ROUND 20: Melbourne Storm v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium, 1/8/21, 37-10)

Sunday’s second game at Suncorp may well have been a Grand Final preview, as Melbourne hosted the Panthers after not losing a single match since they succumbed to them all the way back in Round 3. They came away with the win tonight too, in what was meant to be an AAMI Park game, surpassing the 2016 Sharks and the 1995 Sea Eagles to nab the third highest win tally in the NRL – behind the 1975 Roosters outfit that iced 19, and the 2020 Panthers and 2002 Bulldogs who won 17 – making you wonder just what it’ll take for them not to win it this year.

The answer is probably Nathan Cleary, who was conspicuously absent tonight, along with Isaah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris, Api Koroisau and Brian To’o. Matt Burton really stepped up in the halves, but there was no way he could single-handedly compensate for so much playmaking talent on the bench. Penrith had only suffered two losses this year, both in the Origin period, so it was a bit shocking to see them kept to zero until the last ten minutes, as Melbourne prevented them ever gaining the momentum for a fully-fledged tryscoring surge.

Viliame Kikau took the first carry in the one sunny corner of the park, Matt Burton hoisted it high, and Dean Ieremia knocked it on, giving the Panthers the scrum feed less than two minutes in. Josh Ado-Carr continued his surge against the Cows on the very next play, single-handedly dragging Charlie Staines over the sideline at the end of a promising right sweep. This all ended up working to Melbourne’s advantage, since they basically went set-for-set, but had the added confidence of shutting down Penrith’s first glimpse of field position as well.

Ieremia did better under Burton’s next bomb, pulling back tactically, and allowing Robert Jennings to collect it, so that he could wrap him up in the tackle. Sure enough, Jennings lost the footy, Felise Kaufusi scooped it up, and Nicho Hynes ushered in the first really dangerous sequence with a silky pass out Kenny Bromwich, who sent it on to Ado-Carr on the left wing. The Foxx kicked at speed, Justin Olam read the bounce beautifully, and eluded a last-ditch tackle from Staines right on the line, flicking out an offload to Jahrome Hughes on his inside.

Burton compouned his terrific two bombs with the first great trysaver of the night here, storming in to prevent the Melbourne halfback from making the last five metres to the line. Munster tried to parlay the sublime speed of this sequence into a quick chip to the right edge, but Brent Naden culminated this defensive determination by leaping up in the air to take it on the full in goal. The Panthers looked just as tough on the next set, tempting a dangerous hit from Jesse Bromwich on Liam Martin, only for Kikau to knock on into an Ieremia tackle.

Penrith could have conceivably challenged this decision, but they decided to redirect their frustration back into defence, commandeering a huge pack effort to clean up Olam on his ten metre line, before giving Kenny Bromwich the same treatment on tackle two. That just made it more dramatic when Hughes sliced through the line a play later, feeding it inside for Kaufusi to cross over into Penrith territory. Munster kicked early, and while the bounce defied Ado-Carr, it was also too much for Staines, who knocked the ball on as it tumbled over the sideline.

Melbourne now had their first close-range attack, and they scored their first try off it – although not immediately. Christian Welch tried to smash over on tackle one, forcing a clip from Naden, and the big men took a few shots at the chalk, as play broke down with a Munster pivot on the left edge. Reimis Smith seemed to restore their mojo with a near-bust on the right wing, and rose from the turf claiming a try, even though it didn’t seem likely in real time.

Yet Smith turned out to be right, since the replay showed an extraordinary resilience – and a fair amount of good luck under the combined effort of Naden, Burton and Jennings. Naden came in first and was disposed of first, while Burton did well to position himself on the goal line, relying on Jennings to deliver the grunt. However, the very force and strength of Jennings’ contact slid Smith further along the Suncorp surface, providing him with just enough space to use the defenders as a fulcrum, as he reached out a hand to dump the Steeden down.

Smith might have been lucky in the precise coordinates of this tackle, but he made the most of his luck too, holding on tight to the footy until the very last minute, and refusing to concede the play until space eventually opened to put it down. Hynes missed the conversion, and yet the Storm swept from left to right even more dramatically on the restart, after getting a fresh set off a Scott Sorensen ruck error. Munster got them rolling with a cut-out pass to Olam, who offloaded on the ground for Ado-Carr to boot through his second great kick from the left wing.

This time he soared it high, all the way to the opposite try line, where Martin leaped over Smith to try contain it, only to tumble back into the swarm of Penrith defenders. Ieremia seized the moment, making up for his opening fumble by collecting it on the bounce and slamming over to make it six once Munster took over kicking duties from Hynes, who was moving gingerly behind the line. It was a minor victory, then, when Penrith survived the restart – and a big relief when Munster made two successive ruck errors on their next carry. 

Penrith now had a whole set inside the Melbourne ten, and a chance to make up for their aborted opening scrum, so it was agonising when things went the same way here. Kaufusi started with the best tackle of the game so far, hitting Martin so precisely that he effectively handed the footy forward to Jesse Bromwich, who didn’t have to lift a boot to collect it, standing in place like the next runner in a relay. Bromwich displayed the same casual elegance a few plays later, with the most relaxed offload of the night – a deft pop out the back to Hynes.

