QUALIFYING FINAL: Melbourne Storm v. Parramatta Eels (Suncorp Stadium, 3/10/20)

Parra started fast for the second qualifying match of the 2020 finals season, with Shaun Lane charging down Cameron Smith’s first kick, which was then cleaned up clinically by Mitchell Moses before Nelson Asofa-Solomona could get to it. Reed Mahoney risked a wide ball on the fourth play for Moses, and Mitch did the same for Gutherson, before chipping on the last for Lane on the try line.

Jahrome Hughes might have leaped above Lane, but in doing so he knocked the footy into the left upright, where Nathan Brown took advantage of the ricochet to get it down for his first four-pointer of the year. Moses was always going to add the extras from right in front, and so the Eels had six points on the board before Melbourne had executed a proper kick – a pretty promising sign given Parra’s 2020 record when they’ve scored the first try.

The big men stormed up the middle on the next set and Moses booted through his first bomb of the night, but Ryan Papenhuyzen was waiting for it, and Brenko Lee took his first carry on finals debut a couple of plays later. It didn’t worry the Eels though, as Gutho caught Hughes’ first bomb at speed to bring his men ten metres out from halfway, Dylan Brown had his third touch in as many minutes, and Moses ended with another towering bomb, this time fielded by Josh Ado-Carr.

This was fast-paced, high-stakes football, so it felt like a dramatic turning-point when Melbourne got the first penalty off some RCG crowding early in their next set. Cameron Munster mirrored Moses by risking a wide ball midway through the tackle count – a harbour bridge ball out to the Fox – but Parra held on, and got the first restart off a Kenny Bromwich ruck error next time they had ball in hand.

Two frustrated runs now followed – first from Moses, who broke through the line a tackle later and would have made it all the way if Justin Olam hadn’t careened in for a concrete tackle; then from Ado-Carr, who danced up the sideline on the next set, only to lob the footy forward to Kenny Bromwich for what should have been a try assist. Moses regathered better, booting through his next bomb from 45 metres out, and sailing it 145 metres into the air.

Yet the Eels now got their biggest blow of the finals season, as Maika Sivo twisted to ground awkwardly beneath a combined tackle from Smith, Bromwich and NAS, leaving the field immediately for the medial ligament injury that would rule him out of the next two weeks for football, forcing Andrew Davey onto the park at left centre while Jennings shifted out to the wing.

An error-prone five minutes now ensued, as both teams started to feel the toll of the barnstorming opening ten. In fact, both sides more or went error for error, with Munster conceding the first penalty for the Storm (offside) before Ado-Carr made another splendid run up the sideline. Once again, the combination with Bromwich didn’t come off, although Kenny got considerably closer this time, bringing the Steeden over the try line only to trip over Mahoney and lose it at the very last moment.

Moses responded with his best kick so far, keeping Papenhuyzen in the ten on the first, but Melbourne started to slowly regather on this next set. Suliasi Vunivalu made good metres, the purple army got a restart, Olam executed some second phase play, and Jennings gave away a penalty with a huge hit on Olam in revenge for his early shut-down when Moses broke through the line.

A Hughes grubber on the last got the Storm the first dropout of the match after Gutho was forced to ground it in goal, but this brief Melbourne resurgence was momentarily halted on the second tackle, when Lee flicked the footy over the right sideline while fending off Dylan Brown. Almost exactly twenty minutes after Nathan Brown had scored, Hughes ricocheted the ball off Ado-Carr’s head, ushering in one of the best Parramatta tries of 2020.

Mahoney scooped it up and popped it over to Gutho, who continued the game trend of opting for a risky wide ball midway up the park by lobbing it over to Jennings. From there, the veteran winger headed to the right edge, where he broke through the line and sent a sublime and silky flick pass back to Blake Ferguson. This was Fergo’s first big involvement all night, and he made the most of it, pivoting back inside, getting away from Olam and Papenhuyzen, and then giving Gutho his very best try assist of the year.

Moses’ conversion was just as good, while the replay showed how artfully Jennings had reined the footy back in after almost fumbling it out of his right hand. This was such a dominant try that Melbourne had to score again to regain some semblance of control, especially when a pair of short balls from Moses and Matterson sent Jenko through the line again three tackles into the restart.

Luckily for the purple army Dylan Brown’s kick was pretty underwhelming, and while the blue and gold got the ball back again immediately off a Brandon Smith error on play one, the Storm were the next to score. It took them three linebreaks to get there – first from Ado-Carr, then from Papenhuyen, and finally from Vunivalu, at the tail end of a right sweep that ended with Lee making up for his errant pass with a clinical assist in the corner.

Parra had been playing their best footy since the start of the 2020 season, but this marked the beginning of a massive Melbourne comeback, as Vunivalu soared through the air superhero-style and Smith booted through the first sideline conversion to bring his men to six. They scored again on the restart, thanks to a sublime offload from Munster, who seemed all wrapped up by Kane Evans when he got the ball away.

