ROUND 21: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Melbourne Storm (Suncorp Stadium, 7/8/21, 18-28)

The Storm were sporting old-school collars when they rocked up for the ten-year anniversary of the Battle of Brookvale on Saturday night, although the memories were slightly dulled by the omniscient Suncorp backdrop in the wake of the most recent COVID lockdowns. Manly could enter the top four if they mobilised Turbo right tonight, and they certainly provided the Storm with one of their few real challenges and contests in 2021 – especially before and after the break, when they mounted an inspiring comeback to fleetingly glimpse a six-point lead.

They had one more shot in the second stanza, but Melbourne proved to be too good, making it four straight against the Sea Eagles, as Jahrome Hughes nabbed his 18th linebreak of the year, and Turbo was quieter and more contained than in any game since his stellar return. Manly had failed to put down more than six points during each of their last three encounters with the Storm, but even the slightly closer scoreline worked to Melbourne’s advantage here, since it gave them a test in the buildup to finals football – and they passed it pretty decisively.

Marty Taupau took the first hit-up, and Daly Cherry-Evans followed with a rollicking run on the second, taking it again on the fourth, and offloading on the short side back into Haumole Olakau’atu, before Kieran Foran took the kick to cap off an impressively dynamic opening set. Fresh off a hat trick last week against the Panthers, Dean Ieremia took the high ball, while Toafofoa Sipley cleaned up Christian Welch before he could mirror DCE with an early offload.

Cameron Munster now sent his first kick over the sideline, giving the Sea Eagles a brief breather before Turbo had his first involvement with a linebreak assist for Brad Parker, who burned forty metres up the left sideline. Morgan Harper did just as well on the other edge, not by accruing position but by withstanding a Melbourne pack effort to drag him over the edge – and Sipley paired with Kieran Foran to return the favour by dragging Nicho Hynes back ten metres on play one of the following set, forcing the Storm to work it from their own line.

Turbo supercharged the next set as well, taking the first carry, and laying a platform for Olakau’atu to barge it up the middle, so it was frustrating when DCE accelerated it all a little too much with an overlong grubber that careened over the dead ball line before Hynes had to play at it. Still, Turbo was just as good in defence at the end of Munster’s next kick – an early boot from the halfway line that he beat Josh Ado-Carr to collect in his own red zone, until the Foxx came back with an individual steal to get the Storm their first decent position.

Stripping the footy from Turbo was an alpha move, a statement of intent, so the Sea Eagles were lucky that Munster ended with an awkwardly timed pass to Ado-Carr, who was forced to kick it on the half-volley, following DCE by ricocheting it over the back line. Manly now had seven tackles to play with, and got the first restart two tackles later, with a Welch offside, only for Lachlan Croker to drop it cold after receiving the play-the-ball on the very next play.

Melbourne had the first scrum, and spread left immediately, thanks to a pair of strong runs from Hynes and Justin Olam, who reached out his right arm on the turf but couldn’t quite orchestrate the offload. From there, they headed right, and then back inside, commanding all parts of the park as Munster nearly slid over beside the posts, and Foran and Sipley conceded a pair of ruck infringements in quick succession. It felt almost inevitable, then, when Kenny Bromwich collected a Hynes ball and burrowed through Saab and Harper to score on the left.

This had all come off the Croker error, which may have been uncharacteristic, but for that very reason spoke to the intimidating influence of the purple army, who remained at four when Hynes missed the sideline conversion. Ado-Carr had his best run so far on the restart, collecting the footy from Hynes, wrong-footing Harper and getting inside Olaka’atu to take his men forty upfield, before Jesse Bromwich added further metres with an offload to Smith.

Munster’s next pass to Dale Finucane was questionable, but immediately eclipsed by a Sipley crusher tackle. After missing the previous two-pointer, the Storm opted to take the kick here, as Hynes made it 53/70 career goals, bringing his men to a converted try lead after all. DCE’s next kickoff had a dangerous bounce, and landed just shy of the right touch line, but Jahrome Hughes still managed to hit it at speed, and the Storm were at the halfway by the third tackle, while Manly didn’t get out of their red zone until the penultimate play of the subsequent set.

Jurbo tried to steady the ship with a tough hit on Ieremia, but the Storm weren’t having any real trouble rolling up the park, and got their next penalty when Josh Schuster stole the footy without getting square at marker. Once again, Manly were defending their goal line, and once again they were subjected to a mad charge into the left corner – effectively a compressed version of the Storm’s tryscoring set, as Olam fused his opening carry with Kenny’s final carry, barging into Harper, Saab and Turbo, who only just managed to roll his boots over the side.

