ROUND 14: New Zealand Warriors v. Melbourne Storm (Central Coast Stadium, 13/6/21, 16-42)

Melbourne were on a ten game winning streak and had nabbed ten straight against the Warriors when they rocked up at Central Coast Stadium on Sunday afternoon, with Cam Munster, Harry Grant, Felise Kaufusi and Josh Ado-Carr all backing up from Origin. The stadium might have been packed with New Zealand supporters, and the hosts might have just learned they’d be returning to Mt. Smart in August after 716 days without real home ground football, but the Storm dominated through-and-through, coming away with a 42-16 win.

That’s not to say that the Warriors didn’t get any chances, but that their periodic bursts of field position simply proved how clinical Melbourne have become at containing and self-correcting the inevitable slumps in momentum that occur for even the best teams in eighty minutes of footy. Billy Slater was on the sideline, and his fullback coaching had paid off, since Nicho Hynes hit the most assists for the year at the same time that the Foxx became the top tryscorer, with at least another three games as custodian before Ryan Papenhuyzen returns. 

On the other side of the Steeden, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was at no. 1 in the wake of Reece Walsh’s suspension, and played an even more critical role in the spine when Chanel Harris-Tevita tore his pec at halftime, an agonising moment after the young five-eighth summoned a massive hit on Brandon Smith to stem the early flow of purple points. Eventually, RTS rallied his men around two emotional tries for Ken Maumalo, who was only on the park for his last week as a Warrior, before his mid-season shift to the Tigers, because Rocco Berry was injured.

Melbourne actually conceded the first penalty of the afternoon, with an escort from Reimis Smith on Ken Maumalo, but it quickly gave way to a Kodi Nikorima error on tackle one, and then a fresh burst of purple position when Tohu Harris was called offside in the ten. Yet Smith now made his second error, putting the ball down on the fourth play, just after the Storm had cleared the halfway line, while the Warriors were back at the red zone midway through their next set, even if they didn’t make much headway into the twenty by the time RTS grubbered.

That was partly due to a few botched linkups on the right edge, starting with a wobbly one from Wayde Egan, so it was fortunate that Roger struck it hard and true. The next set was about survival, as Maumalo took the high ball inside his red zone, and starting a crunching series of runs up the middle, where Bayley Sironen was lifted clean off his feet, before Euan Aitken finally took an entrepreneurial run up the left, and Marcelo Montoya collected the kick on the right, only to be brought to ground by the strength of the Melbourne chase.

So far the Warriors were sitting on 55% of possession, but were 0-11 for tackles in the opposition half. The Storm now added to that tally up the left, where Nicho Hynes found space for Josh Ado-Carr, albeit not enough space for the Foxx to showcase much footwork, in what finally amounted to an aborted end to the set, especially in contrast to the rapid accumulation of position that came after the turnover – an offside from Tui Kamikamica, a ruck infringement from Munster, and then an illegal strip from Brandon Smith.

Nikorima booted through the two, and the Warriors followed with a consolidation set, culminating with a second great grubber, this time from Nikorima, who put a tricky bounce on it, forcing Hynes to dance back to his ten metre zone before it was safe to touch. It didn’t take the Storm long to leave their own end, thanks to a swinging arm from Leeson Ah Mau on Dean Ieremia, as Dale Finucane took the first run right on halfway, and Ado-Carr failed to find metres for a second time on the left edge, forcing the Storm to sweep it out to the right.

They didn’t get all the way, due to a strong Josh Curran hit on Kaufusi, and ended up pivoting back to the left, where Brandon Smith tried to clear the chalk, and botched the offload when there was nothing doing, but not without Egan conceding an offside penalty as well. Hynes levelled the score before his hometown crowd, and once again Finucane took it at the halfway line, although this time on the fourth tackle, while Jahrome Hughes hoisted the highest one of the game so far, prompting a terrific take from Maumalo right as he was hit by Kaufusi.

So far the 2-2 scoreline was a pretty accurate reflection of the game, since while Melbourne may have been dominating opposition end tackles, they weren’t enacting the landslide you’d expect from their position on the ladder. You could argue that they were relaxed enough to cruise for a while before bringing out the big guns, but the Warriors still felt unexpectedly empowered here, especially when Munster made the second Melbourne escort, and New Zealand sent up a successful challenge to prove a supposed Egan knock-on was actually fine.

