The Dragons might have ended 2020 at 12th on the ladder, but they still went out on a high, racking up an eight-point home win over Melbourne for the last match of the regular season – a cathartic conclusion after a disastrous pair of matches against the Knights and Raiders over the preceding fortnight.
That said, the Storm were only playing on half a tank, with both Camerons and both wingers off the park, and two Aarons making their debut – Aaron Booth at lock and Aaron Pene off the bench – although this match did mark the return of Paul Momirovski after injuring his finger against the Broncos in Round 12. The Dragons didn’t make much headway on their first set, due in part to a high tackle from Christian Welch on Jayden Sullivan, although they recovered some field position with the first two penalties on their second set – offside downtown from Sandor Earl, and then offside within the ten from Cooper Johns.
Ryley Jacks made it three with an illegal strip, and Sullivan took the next hit-up, before Jackson Ford surged at the line, a mistimed pass saw Matt Dufty wrapped up on the right, Zac Lomax was contained when they finally shifted the footy out to the same wing, and Adam Clune had to resort to a low kick that Momirovski collected on the full. Now it was the Storm’s turn to get a piggy-back out of their own end, as Lomax made the first ruck error of the afternoon, resulting in the first restart, and Welch made the biggest surge up the middle, coming close to breaking through the line.
For a momentum Max Feagai quashed their momentum by burrowing low into Tom Eisenhuth, but the big second-rower popped it back just in time to Johns, while Brandon Smith got them rolling again on the fourth play, and a Jackson Ford error beneath a Ryley Jacks bomb got them another shot at the line. Booth may have coughed up the ball here but the two veterans – relatively speaking – made up for it on the next set, when Papenhuyzen received the footy, broke through the line and shot out a fast ball to Momirovski, who came to ground a foot out from the chalk and somehow managed to retain control of the Steeden while rolling over Aitken and Clune to plant it down.
Papenhuyzen missed the conversion from the sideline – this would be an issue as the game proceeded – but this was still a spectacular start for the Storm, and a lucky start too, since this was a putdown that initially seemed destined to be scrutinized by the Bunker.
In any case, Melbourne didn’t have to wait long for their next points, since they scored again at the end of the restart, when Jacks put up a left-foot bomb, the Dragons allowed it to bounce, Chris Lewis knocked it back, and Ricky Leutele collected it, making his way to the wing where he sent out a superb one-handed ball to Sandor Earl for the second try. For the second time the Storm were lucky, as the replay showed Lewis clearly bumping Cody Ramsey off the footy, although Leutele’s assist looked even more relaxed and dexterous in slow-mo too.
Once again Papenhuyzen missed the conversion, while Jacks kicked long and early on the restart, gifting the Dragons their first touch of the football in about five minutes when Dufty collected it on the full. They glimpsed some space on the left edge but it was immediately neutralized by Papenhuyzen’s kick return, while the no. 1 came close to capitalizing on a clutch kick from Johns at the end of the next set, only for the bounce to careen back towards Feagai at the last second.
Undaunted, Papenhuyzen reached a boot back over the line to get his men seven tackles under the next high ball, while a huge hit from Tariq Sims catalyzed a ruck error from Kaide Ellis, opening up what initially looked like another tryscoring opportunity, only for Booth to pop out a forward pass to Tui Kamikamica a tackle later. For the second time, a Booth error had put a pin the Storm’s momentum, and for a second time the purple army regathered immediately, off a forward pass from Adam Clune late in the next set.
Papenhuyzen found space for Earl on the left edge, Welch straightened the play and offloaded to Booth, and the young lock got it across to Kamikamica, via Jacks, for even more metres. Finally, Johns opened up space for Eisenhuth on the right, and then shifted the play back to the left, commencing a silky sweep that ended with Lewis smashing over in the corner, scoring right where Earl had scored off his tap-back eight minutes earlier.
This rapid shift in direction felt like a pivotal moment in Johns’ evolution as halfback, while the sweep was superb on its own terms as well, from the pair of long balls from Johns and Booth that started it, to the pair of rapid-fire catch-and-passes from Jacks and Papenhuyzen that ended it – a perfect fusion of young guns and (relative) veterans as they settled into the groove that would normally be carved out by Hughes, Cam Smith, Cam Munster, Papenhuyzen and Kenny Bromwich.
