ROUND 19: North Queensland Cowboys v. Melbourne Storm (Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 23/7/21, 16-20)

The Storm were looking to make it fifteen straight wins when they rocked up to meet the Cowboys in Townsville on Friday night – another step in their journey to beat the 1975 Roosters’ all-time record for most games scored on the trot. They’d scored fifteen in a row between 2012 and 2013, but never in a single year, and with 202 points in the last month, and only 36 against them, they looked like an easy shot for reaching the fourth-greatest stretch of all time, taking into account the Panthers of 2020 and the Bulldogs of 2002.

On top of that, the Storm were dominating the 2021 try tally at 115 – well above the Roosters at 89, the Eels at 86, and the Panthers, Sea Eagles and Bunnies all at 85. They had 11 wins in a row against North Queensland, and hadn’t lost a game to them since the 2015 Preliminary Final, while Ryan Papenhuyzen was returning to the park for the first time since Magic Round, meaning that Melbourne would effectively have two gun fullbacks to play with in the wake of Nicho Hynes’ massive leaps and strides after his last stint in the custodian role.

Surely, then, the Cowboys would be no match here – they might have won 5/6 of their 2021 games in Townsville, and the Storm might have been playing their first ever game at QCB, but the odds were stacked against any kind of a genuine competition. Jake Granville had played fullback for club footy, but he was taking on the no. 1 jersey for the first time in his NRL career, at the ripe old age of 32, since Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was out with appendicitis. It took him a while to adapt to the role, while his best play, an assist at the break, came out of dummy half.

Despite all those odds, however, the Cows mounted their most heroic game of the year, keeping Melbourne to a four-point lead by the halftime siren, and actually gaining the lead in the third quarter, before halting a late Storm surge to maintain the four-point difference to the death. Put that down, in part, to an especially volatile first half, with four denied tries in quick succession, two for both teams. Whereas North Queensland got theirs in quick succession, Melbourne’s came on either side of an Olam-Ado-Carr combo up the right edge.

In fact, Olam and Ado-Carr were the main momentum pivot for this first half, the site where the Storm ebbed and surged, prompting Olam into his most passionate game of the year, culminating with a UFC-like standoff with Robson in the final quarter. Yet the Cows hit back with the two best tries of the game – the clutchiest putdown of the year from Coen Hess, ten seconds out from the siren, and a century from Feldt at the fifty-first minute, when the cult winger trampled over Papenhuyzen’s first big tackle to post a hundred tries for Townsville.

In the spirit of this scintillating game, however, the Foxx also made it a century twenty minutes later, and outstripped Brett Stewart’s march to a hundred tries in the process, making him the second fastest player in the Origin era to reach this particular milestone, after Nathan Blacklock. Add to that a late try from debutant Kane Bradley to make up for the denied try that started his game and this was pure footy drama start to finish – the best game of the round, despite (or because) the Storm looked like a sure thing on paper.

Christian Welch, Jesse Bromwich and Tui Kamikamica got the game rolling with a great trio of runs, before Welch took it again on the fourth, Trent Loiera made ten post-contacts on the fifth, and Murray Taulagi tried to stem the flow by charging down Jahrome Hughes’ kick. He had the opposite effect, conceding six again for Josh Ado-Carr to set up Justin Olam for twenty metres up the left edge, before Hughes gave Granville his first challenge at fullback with a grubber into the right corner.

Granville saved the try, but not the dropout, and Ado-Carr bookended this early burst of field position on play one, when he ended a clinical left sweep by receiving the footy from Kenny Bromwich and crusising past Granville for the first four points of the game. The sweep itself was as leisurely as they come – more like a training run as the Storm handed rather than passed the ball from player to player – while Hynes capped it off with a superb sideline conversion, booting it straight only for it to curve round the left post at the last minute.

This early flow suggested we might be in for a torrent of Melbourne points, but they’d only score sixteen more from here, while the Cows would turn it into a four-point game by the final siren. For the moment, though, Granville looked frantic as he barked out orders to his men on the restart, launching himself back into the defence at the tail end of Hughes’ first long-range kick of the night. Taulagi made up for his error by breaking up the middle a tackle later, as Mitch Dunn and Jason Taumalolo took them to the twenty with one play left.

