ROUND 18: Melbourne Storm v. North Queensland Cowboys (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 13/9/20)

Melbourne had won their last ten games against North Queensland when they hosted them on the Sunshine Coast on Sunday evening, and had only lost one of their last eleven games – against the Eels, with both Camerons missing. They’d also come back big against South Sydney last week after being down at half time, while the Cowboys had broken a nine-game drought with a golden point win over the Dragons as well.

That said, the Storm had a big boost with the return of Suliasi Vunivalu, who had been out since breaking his jaw in the 18-point win over the Roosters in Round 14. Tui Kamikamica was also returning for the first time since Round 2, and Nicho Hynes was in the fullback jersey while Ryan Papenhuyen continued to recover from his achilles injury. On the other side of the Steeden, Tom Gilbert was starting with Gavin Cooper coming off the bench, and Jake Granville was ruled out just before kickoff.

Hynes was safe under Valentine Holmes’ first bomb, despite a strong chase from the Cows, and the Storm built quickly on their left edge, where Munster popped the footy out for Justin Olam to barge into the defence and offload to Hynes for the kick, only for Olam’s pass to be called forward. The Melbourne no. 4 made up for it with the first of two big hits on Justin O’Neill four tackles into the next North Queensland set, disheveling the attack just enough for Jake Clifford to boot it too far on the last.

Once again, though, the Melbourne left edge didn’t quite gel, as Hynes lost another great Munster pass. This time, the Cowboys capitalised, hanging around their own left side, where Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow collected an Esan Marsters grubber on the third bounce, fended off Hynes with his right hand, and got the Steeden down with his left, while the Melbourne fullback slide down around his torso for a last-ditch low tackle.  

This was a resounding comeback for Marsters, whose form had kept him on the sideline for six weeks before rejoining the squad against St. George last week. Holmes’ aim from the sideline was sharp, so it was unlucky that the Steeden ricocheted off the right post, but his miss was quickly eclipsed by the biggest turning-point of the first stanza – Josh McGuire being sent to the bin a tackle later for dissent about the play-the-ball.

Hynes was enormous on the next tackle, accelerating up the right edge to usher in a period of scrambling North Queensland defence that survived this set, but couldn’t withstand the first repeat set of the match, which came after Marsters was pinged for a right-edge escorts on Vunivalu. Three tackles later, NAS received a Cam Smith ball at speed, and strolled through Reuben Cotter to put down the first four purple points.

Big Nelson had missed last week’s game against the Rabbitohs, so this was a great way to make his mark again, while Olam reprised his massive hit on O’Neill next time he had ball in hand, and Tom Gilbert bobbled the ball on the very next play. For a moment it looked like Olam might send Ado-Carr across out of the scrum, but the Storm shifted it back inside instead, where Jesse Bromwich made a huge run at the posts and NAS surged at the same try-scoring spot before another big man went over for four more.

This was an even crisper and more concise version of the last try – a shorter ball from Smith, right in front of the post, where Tino Faasuamalueai received it cleanly to cross over virtually untouched, slicing through a big hole in the defence that McGuire would normally plug. Smith had set himself up for an even easier conversion this time, banging through two as the Cowboys gathered in conference, stunned by this sudden barrage of Melbourne points.

Tino took the first tackle on the restart, opening up space for the Storm to make their first big push up the left, where a Brenko Lee offload and a tackle bust from Hynes got them inside the twenty by the second tackle. Once again, Olam’s left sweep to the Fox didn’t work, but this time Feldt knocked on while preventing the pass, gifting Melbourne another scrum at the ten, where Clifford conceded an offside penalty as McGuire finally returned to the park.

For a moment, it looked like Felise Kaufusi might be the next big man to cross over, but Clifford made up for his error with a desperate low tackle, and the Cowboys got a chance to feed the scrum after Jahrome Hughes’ pass to Kaufusi was called forward. The visitors got back up their own end with an offside penalty from Munster, and then a restart off a ruck error from Kaufusi, only for Munster to come up with the ball after Scott Drinkwater sent it straight into Ado-Carr’s chest.

The Storm consolidated further with a successful Captain’s Challenge, and got their next chance when a Clifford kick careened at an acute angle off Vunivalu. Marsters secured the ricochet, offloading for what would have been his second assist if the Hammer hadn’t spilled it right on the line, thanks to a big hit from Hynes. Tom Eisenhuth offloaded to Kaufusi on play two of the next set, getting the Storm back in first gear, before the Fox made his way to the try line all the way from the thirty.

This was equal parts sloppy defence from North Queensland and a sublime run from the Fox, who twisted out of a Kyle Feldt tackle at the twenty, and coasted past a couple of exhausted forwards. From there he had open space all the way to the crossbar, meaning Smith got another conversion from right in front, while Ado-Carr was now equal seventh for top Melbourne tryscorers, alongside Marcus Bai, and behind Billy Slater, Matt Geyer, Cooper Cronk, Will Chambers, Suliasi Vunivalu and Greg Inglis.