Taking advantage of this sudden space, Kenny Bromwich produced a linebreak assist for Olam, who shifted it back inside for Papenhuyzen to score beside the posts, before Smith booted through his second conversion to make it 12-12. It stayed that way until half time, thanks to an escalation of Storm errors in the dying minutes that prevented them captialising again on this momentum before they headed for the sheds.  

They regrouped immediately when they returned, however, thanks to a pair of bad bombs from the Eels – the first mistimed boot from Moses, and then a follow-up effort from Mahoney that Papenhuyzen caught on the full in goal for the first seven tackle set of the night. Finally, after two aborted attempts, Kenny Bromwich and Ado-Carr linked up for a try, as the big no. 12 broke through the line and got it across to his wingman by way of a deft Papenhuyzen assist.

With Smith adding his third conversion the Storm were ahead for the first time all night, while Ado-Carr had upstaged any current Bronco by scoring eight straight tries at Suncorp. Papenhuyzen got them rolling again on the restart with a superb offload off a Cam Smith pass, and Vunivalu would have put down a double if he hadn’t got a foot on the sideline.

Two dangerous tackles shaped the next ten minutes for the Storm, both of which ultimately worked to their advantage, galvanising them into their final pointscoring surge despite momentarily conceding field possession and even a try to the Eels. The first came from Smith, who took out his frustration at Vunivalu’s error by dumping Dylan Brown on his head a minute later.

Munster got the Eels six again with a ruck error on the line, and the restart happened so quickly that the majority of Parra players were offside, forcing Mahoney into the most innovative assist of the night – a kick on the first out to the right wing, where Fergo was completely unmarked. It was almost comical to watch the big no. 5 patiently wait for the Steeden to decelerate towards him, especially since he almost left it too long.

Moses booted through a beautiful sideline conversion, but the game was starting to heat up, as Melbourne bounced back on their very next set. Ironically, the catalyst was the first of two successive Fergo errors, as the Storm started with a massive Ado-Carr hit on Moses, and ended with a Munster kick that Ferguson fumbled over the sideline, gifting the purple army their own repeat set right on the enemy line.

Smith mistimed his pass to Papenhuyzen on the first, but regathered with a deft ball for Christian Welch in front of the posts, opening up a big hole for Jesse Bromwich to stroll through the defence on the right edge, off a short ball from Munster on play three. Bromwich crossed over the line untouched, sliding past Brown and only making contact with Gutho once he’d got the footy down and slid all the way to the dead ball line.

Smith added the extras, Melbourne were six ahead again, and for the first time they built on that converted try lead, taking advantage of a Moses ruck error to execute an equally silky sweep to the one that put Vunivalu over. This time, however, Lee went from assister to tryscorer on debut, dancing over an ankle tap from Dylan Brown, a clutch tackle from Waqa Blake, and a last-ditch effort from Gutho right on the line, before Smith’s kick ricocheted off the left upright and sailed through the posts.

Melbourne had now reached peak flow, and once again a dangerous tackle worked to their advantage, albeit in a more compressed and immediate way this time around. Charging down Gutho with the toughest kick chase of the night, Hughes may have flipped him onto his back before he had time to withdraw from the tackle, but the speed and strength of his vision set up the purple army to capitalise on Fergo’s next error as clinically as they’d capitalised on Moses’ previous ruck error.

This was the last and simplest Storm try, as Munster simply sliced through the line on the first tackle after the restart – not an Eel in sight – and then shifted it across to Papenhuyzen to score. It was the nadir of the game for Parramatta, as Fergo’s error twisted his leg under Olam’s tackle, making him the second Eel to conclude his finals season this evening, as Davey came off the interchange bench for a second time.

It was pretty dour to see the Fergausaurus limp off the park as Smith added his second sideline conversion, but even so the Eels still had a shot at a comeback here, especially since they’d been more or less going try for try before this recent Melbourne surge – a pretty impressive achievement given they were now only sitting on about 41% of possession. Add to that the fact that Melbourne wouldn’t score another point, and there was a real chance that Parramatta might have a real shot at resting next week.

They didn’t take long to put down their next four-pointer, taking advantage of the disarray of a frustrated Melbourne Challenge – and some procedural confusion around the request for a Challenge  – to execute a rapid left sweep that ended with Nathan Brown sending Lane through before Moses slotted through another sideline conversion to narrow the deficit to twelve points.

This Brown-Lane linkup recalled the opening Eels try so directly that you would have thought it might help Parra to recapitulate some of that early momentum, but instead they struggled to do much with it. Despite Evans and Marata Niukore coming on in the closing five minutes, and despite a late linebreak from Gutho, the Storm maintained their twelve point lead, meaning the blue and gold army are going to have to steel themselves to take on the Bunnies without Fergo or Sivo in their backline arsenal.

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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