In other words, this was the first Melbourne try that felt truly Storm-like, so it was frustrating when Papenhuyzen missed his third straight conversion – a very un-Storm-like show of vulnerability that seemed to steel the Dragons into the start of a very dramatic comeback, with their own young backline now putting in a master class on the right edge of the park. First Jayden Sullivan got Lomax into space with a terrific cut-out pass across Tyson Frizell’s chest, and Lomax responded in kind, holding on for the footy as long as he could to draw in the Melbourne defence before shooting a short one out to Ramsey on the wing.
Dancing down the sideline, the young no. 5 kicked at speed for Lomax, who dribbled it on for Dufty to lunge onto the Steeden at speed, and tumble over the line for the best try of the night – no luck, all skill, and a vision of the St. George future that propelled the Red V into the terrific comeback that followed. It didn’t hurt, either, that Lomax slotted through the first conversion of the game with twelve Storm points already on the board.
For a moment it looked like the Dragons might go back-to-back, especially when they got a restart off a Kamikamica error, but they lost their mojo when Max King stormed in for one of the most egregious dangerous tackles of the year, twisting Blake Lawrie’s leg beneath him for what almost looked like an intent to injure. Lawrie was taken off the park (replaced by Josh Kerr), King was put on report, and the Melbourne young guns combined again a minute later, when Johns collected the footy from Welch, dummied and shot through one of the best grubbers of his career, setting up the bounce perfectly for Isaac Lumelume to gather it into his chest and slam through Aitken to score his first try in the purple jersey.
Yet this time the Dragons came back quickly, capitalizing on a Darryn Schonig error to put down a try that was every bit as clinical and assured as their first four-pointer. It all started with Cameron McInnes, who received the footy out of dummy half on the left edge, and started a sinuous string of passes that saw the Steeden shift through Clune, Sullivan and Dufty before Frizell ran a hard line to collect it at speed and beat Papenhuyzen to the ground to score a try for his last match in St. George colours.
With Lomax adding his second conversion, the Storm had scored four tries to two, but only led by four as the game settled into a fast finish in the last two minutes before half time. First, a dazzling run and offload from McInnes got Dufty through the line, and while Lumelume somehow got the footy first, he still conceded a dropout on the brink of the siren.
The Dragons got a further burst of field position off a ruck error from Brandon Smith, until Lomax lost the footy on the fourth, and Smith broke through the line with twenty second on the clock. Time seemed to slow down as the Red V struggled to play catch-up after Smith fed the footy at the forty, with Feagai cleaning up Momirovski, and a pack effort containing Papenhuyzen, before Johns kicked for Earl, but Ramsey caught it on the full.
With another two minutes, or a repeat set, the Storm probably would have scored here, so the break gave St. George a much-needed chance to refresh and reset. Both teams went set for set for the first few minutes back, with Melbourne making more metres but Ramsey nailing a terrific take under their second high ball right on the line. Nevertheless, the Storm got the first penalty when McInnes crowded Earl as he tried to play the ball, although the Dragons got a bit of breathing-space when Ford took a moment to return to his feet in backplay.
Aitken made the most of it, slamming Papenhuyzen onto his back in the hardest tackle of the afternoon so far, and while the Melbourne captain managed to retain control of the footy, he lost it to a one-on-one strip from Lomax on the fourth after Smith failed to get an offload away on the third. Aitken continued to wreak havoc on the edge of the park, surging up the left edge and laying the platform for one of Clune’s best kicks, which initially seemed overlong, but ended up sitting up right in front of the crossbar.
Melbourne were only at their thirty by their fourth play, as Smith was prevented from second phase play in the second successive set, and Feagai cleaned up a clutch kick from Jacks to get his men to the Melbourne forty by the second tackle, thanks in part to an elegant offload from Frizell. The Dragons were probably unlucky not to get a restart on play two, but Lewis was pinged for an offside error a play later, as Lawrie barged up the middle, and Kerr looked set to follow in his slipstream, only to slip to the ground instead, disrupting the Red V’s rhythm enough for Sullivan to lose the footy while trying to fend off Jacks and goose-step his way to the other side of the park.
St. George had missed a big chance to get ahead on the board, and couldn’t prevent Melbourne accelerating back up the field on their next set, as Welch made some of his best post-contact metres so far, and Papenhuyzen bombed to the right corner, where Dufty had to go to ground to collect it right on the line.