Four minutes out from half time, Vunivalu had his best defensive play so far, keeping his hands in the air to shepherd a Clifford grubber into touch, as the Cows’ halfback chased it down to try and force a dropout. Melbourne scored off the next scrum, starting with a couple of modest runs, until Lee broke it all open with a run and offload to Vunivalu up the right edge. From there, the ball moved through five pairs of hands, before NAS offloaded to Munster to shift the play out to Kenny Bromwich on the right.

The Storm were now in team try mode – and who better to culminate that momentum than Munster and Smith, as five-eighth collected a short ball from hooker to smash over in the same spot as NAS thirty minutes before. Big Nelson had barged through Cotter, Tino had barely got a North Queensland hand, and now Munster remained entirely untouched as he crossed over – a perfect consolidation for the Storm, who reached a twenty-point lead as Smith converted on the cusp of half time.

This had also been a particularly poor miss from Drinkwater, who had conceded one of the softest tries of the 2020 season, but he didn’t have much time to process it, since Hughes broke through the line on the restart, and popped it out to Smith, who sent it on to Hynes. The Melbourne fullback was brought down by a Clifford trysaver as the siren rang out, but the purple army would probably have scored with a full set up their sleeve, so it was no surprise that they resumed their rhythm as soon as they returned.

Admittedly, the Cowboys did have a brief surge, starting with a superb Marsters offload back to the Hammer, and the fourth touch of the footy from Holmes, who seemed determined to have more of an impact during this back forty. Yet Melbourne were elastic on their next play, shifting the Steeden from side to side, and receiving two restarts next time they had ball in hand. Tino made fifteen up the middle, Hynes made a half-break on the left, and Munster stepped into the spotlight for the second time.

This sequence was more like an athletics demonstration than first-grade footy, as Munster made a diagonal beeline from the left edge, running along the face of the defence and hurdling over Josh Asiata before crossing over for a double. Josh McGuire’s last-ditch ankle tap was so ineffective that Munster effectively scored untouched, setting up Smith for yet another clinical conversion from right in front.

That said, Melbourne lost some of their mojo over the next ten minutes, as an Eisenhuth hand in the ruck gave way to an Asiata linebreak, succeeded by a second Eisenhuth error and a ruck infringement from Kaufusi. Meanwhile, Holmes also drew on the athletics playbook with a take under the high ball that looked more like high jump – and this flamboyant gesture galvanised North Queensland over the next few minutes, meaning they were in prime position to capitalise on a Hughes penalty.

After conceding 26, the Cowboys needed a big play to get back in the game – and they got it now, as Marsters received the footy at the halfway line, shaped left, and got on the outside of Lee, before curving back inside and left-fending Vunivalu to score under the posts. This was a resplendent moment for the ex-Tiger after a spotty start in Townsville – and the sheer speed and surprise of his run consolidated the Cows into a mini-comeback over the next ten minutes.

They looked like a new team on the restart, restless for fresh opportunities, and asking big questions of the ruck, before Clifford was awarded a 40/20 (despite having a boot just on the chalk) to get his men another six on the line. Clifford almost smashed through on the left edge, Cotter swept it right, Ado-Carr knocked on a Daejarn Asi pass, and the Cows almost scored straight out of the scrum, when Holmes shot a bullet pass out to the Hammer, only for Vunivalu to bump him into touch at the last second.

Even so, the Hammer came pretty close, and with Vunivalu pinged for an offside error, the Cows were able to regather immediately, and made good on the other wing, where Feldt leaped up to collect a pinpoint Drinkwater kick on the chest, utterly defying the Fox as he brought it to ground in one elegant motion. Seeing Feldt score usually strengthens the Cowboys, so the Storm had to quell this momentum quick, especially since North Queensland had accumulated real field position for the first time all game.

Melbourne did manage to sneak one in, building on a tough Olam run and a ruck error from Cotter to get in the Cowboys’ face, where NAS nearly went over for a double beside the posts and Munster almost barged through for a hat trick out on the wing. Drinkwater and Holmes made their hardest tackle of the night to hold up Munster on the line, but Holmes conceded a ruck error, and Munster rapidly shifted the play right, where Kenny Bromwich sent Hughes across untouched for the last purple try.

To their credit, however, the Cows bounced back immediately, taking advantage of an Ado-Carr knock-on, off a short kickoff, to put down their own final four-pointer. It only took a single play, as Holmes made up for a fairly quiet night with the running metres by collecting a a Drinkwaterr pass on the ten, heading outside and dummying to deceive Vunivalu, before curving back in to elude Hynes, and bumping off a desperate Munster tackle to slam the Steeden down, converting his own try a minute later.

The last ten minutes were less eventful, as Melbourne lost a Captain’s Challenge and both teams ended with a pair of errors – from Hughes and Kenny Bromwich, and the Hammer and Dunn. The Storm came away with a 16-point win, and yet they’d also conceded twenty to North Queensland, who only had four wins behind them all year, so they’ll be looking to tighten up their defence when they host the Tigers at Sunshine Coast Stadium next Saturday evening.

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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