The Storm were pretty depleted when they rocked up for their first ever game at Bankwest on Thursday night, with the two Camerons – Smith and Munster – the two most dramatic absences. Parra made the most of it, keeping the purple army pointless for the first time since 2014, and only putting down fourteen hard-won points themselves – two tries, a conversion, and a pair of penalty kicks.
Cooper Johns was making his debut in the halves as the 204th player in Melbourne history, paired with Ryley Jacks at five-eighth, while the Eels were running on a full tank with all their key playmakers on the park, as the two best defensive teams in the competition got set to go head to head. The key difference was always going to be Mitchell Moses, who can be the most visionary player in blue and gold, but has had a spotty couple of weeks. He started that way here too, ending his first set with an awkward sideways kick under pressure from Nelson Asofa-Solomona, and making the first error of the night when he put down a Nathan Brown pass three minutes in.
The Storm looked strong out of the scrum, as NAS continued his big start by taking the first run, almost breaking through the line and looking for an offload on the right side of the park. Felise Kaufusi glimpsed another big gap on the fourth, but Dylan Brown dove in to plug the gap, motivating Nathan Brown, Clint Gutherson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard to deflate a barnstorming run from Tino Faasuamaleaui right in front of the posts.Embed from Getty Images
The Eels escaped their own end with the first penalty – offside from Johns – and finally accelerated on their next set, spreading the footy right and left as If expanding the scope of the game. They took a brief hit when Sivo slowed down the play-the-ball after a tough tackle, but recovered their rhythm when Josh Ado-Carr committed a double knock-on of loose catch-and-pass from Gutho a play later. Junior Paulo made a barnstorming run on the first, but once again Moses was the weakest link, botching a harbour bridge ball out to an unmarked Blake Ferguson that hit the fence instead of finding the big winger on the chest.
Ryan Matterson responded with a terrific ball-and-all on Kenny Bromwich, and Gutho caught Jacks’ next bomb without much trouble, only for the Foxx to spearhead a pack effort to drag him back in goal. Taking his cues from Matterson, Christian Welch popped out the best Melbourne offload on the next set, and Moses now stepped up in defence, preventing Papenhuyzen on the left edge as desperately as Dylan Brown had held up Kaufusi on the right.
The Eels conceded a fresh set with an offside error from Michael Jennings, and Jacks followed in his fullback’s footsteps, forcing Moses to reprise his trysaving tackle. Johns’ inexperience now started to show – first with a simple fumble on the ground after NAS had bobbled and recovered the footy in front of the posts, and then with an escorts penalty three minutes later.Embed from Getty Images
In the meantime, Moses had finally got into first gear with the kicks, forcing Papenhuyzen to make the best take so far to collect his next bomb, although this dazzling aerial display was offset by Johns’ penalty, which actually came off a successful Captain’s Challenge for the Eels, setting up Moses to boot through the first penalty kick of the night as the half hour mark approached. Even a small margin counts against the Storm, but this was an especially important goal, since it ushered in the first and only converted try from the blue and gold army.
Midway through the restart, Welch was called offside within the ten, just before a slight tip-on from Reed Mahoney to Gutherson, and the Eels consolidated into their most clinical set so far. Moses set up RCG for a run up the middle, Gutho almost sent Ryan Matterson through the line, and Matto offloaded on the ground to Waqa Blake, who bounced away from Papenhuyzen to score on the right edge. Moses added the extras, but Mahoney wasn’t so lucky with his next error, coughing up a late Shaun Lane offload ten metres from the Parramatta line.
Papenhuyzen moved fast out of the scrum, and the Storm looked quite likely to break through on this set, until Brandon Smith lost the ball into Matterson on the last, marking the start of a dominant Parramatta period – from a Kaufusi error, to a Faasumaleaui ruck infringement, to an Ado-Carr error, and then a pair of dangerous tackles from Johns and Albert Vete, both of whom were put on report around the thirty minute mark.Embed from Getty Images
The next error proved too much – a fumble from Ado-Carr as he tried to shift the footy from one hand to the other while contending with a tackle from Mahoney. Melbourne took too long to consider a Captain’s Challenge, and the Eels scored one play out of the subsequent scrum, with a simple left sweep that saw the footy shift through Dylan Brown, Gutho and finally Sivo, who effectively smashed over for his 22nd try untouched, since Johns only tapped his boot as he careened over in the corner.