Tom Dearden didn’t quite bring it together on the last, opting for a chip off the right boot that Hynes caught on the full, and while the Cowboys had still done well in the battle of field position here, Melbourne got the first penalty of the night early in the count, for Jordan Maclean lying in the ruck. Cooper Johns glimpsed space on the left a few plays later, and cleared room for a superb run from Olam, who would have pulled off the flick assist of the year if his no-looker had found Kenny instead of hitting Connelly Lemuelu on the chest.

Sensing a big individual play was needed to reset the purple flow, Brandon Smith made the best run so far on the next set, tucking the footy under his arm and breaking through three waves of tackles to make forty metres up the middle of the park. First he got up from a Maclean tackle, then he dummied and broke through Taulagi, before bursting away from Drinkwater as Kane Bradley stormed in for the first of two tackles that saved this set.

For a brief beat it looked like Dean Ieremia might built on this incredible run with an even more prodigious putdown, but Bradley continued to shine on debut, applying enough pressure to prevent the young winger from twisting around, as he hung in the air above the sideline, for what would have been the best grounding of the round if he’d pulled it off. Between Olam’s flick and Ieremia’s putdown, the Cows had stalled gymnastic plays on both sides of the park – and got another boost when Kyle Feldt shut down Olam on the next set.

This was the first pivot point of the game, since the Storm had basically reprised the left side sweep that led to the Foxx’s try – and Feldt had forced a knock-on right when Ado-Carr was barking for it, on the cusp of breaking into open space once again. Even better, Feldt beat the Foxx at the end of the next set with the gymnastic play that Melbourne had been searching for, leaping a metre to receive the footy, pulling it into his chest, and reaching out through Ado-Carr’s tackle to bring it down to the turf, where he lost it at the very last minute.

Even then, Ado-Carr was pinged for an aerial tackle, and the Cows capitalised immediately by mirroring Melbourne’s tryscoring sweep to the left, where this whole sequence ended with Bradley crossing over in the corner off a short ball from Granville. If this had been a try, it would have cemented the North Queensland comeback – Taulagi intercepting Olam, Bradley stopping Drinkwater, Bradley stopping Ieremia, Feldt forcing the error from Olam to deny an Ado-Carr try, and Feldt outleaping the Foxx out on the right edge.

All of those elements made a Bradley try on debut the perfect consolidator, so it was agonising to see the Cowboys denied for the second time when Shane Wright was pinged for an obstruction. They’d prevented Melbourne tries on both sides of the park, but lost tries on wings as well, so the rhythm shifted back to the purple army now, even if they weren’t quite playing at their best. They needed another individual effort on the level of Hughes’ run, or at least a repeat set – and Hughes provided it with a good low kick in goal.

Bradley had one last surge now, putting in a heroic effort to break through a couple of Melbourne tacklers, reach out his hand, and plant the Steeden down right on the try line. Another ten centimetres and he would have avoided the dropout, and his resilience seemed to steel the Cowboys into their most challenging defence on the first three plays, which ended with a close-range charge from Kamikamica beneath the crossbar. Yet Smith delivered his second big individual play now with a split-second read of the park out of dummy half.

Realising that the effort of defending Kamikamica had opened up space on the left, Cheese looked out for a support runner – and found it in Olam, who smashed through a low tackle for Lemuelu and over the line. Again, this would have been the perfect consolidation point for Melbourne, coming, as it did, off the last gasp of Bradley’s vision and a short-range compression of Smith’s visionary forty-metre run. Instead, it became the third denied try of the game – and the most agonising, since it was also the most technical.

The call came down – correctly – that Welch had obstructed the play, but this was only because Smith had accidentally run behind him. Melbourne got the ball back pretty quickly though, off an equally technical call for Drinkwater, who didn’t seem to have any intent to strip when he came in as third man in a tackle on Welch, but wrapped his hands around Steeden so thoroughly that there was no way to plausibly challenge the penalty.

After so much frustration up the left edge, Ado-Carr consolidated now, thanks to a beautiful long ball from Hynes that gave him space and time to boot it at speed back inside to Olam, who tumbled onto it for the most cathartic try of his year, given his evident disappointment at being denied his last crossover. Whereas the Cowboys had remained on zero after two denied tries, the Storm had self-corrected immediately, so it didn’t much matter that Hynes missed the sideline conversion, since at this point the key goal was restoring momentum.

