ROUND 19: Melbourne Storm v. Wests Tigers (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 19/9/20)

The Storm had won 17 consecutive games in Queensland when they put a half century on the Tigers on Saturday night. Ryan Papenhuyzen was out for another week with his achilles injury and Tino Faasuamaleaui was starting at prop after Christian Welch was stood down for COVID-19 breaches, while Matt Eisenhuth was starting at lock with Alex Twal out sick, and Josh Reynolds was beginning with Benji Marshall for the first time this year, with Luke Brooks suspended after last week’s punch-up against Dane Gagai.

Both teams started with strong sets, as Nicho Hynes showed he could field the high ball in Papenhuyzen’s absence, despite a strong chase from David Nofoaluma, before leading the chase to pinpoint Adam Doueihi under a Jahrome Hughes bomb a set later. Asu Kepaoa was now trapped right on the Tigers’ line, but a quick run from Nofoaluma got the visitors a restart, while an equally fast play-the-ball got the Tigers over halfway by the second tackle for the best field position of the game so far.

Benji had ample time to position the kick, so it was frustrating when he shanked it off the wrong part of the boot, allowing Josh Ado-Carr to just watch it sail into touch. He partially compensated with a big tackle on Kenny Bromwich midway through the subsequent set, but the Storm scored on the very next play, when Suiliasi Vunivalu put down a Hughes kick, speeding down the sideline to secure it before Doueihi and Nofa could make the most of a brief bobble that saw Craig Bellamy explode in the stands.

Cam Smith added the conversion as the sun set over Kawana Waters, bringing the Storm to six points in six minutes. Nelson Asofa-Solomona made big metres early in the restart, and Tino followed him up the middle before Hughes started a shift to the right edge, where the Tigers tried and failed to drag Brenko Lee over the line. Doueihi was unable to clean up the kick, and so Lee managed a second kick to trap Nofoaluma behind the chalk for the first goal line dropout.

Benji sent it long, forcing Tino to bring it back from within the Storm’s thirty, although this didn’t bother the big men, who built a sufficient platform for the purple army to accelerate into a clinical left sweep on the last, when Kenny Bromwich sent the Fox across for a try in the corner. Both wingers had now scored untouched, a pretty dangerous sign for the Tigers, while Smith added his second conversion to make it 10/13 from the left sideline this season.

Once more Tino took the first hit-up, and once again he linked up with NAS, as the Storm seemed to be playing by rote, with even Ado-Carr making decent post-contact metres against much bigger men midway up the park. This time Doueihi did well to come away with Hughes’ bomb and remain just in the field of play, but the Tigers struggled to get out of their own thirty, forcing Benji to boot it hard to Hynes, who collected it and got Melbourne rolling again without blinking an eye.

They got a restart on the next play, and delivered two tackle busts – first from Vunivalu, who dodged around three defenders to make fifteen extra metres up the right edge, and then from Tino, who tucked the footy under his right arm and steamrolled Reynolds, remaining on his feet and looking up the ref to check whether the play was still on. It was just long enough for a Tigers pack spearheaded by Josh Aloiai to come in and knock the ball lose, though it cost Eisenhuth and Luke Garner HIA interchanges.

The Tigers got a much-needed restart after the Storm got a hand to a Joey Leilua offload, and Benji responded with a superb harbour bridge ball out to Nofoaluma, who was forced to sent it back inside after the defence piled on, albeit getting his men a second restart in the process. They got a third restart two plays later, and had to score here to have any chance of a comeback, so it was frustrating when Reynolds came down just short of the line before booting through an overlong grubber on the last.  

Nevertheless, the visitors got one more chance when Lee was called offside – and this time Reynolds and Benji came good, with Grub popping out a good pass to his halfback, and Benji turning his previous harbour bridge play into a try assist for Kepaoa. Catching it right on the sideline, the young gun no. 5 pre-empted the Melbourne chase, walking the tightrope to stay just in the field of play before leaping up in the air to put down the Steeden with his left hand for the first four Tigers points.

You could say there was also some theatrics to it, or at least an incomplete read of the play, since Vunivalu was still far in field, but better to be safe than sorry – and the Tiges needed a bit of showmanship to get back in the game, especially after Doueihi missed his first sideline attempt of the match. The putdown couldn’t detract from the brilliance of the Benji assist either – a genuine deception play, as Benji kept his eyes off Kepaoa the whole time, drawing in the Storm defence to clear up space on the wing.

Aloiai got a good offload out to Benji midway through the restart, but Benji responded with an offload back to Lee, who got the purple army in position for their next tryscoring sequence, foreshadowing just how rapidly the Tigers would lose their few bursts of momentum over the rest of the game. The try was a simple as can be – a leisurely sweep to the left, where Hynes caught the footy and took advantage of a poor read from Joey Leilua to put down one of the softest four points of the night.

The Tigers got their next chance with a rare sideline miss from Smith, and an even rarer error out of dummy half, when he kicked it into touch a set later. Grant made the most of it, sending a short ball out for Aloiai to barge diagonally into a one-on-one tackle with Kenny Bromwich, bumping off the big prop before going low to elude Cam Munster as he reached out his arm to get the Steeden down.

Yet the Storm responded with the toughest defensive effort of the night on play four of the restart, when Joey Leilua received a Benji pass fifteen metres in field, only for Justin Olam to hold him up and combine with Munster to lift him in the air as the Fox stormed in to help his team mates drag him over the sideline. There was a time when this was an automatic call of held, but the attitude seems to have shifted subliminally over the last two years, and worked to the Storm’s immediate advantage here.

