ROUND 15: Melbourne Storm v. Wests Tigers (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 19/6/21, 66-16)

Despite their recent losses, the Panthers have been so supreme this year, and there’s been such a gap between first and second on the ladder, that the Storm really needed a historic win to motivate them for the back end of the regular season. They got it on Saturday night, putting down sixty unanswered points against the Tigers – forty in the first forty – off a pair of incredible tryscoring sequences at the start of each half. At one point they looked set to reach a century, and very nearly scored a point per minute, coming away with a 66-16 victory.

This was an incredible feat, even for second against fourteenth, going so far as to eclipse the Broncos’ woes over the last month by turning the Tiges into the official team to pity – at least for the next few weeks. It was a drab way for Ken Maumalo to make his debut in Tigers colours – especially since he scored three tries against Melbourne for the Warriors last weekend, and did the same for the ANZAC weekend match. It also didn’t do much for David Nofualuma’s battle with Alex Johnston for top tryscorer, even if he did put down the final four-pointer.

The Storm got rolling after a late fitness test for Nicho Hynes, who had his left knee heavily strapped and was still sprinting after warmup. With neither Bromwich on the park, Nelson Asofa-Solomona took a rollicking opening carry, and with an offload from Justin Olam to Hynes the Storm elasticised immediately, giving NAS a second shot on tackle four. Jahrome Hughes chipped on the last, Hynes flipped it back off the ground, Brandon Smith cleaned it up, the Storm got a repeat set, and Smith smashed over out of dummy half four tackles later.

This was the kind of clutch try you’d expected at the very end of a game, when the scoreline hangs in the balance, which is perhaps why the Tigers’ evening already felt over here, so seamlessly had Smith scooted around Luciano Leilua to get the footy down. Hynes added the first of nine conversions, Smith compounded his try with a ten metre-run out of dummy half midway through the restart, and Hynes stepped into the spotlight on the penultimate play.

First he spread it left to Olam, then he saved a slightly chaotic offload from Olam, shifting it out to the Fox, and then recollecting it for the second time in this superb sequence at the ten metre line. He chose to go it alone, and it was the right decision, as he skipped over Hynes and twisted through Maumalo right on the chalk to reach out his left hand and get the Steeden down. It was arguably the most plosive start of the season for any team, as Hynes added his second conversion, the Storm remained a point per minute, and restarted again.

Seven minutes into the match, the Tigers got their first fleeting glimpse of field position when Daine Laurie collected Hughes’ third kick, but it vanished just as quickly when Laurie got a boot to the sideline. The Tiges needed an error, and got it when Reimis Smith lost the footy, but this time they only got marginally more time with the ball – nineteen seconds, to be exact, as Maumalo stuffed up the play-the-ball early in the tackle count. Melbourne started shifting left on the second carry, but they didn’t have to go far beyond the posts for their next points.

Cameron Munster only considered continuing the sweep for the briefest of moments before strolling over beside the left upright, where he barely seemed to notice Luke Brooks and Jacob Liddle on his back. This was now officially a training run, as Hynes added his third conversion, the Storm reached two points per minute, and the big men continued to make big metres on the next start. Laurie knocked on Munster’s kick, the Storm got another set, and NAS, Tom Eisenhuth and Tui Kamikamica made inroads on the line, setting up Dale Finucane for a try.

This was even easier than Munster’s try, as Finucane simply received the footy from Smith, bumped into Joe Ofahengaue, and came to ground like he was taking a tackle early in the count. The big men had laid a good platform for him, but even so this was a deceptively tough effort, a testament to the strength and assurance of the Melbourne forward pack, as well as the wilting defensive effort of the Tigers’ heavy hitters, who had left Joffa to take the full brunt of Finucane on his own. Hynes converted, and the Storm were 22-0, fifteen minutes in.

Smith made big metres on the restart, the Fox made even more on tackle three, and Hynes got them ten out on the next play, as NAS crashed over on the fifth carry. Receiving the footy out of dummy half, he seemed to have a sudden shift in mindset, as if realising there would be no Wests Tigers’ defence to contend with if he simply went for the four then and there. Sure enough, he barely got a challenge from Brooks, Liddle and Alex Twal as he went low and got the Steeden down, putting the Storm over two points per minute as Hynes converted.