The Storm were getting into a groove here, so it didn’t matter much that Hughes’ next kick bounced chaotically on the left edge. Hynes tapped it back, Kaufusi rolled it along the ground, and even Munster’s next kick, which ricocheted off the defence, turned into an advantage for the home team, after Sorensen was pinged for an early tackle. The groove continued two plays later, as the Storm delivered their simplest and easiest sweep of the night – Munster, Hughes, Hynes and then Ieremia, who put down a double as if it were a Storm training run.

This was a spine in total synergy, and a try so easy that it was initially denied – surely, there must have been an obstruction? Ashley Klein was especially interested in Kaufusi’s contact on Kikau, but the replay showed that he had done everything in his power to pull back from the collision, while Kikau, by contrast, had done everything in his power to milk it – not a good look for Penrith at this stage. By the time the footy arrived at the wing, there was nobody for Ieremia to even get outside of – just Jennings swinging an arm as Hynes flicked it past him.

The Panthers put a pin in the Melbourne flow with one of their longest periods of field position over the next few minutes, as Welch infringed the ruck, Kaufusi was put on report for a high shot, Welch made another mistake, Harry Grant made another ruck error and Hynes was unable to make his way in field after Burton drilled the grubber in goal. Sorensen glimpsed a break in the line, Crichton drove the footy deep into the right corner, and the Panthers had their best pivot, sending it across to the other wing with a near perfect sweep.

Yet they didn’t nail the last piece of the puzzle – a slightly mistimed catch-and-pass from Naden that forced Jennings to turn awkwardly to collect it, leaving time for Hughes and Ieremia to bump him into touch as he started to slip on the sideline. Meanwhile, the Storm wasted no time consolidating, as Kaufusi popped it out the back to Dale Finucane early in the count, and Grant danced over a couple of ankle taps and broke through the line, before Hynes booted it hard and deep into the right corner, where Dylan Edwards only just cleaned it up.

The Panthers got a big let-off early in the next set – a Finucane knock-on, and the first Melbourne error in thirty minutes, the first since Ieremei fumbled the high ball. They couldn’t build up steam for the first half of the set, when two players took a while to return to their feet – Kikau on the left edge, after diving through the line, and Kurt Capewell on the right, after copping a high shot from Olam. The mountain men compensated at close range, though, making a series of big charges that promoted the best goal-line defence of the game so far.

First they cleaned up Eisenhuth right beside the posts, putting enough pressure on him that he didn’t dare risk reaching out his arm for fear of losing the footy in the collateral damage of the tackle, even though he was close enough to score. The Storm pack was even tougher beneath the crossbar a play later, where Munster and Brandon Smith orchestrated  a heroic effort – best of the night –  to stop Martin as he banged over for what seemed a certain try.

Munster came in first to prevent an easy putdown, and yet the Penrith prop was still roiling in the tackle, pivoting and wavering to finally inflect the Steeden down on his second effort. At this very moment, Smith, who was deep beneath the pile-on of bodies, sensed the danger, reaching up his own hand to mirror Martin’s downward motion. Another second and the Panthers would have scored their first try, but as it was this secured the Storm’s march of unanswered points, which went from 16 to 18 when Martin was pinged for lying in the ruck.

This was a rough period for Martin, especially since the Storm had sent up a successful Captain’s Challenge to gain the penalty – and an interesting moment procedurally, since for a second it looked like Ryan Papenhuyzen might not be able to take the penalty kick, as he returned to the field just after the Challenge decision had been declared. Nevertheless, he was cleared to add the two, and booted it through to mark his first footy at Suncorp since Magic Round.

Papenhuyzen took the first bomb back from the break, and while Naden survived a fumble on the second tackle, the Panthers weren’t so luck on play four. Grant had been great off the bench, and Chris Lewis was just as good, forcing a knock-on from Kikau to lay the platform for Paps’ first big plays – getting away from both Capewell and Staines up the right edge, and then containing Burton when Luai put him through the line with a mad dance along the ruck.

Nevertheless, Luai’s run was good enough to have a flow-on effect, and Burton continued to draw on it with his kick – a tough chip under pressure that Ado-Carr couldn’t bring back in the field of play. The Storm regathered seamlessly, defending on all parts of the field, and getting it right beneath Burton’s kick this time, as Olam caught it on the bounce. Penrith got another chance when Hughes booted it over the sideline on the full, and then a let-off when Ieremia forced a second cough-up from Kikau, only for the footy to spill back, and into Naden’s hands.

Once again, though, the purple army regathered – or rather Hughes regathered, making up for his botched kick by charging down Burton’s third successive kick, scooping it up, and tempting Burton into a leg pull for good measure. Melbourne had flagged a bit since the break, but they stuck in again now with good close-range attack. For a beat, the Panthers were still able to muster a few big defensive gestures, almost forcing a couple of knock-ons, and dumping Jesse Bromwich on his back before Crichton charged down brother Kenny’s kick.