All of a sudden the second half had intensified for both teams, as Frizell and McInnes capped off one of the Dragons’ fastest sets so far, and what initially appeared to be a botched play-the-ball from the purple army turned into the second crowding penalty for St. George since the break, this time for Clune. This set looked like it might be the one for Melbourne, from the opening footwork from Momirovski, to a series of rapid shifts in direction over the second and third plays, until a huge hit from Lomax on Papenhuyzen gave St. George the show of strength they needed.
Smith and Welch drove Frizell back two tackles into the next set, but Kerr followed straight up the middle, and a third run from Lawrie would probably have been platform enough for the next try if he hadn’t spilled a regulation pass from McInnes with no Storm player in a metre and a half radius. Melbourne packed the scrum and got ready for a fresh assault on the line, and while Welch shone with another huge run and offload on the second play, King was less successful with the second phase play, trying and failing to pull back his own offload when he saw that Jacob Host was going to reach over him and secure the Steeden himself.
Sullivan’s next kick was one of his best, forcing Earl to accelerate right into it and then into the defence to prevent being trapped in his own twenty. While Welch opened up space for Nicho Hynes to make his first real contribution up the middle, the set ended with one of Jacks’ weaker kicks – no real pressure for Ramsey right on the line – and Hynes himself followed with the offside error that finally settled the Dragons into the great burst that would eventually win them the game.
Lawrie did better this time around, bringing the ball into the Storm’s forty, and Aitken put in a forward-like play by dragging players up the left edge. Dufty mirrored him up the right, where he was stopped in time by a great Jacks tackle, but Sims further exhausted the big men, and Sullivan ended with a sneaky grubber off the right boot to trap Lumelume behind the chalk for the first dropout of the second stanza.
Sullivan bookended the dropout by catching the kick and shifting it across to Sims to channel the footy up the middle of the park, before getting involved again to run it up the right side for Ford to bring the Red V five metres out. Frizell went for a double, tunneling into three defenders, and drawing in the defence so that McInnes’ subsequent dribble found open space in goal.
Lomax knocked it on, but not without Leutele shoving him out of the way, in what was a clear penalty try, rocketing St. George to a two point lead, and eighteen on the board, once Lomax booted it through from right in front. This was crunch time for the Dragons, and they consolidated immediately, scoring on the next set after Lawrie, Sims, Ford and Host laid the foundation up the middle.
On play five, McInnes danced through the ruck, fended off Hynes and popped it back inside for Dufty, who sailed up the park and put it down beside the posts untouched – a beautiful synergy between the Dragons’ big men and spine veterans. Kicks had never felt so important in this match as they did now, as the fourth straight conversion from Lomax brought the Red V to an eight point lead.
There were still two more tries left in the match, however, the first of which came from Hynes, who got some joy after his offside error with a terrific one-man effort eight minutes out from the end. Collecting the ball form Johns, he swerved through the defence, chipped and chased, timed the bounce perfectly in front of the line to get the ball down beautifully behind it, and converted his own try in front a moment later.
This was the first and last two-pointer of the game for Melbourne, who lost their chance to score on the restart when Schonig fumbled the first play-the-ball under big pressure from Sims. Lomax lost it just as quickly, but the next error from Momirovski proved critical, as the Storm seemed to realise, using up their Captain’s Challenge in an effort to contest it.
Frizell had one of his last great runs as a Dragon three tackles later – and his last up the middle of the park – before a Clune kick on the fourth resulted in a double falcon – off Booth and then Clune himself – as Kerr took it over the line. The try was denied, since Kerr didn’t have both feet behind the ball when Clune kicked, but this just paved the way for an even more rousing finale – a second try from Frizell, in his last three minutes in St. George colours.
The chance came when Lewis lost the footy into a head clash with Sullivan, and Sims, Kerr and Lawrie took a series of carries on either side of a pause in play as the big Melbourne second-rower was carried off the field. Frizell was conspicuously absent from these front and second row plays, but he was just biding his time, waiting in the backline for Sullivan’s kick, which ricocheted away from Hynes and Earl and headed straight for his chest.
It was meant to be, as Frizell fended of Hynes with his left hand and tucked the Steeden under his right, coming to ground with a double before the siren blew on the last Dragons game of the year. It was only their seventh win, but still a pretty moving way to go out, while on the other side of the Steeden the Storm will be keen to get their big guns back when they host Parra for the third match of the finals on Saturday night.