This was a good steadier for Egan after his messy pass at the end of the Warriors’ first right sweep, ushering in their first full set inside the twenty, as Curran also came up with a potential knock-on, in the face of a Brandon Smith tackle, but also managed to regather it, while the Cheese was put on report for high contact a couple of plays before. Ieremia might have totally outplayed Maumalo in goal to bring the kick back for a twenty-metre restart, but between Egan and Curran the Warriors had showed they could reconsolidate after near errors.

Still, they needed a little bit more congealment to make the most of an unusually unfocused Melbourne side, and got their next shot of adrenalin when RTS took the following high ball without any real pressure from the purple chase. They shifted right straight away, where Roger continued to lead from fullback, before Nikorima booted it over the sideline to give his men a bit more breathing-space as they continued to work their way around this 2-2 deadlock, while Addin Fonua-Blake and Grant both left the bench to start the second quarter.

Hughes glimpsed a break on the next set, and while he was brought down by Sironen, this brief burst was enough to galvanise the Storm, as Reimis Smith continued his halfback’s momentum by slicing through the line and shifting the Steeden out for Ieremia to cross over untouched in only his fourth NRL appearance. After a pretty quiet opening twenty, this play was all Storm efficiency, so quick that it was over before the Warriors knew what had hit them, as Hynes booted through his first sideline shot to bring his men to a converted try lead.

Full credit to Grant too, whose signature left-right dart set up Hynes to bump Reimis Smith through the line in the first place – a good motivator after Jesse Bromwich had headed off early with what appeared to be an elbow injury. Melbourne were now starting to find their groove, as Munster sent it high at the end of the restart, and the Warriors signalled their awareness of the danger by delivering one of their barnstorming sets next time they got the ball, anchoring it in a big run by Fonua-Blake and a soaring kick from Chanel Harris-Tevita.

All that acceleration was absorbed at the start of the next Storm set when Curran made inadvertent “high” contact on Justin Olam, twelve inches off the ground. With six tackles inside the New Zealand half the purple army were always going to score here. Brandon Smith now stepped into the spotlight, taking a flat ball from Hughes at the ten, and playing the footy quickly to set up Grant for the fourth tackle run and pass to Kamikamica, whose surge to the chalk set up Cheese himself to make good on his earlier charge on the right edge.

Again, Grant was the middle ingredient, popping a short one out for Smith to slam through 13 and 14, culminating a sequence in which the two hookers had seemed to be playing as one unit, so seamlessly did their dummy half vision converge over these critical moments. All in all, this was probably the consolidation point for the Storm, who finally found their trademark flow, their ability to fuse short-term and long-term strategy, in a sequence that felt like Smith had been effectively assisting himself from the moment he received Hughes’ pass.

Hynes continued his perfect kicking game by slotting it through from right in front, and the Storm had to content themselves with only an outstanding kick on the last tackle of the restart, rather than a fresh four points, or another incursion into the Warriors’ red zone – that is, until Edward Kosi coughed up the footy in the face of a punishing purple chase. Just like that, Melbourne had a full set in the twenty, and an augmented restart, setting their sights on the left edge, where they accelerated so quickly that a third try seemed totally guaranteed.

It was the kind of sequence that called out for a big one-man defensive effort – and Chanel provided it, coming in so hard on Cheese that he grounded him and ricocheted out the Steeden in the most plosive moment of the match since Hughes’ near-break set up Reimis Smith’s assist. To hit back, Melbourne had to reprise one of their best recent moments, and Munster provided it by defying Kosi for the second time on the left edge, where the young winger was forced to take it over the sideline and grant Melbourne another red zone set.

This was still the second best option for Munster, who had been hoping to find the Foxx, and was put on report for lashing out with the boot a couple of plays before, but it didn’t much matter, since the Storm showed they could extemporise on both parts of the park, with Ieremia crossing over on the right three tackles later for what initially looked like a first-half double. Instead, RTS followed Chanel’s sublime hit with a twisting tackle that saw him keep his hand beneath the Steeden for a full 360-degrees before Sironen came in for support.

Roger had a delivered a different kind of dodging play here, a vision of total determination from fullback that had the potential to be a real turning-point in the match if the Warriors could survive the last three tackles of this set in their twenty. In a beautiful bit of symmetry, Chanel made it a trio of great New Zealand saves by taking Hughes’ grubber on the chest, and setting up RTS for a run to the thirty that got them out of jail for the moment. It was agonising, then, when Aitken coughed it up a few plays later, into a sterling Grant-Reimis tackle.