Melbourne now had 95% of possession after eighteen minutes of football, and had thirty points on the clock, so this was a genuinely terrifying prospect for the Tigers if they didn’t manage to get the Steeden soon. Both sides in the crowd had grown less vocal, so rote had these Melbourne tries become, but Maumalo got a cheer when he collected the next kick, before the visitors got six again, and finally completed their first set, as the second quarter now arrived, with James Tamou looking on despondently from an early stint on the bench.

Brooksy’s grubber didn’t pose any challenge, though, as Munster easily got it back in the field of play. While Hynes almost lost the footy on the first tackle, due to some good pressure on the line, the Storm regathered immediately. Still, Laurie took the next kick, and the Tigers completed a second set, which felt like a minor victory given this historic opening for the Storm. This time Brooks opted for a chip to the left edge, where Mauamlo beat George Jennings to the footy but knocked it forward, precluding Alex Seyfarth’s putdown being a try.

Even so, seeing Seyfarth cross was a good motivator for the Tiges, although Hynes’ incredible line speed on the next set immediately relegated this sequence to the remote past. For the first time in the game the Storm were roused to a decisive defensive effort on the set after, when Ado-Carr and Eisenhuth combined to drag Nofualuma over the sideline, albeit not before he’d popped the footy back inside – a casually assured reminder of just how much the Tigers had been struggling with their edge defence.

After a brief Melbourne hiatus – which in this game simply meant not scoring constant back-to-back-tries – the purple army accelerated again. It started with a rapid left shift, early in the tackle count, through Hynes, Eisenhuth and Olam, who popped it back inside to the Fox, who in turn bumped off Seyfarth and was only held up at the ten. The Storm shifted right just as quickly, where only a last-ditch tackle from Garner prevented Reimis Smith diving over the corner, before the entire team had to scramble to strop NAS repeating his barnstorming try.

This was the first real defensive victory of the game for the Tigers, who had withstood three plosive plays from the Storm. They hadn’t – and couldn’t – match Melbourne’s energy, but at least they had tried here, making this a small turning-point in stemming the incredible tide of purple points in the first thirty minutes. That trend continued in the next set, when James Roberts cleaned up Olam on the left, before Hughes, working in tandem with Harry Grant, made the first real Melbourne brainsnap, kicking for himself on the first after another restart.

This was the first real show of vulnerability from the Storm spine, so it was utterly agonising when Tommy Talau coughed up the footy on the next tackle, and Hughes scooped it up on the first bounce. He fed it across to Reimis Smith, who crossed over untouched for a sixth try. Hynes converted like clockwork, and the Storm were at 36 unanswered points with 30 minutes on the clock. Hughes almost seemed to pity the Tigers at the end of the restart, dribbling through an unchallenging grubber instead of bombing it high for another try.

By this stage, the timeframe of the game felt weird. On the one hand it had been so one-sided that barely any time seemed to have passed. On the other hand, the Tigers’ chances had been so few and far between that far more than half an hour seemed to have elapsed. The Storm got their next chance on the next set, when Hughes grubbered at the third, Maumalo failed to clean it on the left sideline, Jennings curved around him to tip it back in field. Suddenly the visitors were consolidating again, with two tackles left in their arsenal, on the other wing.

This looked more like a Captain’s Run than regular footy, so it felt inevitable when Munster sent Olam into a five-metre hole – and incredible when Munster’s pass floated forward, the first really damaging error from the visitors so far. Reimis Smith took out his frustration by holding down Talau on the next set, and the Tiges got a much-needed penalty, followed by an even more-needed linebreak. It came on their following set, after a pause in play for a Shawn Blore ankle injury – the first time the Tiges had anything resembling breathing space.

Blore was taken from the park, helped off by Robbie Farah, Luciano Leilua popped back in his place, and Maumalo took advantage of the rest to break through the line off Hughes’ kick – the best start to a Wests Tigers set all game. They could save some dignity if they secured a try before half time, and Liddle got them rolling with a strong run out of dummy half midway through the count. Brooks’ kick was also decent – a chip to the right edge that Leilua caught, then lost, as the Storm now proceeded to shut down this brief Tigers hope with their next try.