That said, there was a volatility to this try – to the sheer relief of it – that made it hard for Olam and Ado-Carr to control their adrenalin over the next two sets, when both of them made scintillating runs that eventually came undone. First the Foxx stormed up the left, dancing so precariously along the sideline that Feldt was able to bump him into touch just as he was shaping to pass back inside to Johns. Then, Olam broke through and exceeded Smith’s metres up the middle, albeit without any tacklers until Feldt arrived to save the day for a second time.

The big winger reached out a hand to collect the footy, and while Ado-Carr still managed to toe it forward, and then ground it in the corner, the play was scrutinised for the contact made by Olam on Feldt as the Foxx took over the ball. From a distance, you could have almost argued that the two wingers simply tangled into each other, but the footage made it clear that Olam had held Feldt back. In yet another twist, the two players to break the wave of denied tries had let the catharsis of actually scoring a try tempt them into another denial.

While this was a let-off for the Cowboys, the mark of Melbourne’s superiority was how quickly they bounced back from these disappointments – how quickly they found their flow again. They got rolling a set later, when Welch popped a very late offload out for Hynes to create space on the left edge for Reimis Smith, who mirrored the Foxx with a kick at speed before charging it down himself. Only Reece Robson got there in time, and didn’t have to collect or kick it into touch, since an awkward bounce did the job for him, pivoting the footy dead.

Reimis took out his frustration with a big hit early in the next set, and Kenny Bromwich followed with a ruck infringement, setting up the hosts for a surprisingly sudden assault on the Melbourne line, ending with a Dearden chip to the left corner where Lemuelu would have likely scored if he’d taken it clean in the air. Even better, he would have plunged through Olam and Ado-Carr, who got a big let-off when he lost it, as Hess came in for a half-hearted tackle on Olam in an effort to wrest something out of yet another aborted tryscoring sequence.

By this stage the Storm were well and truly dominating the VB Hard Earned Index, with Welch on 44, Brandon on 36, Jesse and Kamikamica on 32 apiece, and Loeiro doing a decent job along the star players with 26. Nevertheless, the Cows hardened a set later, capping off a series of strong chases on Hynes with a brutal effort from Drinkwater and Wright, who smashed him to ground and then dragged him back a couple of metres, in the kind of defensive effort that can really lift a team if they tap into its adrenalin on the next few plays.

Sure enough, the Cowboys followed with two of their toughest plays so far, as Robson surged in to smash Ieremia to the ground, and Hess ankle tapped Aaron Pene to earth, where he lost the footy. North Queensland had the scrum at the thirty, and were in the red zone by tackle two, only for Tom Gilbert to cough it up off a short ball from Dearden, thanks to a superb read by Brandon Smith, who in a single play both condensed and exceeded this defensive flow from the Cowboys. Like his run and dummy half assist, this was split second vision at its best.

Nevertheless, North Queensland had the last word on this first stanza, and while they had to wait until the last ten seconds, they laid the groundwork by reclaiming the middle third on their next set – first with a strong run up the centre from Feldt, then with a late offload from Hess to Robson through a monster tackle from Nelson Asofa-Solomona. They weren’t going to score this way, but it was still a critical consolidator before their final set, which started two minutes out, and accelerated through back-to-back Chris Lewis ruck infringements.

Taulagi almost broke through on the right, Gilbert offloaded to Dearden, Ado-Carr reached out a hand to bat back the kick, and the Cows got another set five metres out. From there, Robson tried to duck through, but had to walk it back, giving Melbourne a brief breather, with forty seconds left on the clock. North Queensland had made a valiant effort over the first stanza, and a try here would seal the deal – and maybe even provide them with the momentum to come away with a shock win to ruin the Storm’s drive towards a new record.

It all came together on the left edge, where Granville did what he does best, shifting back to dummy half and flicking it out to Hess, in a replica of Smith’s near-assist for Olam earlier in the game. Hess crossed over with ten to go, landed on his back beneath the combined weight of a Kenny-Pene tackle, rotated ninety-degrees until he had pivoted onto his head, heard the halftime siren ring out, and still remain oriented and focused enough to keep the footy tucked under his right elbow, and his elbow off the turf, before making the latest putdown of 2021.