You can’t let Melbourne in like that and expect to get away with it, especially when they’re smarting from a hat trick of big defensive efforts, and sure enough the Storm finally galvanised themselves into the Ado-Carr play they’d been searching for all afternoon. It started modestly, with a simple left sweep composed entirely of short balls, and ended languorously, with a Hynes kick that was more dab than grubber. Suspended in all that relaxation, Ado-Carr hit full speed in a second, saving the Steeden from touch and pivoting back inside to score.

We often see Ado-Carr showcase his speed at long-range, but it’s just as spectacular condensed to close-range, especially since it came with such a sudden shift in direction that it looked more like an optical illusion here. Hynes was now sitting at 18 assists for the year, two above Mitch Moses, three above Nathan Cleary and Sam Walker, and four above Luke Brooks, while the Foxx had made up for not nabbing an Origin try in Townsville by taking the lead for 2021 tryscorer as well, with 16 four-pointers to his name so far.

It was a little deflating when Hynes broke his perfect streak by shanking the Steeden away to the right of the posts, but the Storm were still sitting at a comfortable 18-2 lead when they returned from the sheds. Meanwhile the Warriors copped a big blow by losing Chanel to a right chest issue after a low tackle on Kaufusi, putting even more pressure on big Roger to carry the spine. They felt CHN’s absence on the first set back from the break too, as Curran glimpsed space, Nikorima got tackled and they weren’t sure what to do on the final play.

Eventually the footy found Sironen, who was standing in at five-eighth, and while he chose to run it, the set had already disintegrated by this point. Over the second quarter, Melbourne had enjoyed 80% of possession but they didn’t complete their first set here, as Grant coughed it up after taking just a little too long setting up a right-left pivot, giving Jack Murchie time to come in and knock the ball out of his arm without actually making contact with the footy, garnering his men a full set in the Melbourne half only for Nikorima to lose it late in the count.

As if this wasn’t a disappointing enough period for the New Zealand halves, word now came down from the sheds that Chanel had suffered a torn pec and wouldn’t be returning to the park, while Grant made up for his cough-up with one of the most heroic plays of his career. Chipping it from the ten, he launched himself onto the footy like he was hanging over the wing without a defender in sight, instead of sailing into three Warriors, and putting his whole body (and his head, in particular) on the line to chase down the first try of the second stanza.

While RTS prevented him reaching the chalk beneath the crossbar, Sironen was forced to strip the ball to prevent him getting a hand out, and ended up flicking it backwards for what turned out to be an unintentional assist for Hughes, who was in exactly the right spot to make the most of this serendipitous sequence. Few tries this year have so concisely captured both the Storm’s heroic professionalism and their capacity to make their own luck, as Hynes capped it off with a conversion from right in front to bring them to an imposing 24-2 lead.

For a brief beat the Warriors tightened the screws, ushering in a mini-arm wrestle as both sides struggled to bring it back over the halfway line, only for Kosi to hit the sideline for the second time – now on the right edge, where Ado-Carr dragged him over the chalk before dashing back in field for a chest bump with Brandon Smith, as a fresh wave of adrenalin started to spill through the Melbourne side. This was the defensive play the visitors neded to restore their dominance, setting them up for an entire set within the opposition twenty.

Yet in another twist, all that rhythm reversed, when a barnstorming Brandon Smith run that felt directly drawn from his communion with Ado-Carr gave way to a Trent Loeiro cough-up that Kosi scooped up in a brief moment of redemption from his sideline stint. Nevertheless, Cheese had too much energy now to be satiated in a single play, and translated all that attacking aggression into a bone-rattling hit on Curran to force the footy free and resume his team’s camp-out down the New Zealand end of the park.

Despite the fact that the Warriors still hadn’t scored a single point, the game was starting to reach the peak volatility we more typically see in closely contested fixtures, as the hosts survived, and Ado-Carr let his adrenalin get the best of him with a ruck infringement early in their next count. Melbourne also survived, but with all that extra New Zealand position they had to fall back on the grind to get halfway, inducing Munster to boot it high, wide and over the sideline to get them some breathing-space to reassert their position at top of the ladder.

The Foxx consolidated further by taking Nikorima’s next kick on the full without a chaser in sight, before Hughes placed the toe of his boot just shy of the twenty metre line to shoot through the first 40/20 of his career, and the first of the Storm’s season. Just like that, Melbourne were back on the Warriors’ goal line, where it only took Ado-Carr a single tackle to bookend this superb sequence by culminating a rapid left sweep with a short ball back into Olam, who barely seemed to feel Montoya on his back, so crisp was Melbourne’s timing here.