Yet Jesse got his own back a set later, on the back of an early changeover, thanks to a terrific combined hit from Finucane and Smith on Edwards. They came in high and low respectively, rattling the footy free, and the Storm followed with a sublime dummy-to-dummy effort – a hard charge and fast play-the-ball from Brandon Smith, followed by a quick collect and dummy from Grant, both of which set up Hughes for some of his best ball control of the night.

Finding himself with the footy beside the left post, the Melbourne halfback mirrored Grant’s dummy, relying on a deft decoy run from Finucane to slide Capewell away from the play, leaving only Leniu to contend with Jesse Bromwich when he collected a no-look short ball and smashed over beside the padding. Big Jesse was always going to get the footy down at this speed and at such close-range – he’d run a terrific line, intuiting the play from the moment Hughes took possession – and so the Storm had 24 unanswered points when Paps converted.

It was Jesse’s first try since the preliminary final against the Raiders last year, also held at Suncorp, so this just cemented Melbourne’s position at the top of the ladder that little bit more emphatically. That said, the Storm had the briefest of lulls following these four points, as Papenhuyzen went from securing the conversion to booting through a dropout, and the Panthers got a successful Captain’s Challenge to demonstrate an error from Ado-Carr. But Penrith couldn’t breach the purple wall, and Burton ended with a grubber that went too far.

The Storm now enjoyed a straight string of Penrith errors and penalties to usher them into their next four-pointer. First, Matt Eisenhuth infringed the ruck, then Burton was pinged for a strip, before Papenhuyzen booted through an early kick from the twenty to catch Edwards out of position and trap him behind the line. Grant had been looking dangerous for the last couple of sets, and he parlayed that restless energy into a terrific try here, after Izack Tago knocked on Papenhuyzen’s kick to concede Melbourne a repeat set right on the Penrith line.

Jordan Grant took the footy when Tago lost it, doing well for his first major touch by offloading back to the other Grant, but Harry got his main chance a couple of plays later. Grabbing the footy out of a rapid play-the-ball from Hughes, he went hard and low, taking advantage of a momentary break in the Melbourne line to storm through Edwards and Mitch Kenny, who didn’t have a chance of holding him at close-range. It was the perfect sequel to Jesse Bromwich’s monster run on the other side, bringing the Storm to a clean 30 with the kick.

They didn’t have to wait long for their next and last try either. Tago had another knock-on beneath the kickoff, Lewis built speed with a tough run on the left edge, and Hughes settled into a Lachlan Lewis-like languor as he decelerated around the kick on the right – the perfect way to disarm the Panthers, particularly Edwards, who leaped up to make contact with the high ball, but found it spilling down his body for Ieremia to scoop it up and score a hat trick.

It had been a tough back half for Edwards, especially since the try was initially denied, and sent upstairs to see whether Reimis Smith had made unlawful contact in the air. It turned out he’d had eyes for the footy the whole time, allowing Ieremia to bounce back from his opening error in style, and bring the Storm to 36 unanswered points when Papenhuyzen booted it through. By this stage, a Penrith win was out of the question, so they had to play for pride over the last thirteen minutes – generate some momentum for their playmakers to return to.

Tago got them rolling with an enormous hit on Reimis Smith, making up for his last two errors with contact that sounded doubly brutal amidst the cavernous emptiness of Suncorp. Munster kicked too hard on the last, conceding seven tackles, and Tago lost it a few tackles later, but lost it backwards. Luai chipped it to the right edge, but before Ado-Carr had taken it cleanly on the full Ash Klein had already pinged his whistle to signal an overt Olam escort.

Finally, everything came together for the mountain men, as Luai danced across the defence, shooting it out to Burton, who half-leaped into an oncoming Ieremia tackle to send Naden across in the left corner. Burton missed the conversion, but this was still a relieving moment for the Panthers, who hadn’t been kept to nil for six years, and had felt Brian To’o’s absence in particular over the last few attacks from Melbourne, who started to regather again now.

Not only did they survive the restart, but Munster ended their next set with a well-weighted grubber that Staines only just popped into touch before the Foxx could get to it. Nobody has scored forty in a season as many times as the Storm, and they had a real shot at a twelfth stint here, so it was a shock when Naden leaped up to simply collect Hynes’ kick on the line. The big men rushed in to hold him up, but the Panthers got six again off a Hynes ruck error, a penalty for a Munster leg pull on Capewell, and another ruck error from Grant on the line.

This was a pretty eventful minute and a half, as Sorensen plunged over from dummy half, Burton converted, and Papenhuyzen cemented his return with a field goal two seconds out from the break. Melbourne technically had the last word, but you had to credit the Penrith pushback here too – by these final ten minutes they were already looking ahead to the return of their key playmakers. They’ll be sweating on Nathan Cleary as they prepare to take on the Roosters next week, while the Storm will be looking to contain Turbo next Saturday evening.

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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