On the next set, they put down a classic, clinical Melbourne try – a Hughes chip to the right edge, where Vunivalu leaped above Nofa to collect it on the full, before twisting away from Reynolds to ground it untouched in the midst of a sea of Tigers jerseys. The Storm didn’t score on the restart, but they got six again on their next set, before Smith milked an offside penalty from Kepaoa, fed short balls to Kenny Bromwich and NAS right on the line, and then shifted the play left for Hughes to score the next four.

Melbourne got their next chance when a Reynolds pass to Russell Packer went awry five minutes out from the break. Smith kicked it on, and Tom Eisenhuth collected it, spreading it left for an Ado-Carr kick, which careened obliquely in goal as Garner ran Hynes off the footy to get himself a professional foul and ten minutes in the bin for his troubles. The Storm had already been playing like the Tigers had twelve men on the park, so it was no surprise that they scored again immediately now.

NAS granted the Tigers a brief reprieve by putting down a Cam Smith ball on the next play, but the Storm resumed their rhythm after a brief pause to assess a double knock for Reynolds and Packer, with the ex-Dragon leaving the park. A moment later, Olam caught the high ball and shifted it back outside to the Fox, who got away from three  defenders – outpacing Nofa on the sideline, swerving back in field where he eluded Grant, and dancing over a Doueihi ankle tap right on the time for a sublime long-ranger.

If the Storm had an unbroken ten minutes with Garner in the bin they would have probably continued to pile on the points here, but the Tigers recovered a bit after the break, keeping out Melbourne for a good ten minutes before scoring their next try. After two of their worst sets in weeks, the visitors got their chance when Vunivalu was pinged for taking Reynolds off the ball, before heading off the field immediately for what appeared to be an injury, as Tui Kamikamica trotted on to take his place.

Four tackles later, Grant grubbered to the left wing, threading it through the legs of Lee, only for Kepaoa to drop it cold. Yet the Tigers got the ball back again when Munster was pinged for a forward pass so dramatic it almost looked deliberate, as NAS became the next player to leave the park for an HIA. Nofa was restless across the ruck on play three, although the Tiges lost some pace when play stopped for Kenny Bromwich to join Vunivalu and big Nelson on the sidelines.

Along with Kamikamica, Jesse Bromwich and Max King had now added some fresh blood to the Melbourne side, so the Tigers needed a big one-man play to resume their rhythm – and they got it off another harbour bridge ball from Benji. The width was even more spectacular this time, sailing over two Tigers and two Melbourners for Kepaoa to get his second try on the left wing after all. Full credit goes to Reynolds, too, for the superb bullet ball that set up Benji for his best assist in weeks.

Doueihi followed with a brilliant kick from the sideline, as we entered the one point where the game genuinely hung in the balance – the longest period without a try from the Storm, who conceded six again on the restart with a ruck error from Olam. Reynolds consolidated with a deft offload to Nofa, and Benji ended with a chip that Hynes was forced to take into touch right on the dead ball line – the apex of the Tiges’ second-half form, as Eisenhuth put Doueihi into space for their last try of the night.

This was a superb crossover from the ex-Rabbit, who received the footy at the ten and eluded Munster and Eisenhuth as they converged on him. The assist from the other Eisenhuth was just as dexterous – a double pump that drew in just enough of the defence to clear up space for his fullback. A twenty-two point lead had not turned into a ten-point lead – a small victory for the Tigers in this latter part of the season, even if the Storm would now put down three more converted tries to make the half century.

On the very next tackle Aloiai crumpled under a big combined hit from Tino, King and Kamikamica, and had to be carried from the field with a right leg injury, as Thomas Mikaele came on from the sideline. Wests got to the end of their restart, but they’d lost their mojo in the pause that elapsed, and so the Storm scored next time they had ball in hand, thanks to a skillful short pass from Hynes that cleared up space for Felise Kaufusi to burst through the line and send Olam across for a try on the right edge.

Melbourne were on the way back into first gear, but to their credit the Tigers managed to hold them out for the next ten minutes, amping up the defence until Grant put in the trysaver of the match to prevent Smith assisting Olam for a double at close range. Olam coughed up the footy in the process, and Chris Lawrence broke through the line on the next set, but his pass missed Kepaoa, while Luciano Leilua knocked on in a last ditch-effort to clean it up.

This was the chance Storm needed, and Smith now accelerated into one of his most spectacular passages of play this year, turning a near-complete 360 on the left edge early in the tackle count before shifting the play right for Kamikamica to barge into three Tigers defenders in front of the posts. Reynolds did well to drag down Hynes after a burst at the right edge, but conceded the restart that set up Smith to execute the most sublime tryscoring sequence of the entire round.

The play started with Tino playing the ball correctly in front of the posts (where he was almost assisted by Smith), and Luciano Leilua diving in to obstruct the ball before Smith to get to it. You could see Smith’s footy genius in the Bunker replay as he brought his hands around the Steeden, and then pulled them back a milimetre before making contact, instead opting for a left-foot kick that ricocheted the Steeden off Packer and in goal, where he was always going to outplay Doueihi to get it down with one hand.

This was one for the Cam Smith highlight reel – and for the highlight reel of Craig Bellamy, who culminated a pretty entertaining night in the coaches’ box by giving his captain the middle finger for surpassing his own tryscoring tally. It would have been a perfect try to end the game, but the Storm still had one more in them, building on a botched try from Grant and an unsuccessful Captain’s Challenge from the Tigers to make it to fifty, four minutes out from the siren.

The Storm asked big questions in all parts of the park, but in the end it came down to a Smith kick and an uncontested putdown from Tino. Even against the Tigers, this was a Grand Final worthy performance from Melbourne, so the purple army will be looking to continue this splendid momentum when they take on the Dragons for the last regular game of the year, while the Tiges will be playing for pride when they host the Eels at Bankwest on Saturday night.

About Billy Stevenson (614 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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