North Queensland couldn’t have asked for a better try to crystallise their resilience during this first stanza. It wasn’t just the perfect try for this game but one of their best of the year, bringing Melbourne to their closest half time margin since their match against Canberra in Round 11, and prompting what appeared to be a pretty severe spray from Craig Bellamy from the footage in the sheds. The Cowboys had a serious shot, which was an achievement in and of itself, as the second stanza got underway.

Papenhuyzen was sprinting up and down the sideline as Hess took the first run back, before Heilum Luki slipped into Kenny Bromwich, who got a poke in the eye, and Brandon Smith, who inadvertently made “high” contact a metre off the ground. The big men worked it up the middle, Taumaolo took two runs, and Drinkwater ran it across to the left on the last, where he offloaded for a sweep back inside that ended with Gilbert, who couldn’t pull off the second phase play needed to keep this close sequence alive.

Meanwhile, the Storm got a restart early in the next set, with a Dunn offside, as Smith made up for his penalty with five post-contact metres, and Hynes bounced an offload back to Johns. Granville still took it at the end, though, and Bradley did the same at the close of the next set, as Melbourne struggled to build momentum, making this the best possible moment for Paps to come off the bench. By this stage he’d finished the warm-up, and was watching intently from the sideline, as his men got a second early restart, this time off a Gilbert ruck error.

All in all, this had been the quietest period of the game, as both teams steadied and rebuilt in the wake of that crazy opening half, whose volatility returned at the end of this same set, as Hughes broke through the line and cleared space for Hynes, who was held back by Gilbert. The refs missed it, the Storm couldn’t challenge it, and at this precise moment Papenhuyzen returned to the field for the first time since Round 10, shifting into the fullback role as Hynes moved into dummy half to work off some of the frustration of seeing Gilbert go unpunished.

The Storm got some more position with a dangerous hit on Hess, but the Cows finally took control of this second stanza, and gained the lead for the first time, when Ado-Carr was pinged for a strip on Feldt. This wasn’t all that different from Drinkwater’s trip earlier in the game, since the footy already seemed on its way out by the time the Foxx got hands to it, so it made sense that Melbourne sent it upstairs. The Bunker couldn’t prove the strip, but couldn’t deny it either, sticking with the on-field decision but allowing the Storm to retain their challenge.

North Queensland now settled into one of their best sets of the game – starting with the eighth run from Heilum Luki, who’d played a key role in exhausting the Melbourne forwards, followed by a great surge from Taulagi, whose footwork had been just as good, propelling him into five metres after contact and a near-break up the left edge on this particular play. From there, the halves synergised, as Drinkwater held out the biggest dummy of the night, and Dearden offloaded back for Dunn to set up a rollicking run from Robson into Lewis. 

Finally, the Cowboys came full circle, getting both short-term and long-term closure. Short-term, they made good on Drinkwater’s last decision to run it up the right on the last, since he opted for this play again. Long-term, Feldt made good on his frustrated attempt to score through Ado-Carr in the first half, busting his way through a truly heroic tackle from Papenhuyzen, who wrapped around the ankles so low and so late that Feldt had to rest a knee on his face to reach out his hand and plant down his 100th try in the NRL, Olam on his back.

The Cows had scored the best try of the game before the break, and they’d almost equalled it here, since Feldt’s putdown was every bit as brilliant as Hess. Seeing their cult winger always lifts North Queensland, so seeing him score a century was galvanising enough for them to bounce back from their next error in a Storm-like fashion. Loeira coughed it up just after the restart, Robson flicked a forward pass out to the right on play one out of the subsequent scrum at the twenty, and everything seemed set for Melbourne to restore their momentum.

Instead, Luki added to a stellar game with an enormous tackle on Papenhuyzen, twisting him a 360 degrees and ricocheting the footy into open space, where Reimis Smith tried to scoop it up and knocked on instead. Nevertheless, the Storm weren’t entirely beat either, as Hughes took Drinkwater’s next kick on the full and made fifty metres up the middle before Drinkwater finally got to him, unleashing a cascade of escalating Melbourne plays that ended with a deft Johns grubber that Granville couldn’t bring back from the goal with Johns and Hynes on him.