For the second time, the Storm had scored off a left sweep that was as relaxed and languorous as a training run, bringing them to a 28-point lead once Hynes slotted through a deft sideline conversion. The kick was like a summary of the purple progression over the last few minutes, bending away from the posts, but eventually self-correcting to guarantee them the points. That ability to come back so clinically from the slumps that inevitably texture any game is part of Melbourne’s genius, and a key part of the thirty points they’d put on New Zealand today.

On the cusp of the final quarter, and with such a capacity to self-correct, it felt quite plausible that the Storm would hit forty, or even fifty, so the Warriors had to make the most of their next burst of field position, which came off a pair of ruck errors from Loeiro and Chris Lewis – the first restarts since the flurry of six agains in the first ten minutes. To their credit, the hosts brought it all together on the last play, with a left sweep that was as elastic and gymnastic as the Storm’s two tryscoring sweeps had been serene and smooth.

Aitken ended up with it, and held it up just long enough to draw in Reimis Smith and make room for Maumalo, who still had to withstand a big hit from Ieremia to smash down the Steeden for his last game as a Warrior. It was an emotional enough moment to eclipse Nikorima’s missed kick, steeling New Zealand into a strong charge up the middle on the restart, anchored by a great Bunty Afoa carry, before Ado-Carr once again took the high ball on the line, but with a stronger chase to contend with now, spearheaded by Murchie.

Olam struggled to make metres against a rejuvenated Warriors pack on play one, meaning Munster had to resort to a Grant offload to build field position, before booting it high from the halfway line to stem the flow of New Zealand possession. This time Kosi took it clean, a good sign for the hosts, who shifted it from left to right on play three, before RTS targeted Ieremia at the precise cusp between sun and shade. Everything was poised for more Warriors points here, if they could only keep this adrenalin surge under check, and strategise properly.

What they didn’t need was a high shot early in the next count from Murchie, who had done well shutting down the Foxx on the chalk, but got too enthusiastic now. Melbourne were at the ten by tackle two, where Grant capped off a terrific afternoon with a try out of dummy half. Receiving it five out, he showed it to the right, defying Sironen and getting on the outside of Ah Mau before coming in low and barging through RTS as last line of defence, and finally parlaying that charge into a proportionately poised putdown to set up an easy kick for Hynes.

It was a superb sequel to Grant’s linkup with Smith on the other side of the posts, testament to the power of a side that can boast two barnstorming hookers in its ranks. The Storm were now sextuple New Zealand at 36-6, while not even a perfect RTS take under a spiralling Hughes bomb, and a Munster knockdown at the end of the subsequent set, could prevent the visitors from scoring again a few minutes later. The Warriors packed the scrum at the ten, Sironen struggled to feed it properly as stand-in half, and Ah Mau knocked on three plays in.

From here, it was all clear sailing for Melbourne, as Hynes scooped up the footy, struggled to break back into the field of play, and eventually offloaded to Hughes, who wrested order from the chaos of this in-goal conflagration, and made it all the way to the New Zealand forty, before a rapid left sweep saw Olam boot it for Ado-Carr. The Foxx tangled legs with Kosi on the left sideline, managed to retain possession, and played it quickly for Tom Eisenhuth to snatch it out of dummy half and surge over for the last Melbourne try of the game.

Between Hynes’ sublime save behind the line, the daring verve of his offload to Hughes,  Hughes’ own run, and Ado-Carr’s quick thinking on the left sideline, this was a perfect summary of the Storm’s playbook over the last seventy-five minutes – their uncanny ability to blend seamless strategy with endless extemporisation. Hynes bookended it all by banging through his last goal of the evening, while play paused for Egan to leave the park for an HIA after a head clash with Kosi as they converged to try and hold up Eisenhuth.

By this late stage, the Warriors just needed something to take them into next week’s game against the Knights, and they got it four minutes out from the end, off a Hynes error and a Grant offside. In these final plays, New Zealand found the flamboyance that comes when you’re playing for pride, as a superb Ah Mau offload right on the ground set up Nikorima to begin a rapid left sweep that ended with Maumalo crossing over in the corner for a double in his farewell game, before Nikorima added the extras to make it a 16-42 afternoon.

This was the last note of the match, so at least the Warriors have a motivating memory to look back on when they rock up to play Newcastle next week. On the other side of the Steeden, it was a pretty good consolidator for Melbourne too, proof that they can afford to relax against teams outside the eight as they look to make it twelve on the trot against the Tigers, who will have to study this afternoon’s game closely as they prepare to take on a purple outfit luxuriating in their position at top of the ladder.

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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