PRELIMINARY FINAL: Melbourne Storm v. Canberra Raiders (Suncorp Stadium, 16/10/20)

Friday night’s game was delayed for ten minutes due to a ticketing error that left hundreds of fans stranded outside Suncorp, although it didn’t detract from Melbourne and Canberra’s energy when they finally got going. No team had scored more tries than the Storm from the other end of the field this year – eighteen – and they proved their attacking mettle again here, with a scintillating string of points that the Raiders never quite recovered from.

Canberra glimpsed some good early field position with a strong run up the middle from Josh Papalii, and a deft flick pass from Jack Wighton to Elliott Whitehead, but in retrospect Wighton would have done better to kick himself. In arguably the pivotal moment of the night, Felise Kaufusu stormed in for an ankle tap that send Whitehead’s boot wonky, ushering in a sustained period of field possession for Melbourne that would result in three successive tries. 

The Raiders conceded the first restart a moment later, and the Storm swept right, then headed inside back as quickly, as a wide ball from Cameron Munster out of dummy half set up Jahrome Hughes for the most gymnastic pass of the game – a twisting, tortured movement that allowed him to contort his body around a Hudson Young tackle to ensure the flat ball that put Jesse Bromwich through Whitehead and over the line.

Cameron Smith nailed his first kick of the night, and the Storm were over a point per minute – a pretty strong statement given that the Raiders have won every match in 2020 when they’ve scored the opening try. They scored again two tackles later as well – so quickly that it seemed to be occurring as part of the same set, rather than on the restart.

Ryan Papenhuyzen bookended the play, dummying and completing a rapid left sweep by shifting the Steeden through Kenny Bromwich to Josh Ado-Carr, who put in his first big run of the night, curving around Jordan Rapana and then shooting the footy back inside for Papenhuyzen to cross over untouched. Smith was always going to convert from right in front, and so the Storm were twelve ahead before Canberra knew what hit them.

The purple army made it three on the next set, as the big men put in their toughest effort so far up the middle, and Semi Valemei failed to clean up the kick, leaving the Steeden open for Felise Kaufusi to slide onto it a metre out from the sideline. He looked destined to careen into touch, but instead lobbed it back to Hughes, who charged down the ball and prepared himself for a Young tackle that never came.

From there, Hughes flicked it back out to Suliasi Vunivalu, who put in the ballsiest move of the game – a one-handed dummy out past Croker, who was as close on his left as the sideline was on his right. Defied by this sublime clutch play, Croker pulled away, leaving space for Vunvivalu to get the footy down without a millimetre to spare.

The Bunker had to confirm that neither Vunivalu nor Brenko Lee got a hand to the ball after it sailed through Valemei’s hands, and once they did it was another try for the Storm, although not another conversion for Smith. Finally, thirteen minutes in, Canberra got their second set, a chance for their first completed set, and a chance for their first tackle in Melbourne’s half.

They couldn’t do much with it, however, since Smith’s pinpoint kick to the corner forced Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad to scramble to stay in the field of play, and kept them in their own ten until the fourth, when they got a much-needed restart off a ruck error from Smith. Young got their first kick away at the end, but an escorts from Croker at the end of the next Melbourne set allowed Smith to make it a three converted try lead with the first and only penalty goal of the night.

This was the most points Canberra had conceded in the first stanza all year, in their biggest match of the season. Worse, they’d spent most of their last tackle options on Young and Whitehead, instead of drawing on Williams and Wighton as they did against the Roosters the week before. Even worse, Rapana barged into Kenny Bromwich on the first tackle of the restart, knocking on the footy in the process, and giving the Storm a fresh attack from the forty.

For a moment it looked like the Fox had scored off a Hughes kick, and Ado-Carr himself seemed certain of it, getting up to celebrate a fourth try with his team mates. Yet the replay showed that he had bounced the ball after it eluded CNK and Cotric – even more agonising for Melbourne in that Ado-Carr had timed it perfectly so that he ground the footy a millisecond before his boot slid over the sideline.

This could have been the break Canberra needed, but Melbourne were clinical on their next set, when Munster kicked on the second, giving Ado-Carr another big run and another chance, only for Cotric to get there in time this time. Nevertheless, this was a power move from the Storm, keeping the Raiders trapped in their twenty by the fourth, and forcing Williams into a long kick that Ado-Carr gathered beautifully, sliding along on his knees to gather it on the full.

Hughes now focused on the other side of the field, popping through a deft chip to Vunivalu, who didn’t score, but did manage to avoid touching the ball, resulting in the first dropout of the night. Tino Faasuamaleuai took the first hit-up, Jesse Bromwich the second, and Brandon Smith the third, before a rapid play-the-ball from Smith forced Croker to storm in to clean up a terrific run from Hughes.

