence from Melbourne – a couple of tackle busts from Ado-Carr, a good take under the high ball and offload from Nicho Hynes, and then a last-ditch roll along the ground from Kaufusi that could have paid serious dividends if the Chooks hadn’t scooped it up.

At the other end of the park, Manu made big metres up the right edge, and the Tricolours mirrored his momentum on the other wing, where Hutchison sent a floating pass out to Tuipulotu to score on debut, before Taukeiaho booted through the last points of the night. Both teams more or less went set for set for the next quarter hour, with only a failed Captain’s Challenge from Melbourne and a 40/20 from Smith breaking the rhythm – a tough effort from the Chooks to prevent more points with so many of their key players off the park. They made need Sonny Bill Williams much more than their roster at the start of the season might have suggested, while they’ll also need to process the emotional turmoil of seeing Keary so debiilitated – and the stress of waiting for his diagnosis – when they take on the Tigers at Leichhardt next week.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was a good win for Melbourne, but a pretty barren second stanza in terms of tries, so they’ll be looking to score heavily across the full eighty minutes when they rock up to face the Eels for another top four blockbuster next Thursday.

About Billy Stevenson (490 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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