Roberts contained Olam well late in the following set, but the Storm got six again, and Felise Kaufusi became the next big man to crash through from close range. This time Grant provided him with the assist out of dummy half, while Laurie and Joffa were the two casualties on the chalk. Hynes missed his first conversion, but the Storm were still forty points from forty minutes – the highest first stanza tally this season, surpassing Cronulla’s 36 over the Cowboys in Round 4, and pretty close to Newcastle’s record 48 over North Queensland back in 2003.

The Tigers had the breeze at their back for the second half, and were guaranteed a touch of the football with Melbourne now taking the kickoff. They looked pretty competent on this set, until Brooks juggled the footy on the last, mistimed the kick, and shot it straight to Hynes, who caught it on the full in goal to get his men seven opening tackles. Brandon Smith might have been out with a corked calf, but the Storm didn’t show any signs of slowing down on their own first set, rollicking through a Liddle ball strip to put down their next try immediately.

Hughes took a quick tap, surged up the park, and made it look so easy that he might as well have crossed from close range, bumping off Roberts and Laurie at the death to utterly eviscerate whatever residual reassurance might have remained for the Tigers after completing the first set back. Michael Maguire had apparently roasted his team in the sheds, so intensity should have been a priority here, but this sequence was totally deflating – especially when Hynes added his best conversion, into the breeze, to make it a 46-point lead.

Even worse, Melbourne looked set to repeat their first half surge, and continue their point per minute, on the restart. Hughes hesitated and shaped to kick on the fourth, but instead opted to commence a left sweep out to Jennings, who stormed up the sideline and kicked at speed for Reimis Smith. Smith timed the catch perfectly, the Storm were at an unanswered century, and the Tigers had their worst defence of the season, after conceding 40 points three times – and all without Ado-Carr showcasing any of his trademark magic up the wing.

The southerly had accelerated over the last few minutes, denying Hynes the conversion, but Melbourne were on track to continue their flow from the first half, settling into one of their best restarts of the match now. It started with two offloads – Olam to Ado-Carr, then Welch to Munster via a Roberts tap-back – before Eisenhuth slipped into right centre to bring the footy inside the Tigers’ twenty. He returned to that position at the end of the set, when some sublime midfield footwork from Hynes set him up to receive an effortless assist from Hughes. 

This was just as easy as Melbourne’s other tries – Laurie and Maumalo were both close, but didn’t even lay a hand on Eisenhuth – so it didn’t much matter that the wind continued to defy Hynes’ conversion attempts. By this stage, Kamikamica was the only forward out of the starting six who hadn’t scored, while Olam, Jennings and Ado-Carr were the only other players out of the starting thirteen who hadn’t scored.

Grant became the tenth of the seventeen to score on the restart. While the sheer speed and quantity of the Melbourne tries had been spectacular, they’d been so easy that they hadn’t been amazing set pieces on their own terms. That all changed here, with the freakiest try so far, as Grant grubbered out of the dummy half, watched the footy ricochet off Garner, toed it forward for a second time, and dove on it for another four points right beside the posts. From this angle, and with the wind abating, Hynes converted to make 60 unanswered points.

The Tigers got a much-needed repeat set next time they got ball in hand, and desperately had to score now to avoid sinking into a depression that, at the rate Melbourne were scoring, might well last the rest of the season. Maumalo followed Seyfarth by crossing on the left edge, and again the try was denied, this time due to a marginal obstruction from Garner on Hughes. By this stage, a near-try, and a mere crossover, wasn’t enough, so this was arguably the lowest point of the game for the Tigers – and will surely turn out to be the lowest of their season too.

That just made it all the more cathartic when they scored a terrific try on their next carry, even if there was nothing especially spectacular here – just the clean, crisp, organised passing that had been lacking from their game for most of the evening. The footy moved efficiently through Brooks, Mbye and Laurie, setting up Talau to get down under Eisenhuth and Hughes for the first four points, before Brooks confidently converted on the cusp of the final quarter. 