Finally, Papenhuyzen sent through a sharp grubber on the left edge, where a simple miss from Cotric in the face of a horrible bounce saw him ricochet the footy back to Justin Olam, who caught it on the full out of Cotric’s hands, and sailed through the air like a superhero to land on his chest, and then get the footy down with his right hand. Smith then booted through his first conversion from the sideline, bringing this sublime period of point scoring to an end.

The Storm would only get six more, but the Raiders would never recover from this incredible surge of points, despite scoring their first of two tries shortly after. Corey Harawira-Naera amped up their energy by barging through Munster and Faasuamaleuai, forcing Papenhuyzen to get beneath the footy to prevent it touching the turf, while Williams followed suit with his best kick of the night so far.

Sending the Steeden to the right corner, he positioned it perfectly to find the chest of Cotric, who leaped up to collect it, muscled his way through Ado-Carr as he returned to earth, and then twisted through an Olam tackle and last-ditch effort from Papenhuyzen to slam over the chalk. After a spotty opening in defence this was just the burly effort Cotric needed, while Croker sent through his first sideline conversion in six attempts to get Canberra rolling for the first time all game.

The Raiders got a dropout of their own a minute later, and Siliva Havilii came close to crashing over in front of the posts, but his men couldn’t build on his momentum as they had for Harawira-Naera’s short-range effort, since Dale Finucane’s head dislodged the Steeden from Havilii’s grasp as he went to play it a second later. Combined with a Croker error on the brink of half time, this was a pretty sombre way for Canberra to face the siren, so they had to come back big when they returned from the sheds.

They delivered in style, starting the second stanza with their greatest defensive gesture of the 2020 season – an enormous pack effort, spearheaded by Havilii and Iosia Soliola, to drag Finucane fifteen metres back over the line on Melbourne’s very first carry. This was big enough for a genuine comeback, but instead Young knocked on a misdirected Havilli pass two tackle later, and Olam spearheaded a similar effort to drag CNK ten metres back in goal with the help of Munster and Ado-Carr.

Yet a bit of a spotty sequence now ensued for Melbourne, who had their first really error-prone sequence of the game – a Brandon Smith, an Ado-Carr second effort, a Papenhuyen error and a ruck infringement from Smith to bookend it all. Yet the Raiders couldn’t come away with more than a Valemei linebreak, while even this was succeeded by a Valemei error, as a Canberra comeback started to seem more and more unlikely.

The game now paused for Nelson Asofa-Solomona to get up from a painful combined tackle from Joe Tapine and Harawira-Naera, who had just joined the park, and Lee took out his team’s frustration with a dangerous tackle on Valemei on the next set, getting himself put on report for his troubles. Canberra had looked good before Lee’s hit, but only just recovered from a loose offload from Tapine on the next tackle.

Still, Williams trapped Papenhuyen behind the try line for a dropout, and the Raiders had a serious chance of a comeback with a full quarter of football left. Agonisingly, Williams didn’t choose to tap into his boot at the end of the restart, opting instead for a pass out the back that led to a right sweep that concluded abysmally – with Rapana collecting a high ball and then lobbing it over the sideline without a Raider in sight.

Melbourne showed them how it was done at the end of their next set, when Hughes bombed, Vunivalu leaped up to tap it back, Finucane gathered it in his left hand, and concluded with a massive right fend to dance through CNK and put down a try in his 200th game – and get some joy after being dragged over the line so unceremoniously for his first touch back after the break.

Smith converted his last try of the night to bring Melbourne to their final scoreline of thirty, and followed with one of the best defensive displays of the year from any player when Cotric looked sure to score with a chip-and-chase that saw him swerve into touch and back inside again – not unlike Rapana’s switcharound with Starling on the right side against the Roosters last week.

Like Rapana, Cotric was denied, but he came much closer, catching the bounce perfectly, and making his way for the try line, only for Smith to save it with a sixty-metre chase downfield, arriving all the way from marker. Even then, you’d think Cotric would be able to barge through him, but the thirty-seven-year-old accountant planted himself so firmly around his waist that the big winger simply knocked the footy on.

This was easily good enough to outshine the Raiders’ pack effort on Finucane, although Cotric got his try eight minutes out from the end, crossing over untouched after Rapana collected a wide ball from Williams and flicked it out to his no. 2 on the wing. Yet with Croker missing the conversion, and Papalii restricted to less than 70 metres, this was a pretty drab ending for a Canberra outfit that had been so stellar against the Chooks.

Meanwhile, Smith did a run along the sideline after subbing off at the seventy-fifth minute, as if prescient that this might well be his last game at Suncorp – the Storm’s twentieth straight win in Queensland. We’re set for a Panthers-Storm Grand Final, then, and while Melbourne have the goods, they’ll want to rely on more than a single point scoring surge to get them across the line next Sunday afternoon at ANZ.  

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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