There were only two points left in the game, despite a full fifty minutes of football to go, as both teams now proved why they have such a great defensive reputation in 2020. Moses was still a bit rusty back from the break, spotting a hole in the Melbourne defence on his first carry, but not quite timing the pass right to send Marata Niukore through it. Again, Melbourne looked well placed to score on the next set, surviving a messy Vete offload and making a strong pus in the left corner, only to find the blue and gold defence waiting for them once again.
Moses went for a bomb next time he got boot to ball, but didn’t quite get the float right, setting up Melbourne for a scrum feed with Papenhuyzen let it bounce over the line. Justin Olam found space for Ado-Carr on the wing, and while Fergo and Blake dragged him over the sideline, he popped the footy back just in time, although the set fizzled when Brenko Lee couldn’t compensate for a pretty unchallenging Cooper Johns bomb.Embed from Getty Images
Moses did better with the linebreak assist on the next set, popping out a wide ball that Matto undid with the worst offload of the game, following a year of brilliant second phase play – an impossible pass to Blake that bounced off the grass like an errant basketball. Similarly, Moses’ next bomb was great, while he followed with his best defensive move since his trysaver on Papenhuyzen – a low tackle that prevented Ado-Carr breaking through on the right edge.
Nevertheless, Nicho Hynes made an immediate impact off the bench with a deft grubber that trapped Ferguson in goal for the first dropout since half time. This should have been the consolidation point for the Storm, so something in the game shifted when Olam knocked the footy into Fergo, taking out his frustration with a second effort on Gutherson before NAS compounded all this aborted potential by storming into a Welch-Niukore tackle with a shoulder charge that saw him sent to the bin and put on report.
Two sets later, fullback and halfback set up the last two points of the game, as Gutho opted for a Moses-like grubber to trap the Fox in goal, and Mitch booted through his second penalty after a hand in the ruck from Kenny Bromwich on play two. Taking the goal was a sober, clear-headed decision from Parra, since two point was a major headway in this particular game, even with the Storm down to twelve men.Embed from Getty Images
The decision to take the two was ratified when these turned out to be the last point of the night, although Parra came close to a third try twice over the next two minutes, thanks to a pair of linebreaks up the left side of their attack. The first was the most spectacular, as Sivo collected a great Dylan Brown ball, found open space and offloaded back to Jennings fifteen metres out from the line.
Jenko came to ground five metres out, and almost scored one of the best tries of the year, sliding towards the line on his back, and relying on the momentum of Lee’s tackle to reach out his left hand for what would have been a calm, clean putdown if Brandon Smith hadn’t stormed in at the death to flick the footy forward. Gutho broke through in the same spot early in Parra’s next set, but was brought down by Papenhuyzen, as the Storm started to close their ranks, even if they couldn’t barge through the blue and gold defence themselves.
Seven minutes out, Oregon Kaufusi lost the ball directly into Lane, for what was effectively an intercept pass, but Jennings lost the ball a play later. Two successful Captain’s Challenges followed, the first from NAS to contest an error in the play-the-ball that turned out to be a Brandon Smith knock-on anyway, and the second from Parra to contest a Jennings error – the last in a series of mistakes that had kept the Eels tryless during the second half, and prevented them ever totally getting away from Melbourne until these dying moments of the game.Embed from Getty Images
Nevertheless, this was a spectacular achievement from Parra, who kept Melbourne scoreless for the first time since 2014 in only their 14th win in club history against the boys from AAMI Park. They’ll be looking for a huge win margin, then, when they take on the Rabbitohs in the same berth and venue next week, while on the other side of the Steeden the Storm will be keen to come back big and prove themselves as finals contenders when they host Manly on the Sunshine Coast.