The Tiges needed to score back-to-back tries to regain some genuine pride here, and yet the restart seemed to come apart when Laurie slipped and lost the footy on tackle four, only for the call to go against Hughes instead, for a high shot. The Tiges got a further penalty with Grant not square at marker, settling into their best field position of the entire game, as Twal tried to follow the Melbourne big men with a tough try from close range. Still, the defence was too good for him – and for Maumalo, who was wrapped up on the left edge on the last.

Both Smiths were off the park – Reimis had left five minutes into the second half with an ankle sprain – and Tom Eisenhuth now joined them with what looked like a hyperextension of his left arm after wedging it awkwardly between Laurie and Jennings. The Storm were down to fourteen men, as Kamikamica returned to the park, but they didn’t show any signs of diminishing – or rather the Tigers didn’t show any signs of consolidating, as Liddle popped a forward pass out of dummy half on the next set, and Garner knocked it straight on to Jennings.

Jennings took it all the way over the line, so he was pretty frustrated when the try was (rightly) denied, since the Storm had now gone sixty points without either of their wingers scoring. His frustration continued early in the next Melbourne set, when he headed back infield just as Grant was looking to offload to him. Yet this just galvanised Grant to smash over himself beside the right post a play later, forcing the Tigers to scramble to prevent yet another try.

The Tigers also survived the rest of the Storm’s close-range attempts, including a glimpse of Aaron Pene’s first NRL try, and got a boost up field when NAS was sent to the bin for a late tackle on Ofahengaue. All the pieces were in place now for a second Tigers try, and sure enough Garner collected a flat (or even forward) ball from Mbye right at the defensive line, twenty metres out from the chalk, and bumped through Pene and Hynes to curve around behind the uprights, setting up Brooks for the easiest conversion for either team so far.

Brooksy came close to a linebreak on tackle two of the restart, and Leilua got a deft offoad away from Joffa, while Chris Lewis bumped up their field position by crowding in midway through the count. With a twelve-man opposition, this was the Tigers’ best bet for back-to-back tries, but they failed to make the most of a big gap on the left edge when Brooks ran it two tackles later. Broosky took another blow at the back end of his kick, a chip to the left corner, when he flipped the footy forward after Maumalo and Garner shifted it back in field.

The Tigers wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest some Seyfarth crowding on Ado-Carr a minute later, as Joffa left the field belatedly following the high contact from NAS. With NAS binned, and three injuries, the Storm needed a spectacular individual effort to consolidate their lead, and they got it from Hughes, who came up with the best one-man show of the night – a sublime sequence of footwork that saw him receive the footy from Welch, and duck under tackles from Seyfarth, Garner and Laurie before scoring right beneath the crossbar.

These three tackles all came with supplementary efforts from other Tigers players, so in practice it was like watching Hughes dispose of the entire opposition defence, bringing the Storm to their final scoreline of 66 points once Hynes converted from right in front. Brooks sent the kickoff out on the full, so it was remarkable that the Storm  didn’t continue their back-to-back tries now, especially as they showcased yet another mercurial reconfiguration, with Hynes shifting to dummy half, and Kamikamica briefly taking on fullback duties upfield.

Perhaps the Storm were exhausted, or feeling NAS’s absence, or just not that motivated to do much more than preserve their energies for their next game, since this was a sequence that would surely have ended with points during their two great surges this evening. Instead, they scored off another sweep – to the right edge of the park this time, and with considerable less elegance, but good enough for Laurie to assist Nofa with a deft chip to the corner, before Brooks missed the last conversion attempt from the sideline for the final scoreline of 66-16.

It was a minor victory that the Tigers got these three tries, but even so this was an absolutely decimating defeat – a tribute, ultimately, to Craig Bellamy’s dexterity with commanding this Storm outfit through successive generations and styles of play. It’s scary to think what they’ll do when Brenko Lee, Tepai Moeroa, the Bromwich brothers and – of course – Ryan Papenhuyzen return to the park. That might make the difference when it comes to finals footy, since the Storm are now starting to feel like a team with a real shot of beating Penrith.

About Billy Stevenson (692 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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