Paps had returned to the park at the best possible moment, and Brandon Smith did the same now, coming back from an HIA to drive it hard and fast into the ten on tackle two – only to knock it on just as Melbourne were on the verge of consolidating, as a bevy of players cried out for a challenge, so unthinkable was it that they should concede the game back to North Queensland at this juncture. They were always going to lose it – and the loss made them seem even more vulnerable, as Bellamy reached for a bottle of water, and the final quarter arrived.

Reimis Smith went into damage control at the start of the next set, with a massive hit on Gilbert that should have really led to six again, while Drinkwater played it safe with a kick on the fourth – a poor play, as it turned out, since the Cows were doing well here, while he struck it too hard, setting up Melbourne for a seven-tackle set to work their way back from the other Smith’s error. With a scoreline of 12-10, the Storm had their biggest challenge, at this late stage in the year, since their losses to the Panthers and Eels in their second and third games.

Yet at this very moment they scored the ultimate try against the run of play, finding exactly the supple and limber rhythm they needed to break the escalating deadlock. Hughes kicked on the last, and Ieremia seemed to grow as a footy player in front of our eyes as he responded with a cheeky chip on the right wing. Reimis Smith mirrored his energy, chasing down the Steeden and tapping it to ground without breaking his stride. Between that chip and tap, the Storm were aloft, flying above the field with the buoyancy that has become their signature.  

It felt right, then, when Paps got an unexpected falcon at the end of the restart, by booting the ball straight off Wright’s head. This was inadvertent, but Paps rose to the occasion, scooping it up immediately, and shifting it from his right to left hand as he drove it into the twenty, where Granville brought him down with a tough legs tackle. Even then, Bromwich offloaded back to Welch, and Hughes made space for Kamikamica on the left edge, where only a massive combined tackle from Maclean and Molo prevented him putting down four.

As if that weren’t intense enough, Olam now gave Robson the death-stare of the game, after slamming him to ground for a tackle that ended with the North Queensland hooker taken off for an HIA. From the moment he was denied his first try, this had been an especially personal game for the Kumuls representative, and the catharsis of his actual try had only intensified it. For a brief moment, as he and Robson hovered ten centimetres apart on the turf, the game morphed into a UFC-like intensity, raising the stakes once again as the last ten minutes hit.

Taumalolo now returned from the bench, for his final stint of the match, as Brandon Smith came full circle from his earlier error by slamming in hard and low to force the Wright knock-on that paved the way for Melbourne’s final four-pointer. In a game where so many tries had been denied, and so many tries had managed to consolidate all that had come before, this was the ultimate consolidation putdown, and would have cemented the Storm’s supremacy even if it hadn’t finally put them beyond a converted try lead.

The play started with a sweep out to the left, where Hynes popped a precarious pass out to Olam. Wobbly, wide and low, this ball encapsulated all of the Storm’s uncertainty during the match, so when Olam caught it, he seemed to have put that inconsistency, and his own especially emotional match, behind them. Even better, he made good, one last time, on his combo with Ado-Carr, shifting the Steeden out for the Foxx to also reach one hundred tries, but faster than Feldt – in fact, faster than any player in the Origin era bar Nathan Blacklock.

Where the Tingha Tornado took only 115 games to reach the century, the Foxx had reached his milestone in 121 – just one ahead of Brett Stewart at 122 – and a significant advance on Steve Renouf at 128 and Akuila Uate at 135. True to the spirit of this game, however, the Cows scored on their next set, when Bradley got his try on debut after all, thanks to a no-looker from Taulagi that was a good metre forward, and yet was somehow missed by the touch judge. Even so, Bradley’s putdown was a stellar way to celebrate his first NRL game.

With Smith and Ieremia converging on him, he looked set to hit touch, especially since he had to reach out his right arm to rein it back in. Nevertheless, he used the momentum of Ieremia’s tackle to swing back under Smith, while Hynes took out the Storm’s collective frustration with a high shot on Granville that saw him put on report. A win here would have instantly entered North Queensland mythology, but the Storm held on, albeit badly shaken, and can expect a Bellamy spray as they prepare for the big dance against Penrith next Sunday afternoon.

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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