This was good defence from the Sea Eagles, who seemed revitalised on the next set – until Welch and Tom Eisenhuth converged for a bone-rattling tackle on Parker that forced the footy free. Manly got a chance to reset their defensive line when Jesse Bromwich was asked to replay the ball on tackle one – and the brief breather may have been why they were able to contain a searching Munster run, a hard charge from Finucane, and a spectacular take from the Foxx, who caught it one-handed, on the ground, on the wing, and grubbered in to Harper.

On the cusp of the second quarter, this was deemed not played at – a big let-off for Manly, who steadied themselves with a soaring DCE bomb. Yet this just paved the way for Hynes’ clutchiest moment of the season – leaping for it, losing it, contending with a tough Foran chase and tackle, but somehow avoiding a knock-on, before cementing this superb display by collecting a Smith offload and shifting it left, out to Kenny Bromwich, a couple of tackles later.

This was superb stuff from the stand-in fullback, who single-handedly restored Melbourne’s field position on their most challenging set for a while, at least in terms of moving out of their own end. It didn’t take long for the purple army to get another attacking shot either, since DCE didn’t pull off his 40/20 attempt on the next set, meaning that Manly had to rely on a big individual play at this point, rather than synergy from the spine. Harper provided it, launching into Munster to force a much-needed knock-on, and a scrum feed in the middle of the park.

Yet Hynes continued to shine on this set, banging Reuben Garrick over the sideline before he could put down the ball in the corner, and so deflating one of the more elastic Manly sets since Melbourne had scored. Olam got his men rolling by busting through a couple of tackles, the Storm got a restart off a Josh Aloia ruck error, and Smith and Kenny Bromwich continued to just drive it up the middle, laying the platform for Munster to force the first dropout of the game with a well-weighted grubber that Foran was forced to ground right on the back chalk.

Ieremia scooped it up at the halfway line, and made big contact with Jurbo, and Finucane followed in his wake, the tackles echoing out across the empty stadium as a reminder of just how hard this Melbourne forward pack were working. It was a minor miracle that Manly hadn’t conceded more points, as the Storm got yet another restart, and Saab followed Foran by taking a Munster grubber in goal – this time mid-set, and under considerable pressure from the Foxx. The Sea Eagles were now at a tipping-point, in danger of losing control completely.

Perhaps that’s why DCE was over-cautious with the dropout, failing to make the requisite distance, and while the result wasn’t as catastrophic as Luke Brooks’ infamous botched dropout against the Warriors, the Storm still got two more when Hynes booted through the penalty shot. Half an hour into the game, Manly had only completed seven sets, so they had to rally something special before the break, and take advantage of this fleeting breathing-space.

It wasn’t a good sign, then, that they again conceded more position early in the tackle count – this time on the very first play, when Jurbo was pinged for a crusher on Welch, who nevertheless made decent metres on the fourth, even if he couldn’t get away one of his beloved offloads. Olakau’atu followed Harper’s big tackle on Munster by stripping the footy from one of the game’s biggest thieves, leaving Smith Steeden-less before he knew what hit him, and yet the Foxx led a pack to drag Harper into touch, from ten inside, a few tackles later.

Turbo had been remarkably quiet during this last period of the game, but he got back into gear with a dynamic response to an unexpected early kick from Hughes, when he received a clutch pass from Garrick and flicked it out to Saab in turn. He solidified involvement with a tough run on the third play, and brother Jake did well to clean up a bouncing pass a tackle later, but even so this was a fragmented set from Manly, especially in comparison to the Storm’s next bout of possession, which was augmented by a ruck infringement from Schuster.

Yet Turbo’s dynamism, and Harper and Olakau’atu’s individual efforts, were money in the bank, fuelling the one-man play that changed the whole rhythm of the game – the play that got Manly into a groove that put them equal by the break, and ahead shortly after they returned from the sheds. It occurred on the very cusp of another Melbourne try – after a tough run at the line from Harry Grant, and in the midst of what would have been Hynes’ capstone play during this first stanza, a beautiful harbour bridge ball to an unmarked Foxx.

Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Saab leaped up, caught the assist at the very apex of its arc, tucked it under his right arm, and ran the entire length of the park, decelerating as he  curved around to ground it behind the crossbar, and so becoming the third top tryscorer of 2021 behind the Foxx at 21 and Alex Johnston at 24. Garrick added the extras, and then got a  penalty kick a minute later, four seconds from the sheds, after Munster was pinged for holding back. After only ten completions, and almost no ball, Manly levelled the score on the siren. 

This was exactly the dramatic turn of events we wanted from the Battle of Brooky reboot, and the drama continued when the players returned from the sheds. Melbourne had the first carry, and seemed sobered by the Manly comeback, since it was now their turn to face difficulties working it out of their own end. Munster had to kick right on the halfway line, and while Turbo caught it on his own try line, and was faced with a staunch wall of purple defence, Olakau’atu made the best post-contact metres so far to reach Storm territory by tackle four.

DCE’s next bomb had a tough tail to it, forcing Hynes and Ado-Carr to wait for it to bounce, as the Sea Eagles stormed in to keep them in their own end for the second successive set. This time Munster booted it from the thirty, and Turbo collected it at the thirty, meaning Saab was over the halfway line by the second play, when the Sea Eagles finally got a restart early in the count, off a ruck error from Grant. This sequence had consolidation written all over it – and who better to consolidate than Turbo, who put his men in front with a brilliantly timed assist.

It was simple, clean and elegant, and a riposte to the Hynes assist that Saab had intercepted – a wide ball that provided Garrick with enough space to pivot off the left boot, contend with a Reimis Smith tackle, and then get the footy down as Hughes surged in for a follow-up effort. Garrick added the extras as two players left the park – Taniela Paseka, who came off with 13 tackles and 53 run metres after catching his right ankle under a Chris Lewis tackle, and Hynes, who was rested as Ryan Papenhuyzen came off the bench to add some fresh fullback energy.

Papenhuyzen’s first involvement was the kickoff – an awkwardly angled ball that Turbo caught right on the edge of the field, before lobbing it across to Aloiai, who wasn’t ready for the pass and knocked on just as Manly needed to build on this terrific tryscoring groove. With another four points now, or even a decent restart, the Sea Eagles would probably have continued to dominate, and possibly even won the game, but the next set made their resurgence seem like an anomaly, as Melbourne circled the wagons with their first consolidation since the break.

This was really strong consolidation too – a series of punishing sweeps from side to side, punctuated by periodic runs at the line from the big men and key playmakers. The right sweep on the third was especially impressive – a sequence of escalating bullet balls that didn’t produce a try then and there, but established the escalation for a Grant bullet assist on the other side of the park. So quickly did he shoot it out of dummy half that Olam simply sliced through the defence untouched, curving round from the left to put it down behind the posts.

Paps was always going to convert from this angle, and just like that the Storm had levelled the score, getting their next bout of field position when Munster forced his third dropout with a grubber that Saab had to clean up in goal in the face of a terrific chase from the no. 1 fullback. Finucane took his 15th run on tackle two, and Melbourne started to sweep from side to side again, but Saab ended up getting some joy after conceding the dropout, catching a Hughes chip and landing just shy of the try line as a massive purple chase converged on him.

Even so, Melbourne had clearly wrested the momentum back from Manly, and seemed sure to score if they could just keep up this energy and focus. Munster got them more metres with a late offload to Grant towards the end of the next set, and then booted his best bomb of the night, leaping off the ground to execute a pinpoint perfect trajectory that sailed right above the Manly line. Turbo now had his darkest day, letting the Steeden sail straight through his hands and in goal, where Grant missed it, Foran missed it, but Olam banged down a double.

Put Turbo’s messy handling down to a punishing chase and contest from Hughes, as the Aloiai error continued to percolate throughout the game. Paps added the extras, Melbourne had recovered their converted try lead, and yet the Sea Eagles got a chance when Jesse Bromwich coughed up a Lewis pass on tackle one of the restart. Manly had to come back fast and hard out of the scrum, and that’s exactly what they did, following a Kenny Bromwich infringement.

More specifically, the Sea Eagles needed a consolidation try – a try that dug into and continued the rhythm of their best moments so far. Foran knew what he had to do, running deep into the line, and then shifting it out for Schuster to do the same, both men laying a platform for Turbo to shine with another Garrick combo. Receiving the footy on the left edge, Tom eluded Ieremia, and curved around to square off Reimis Smith, leaving Garrick just enough time to plant the Steeden down by the time the ex-Bulldog got back out to the wing.

This was still no sure thing for Garrick, who put his entire body on the line as he flung himself into open space, reaching the footy back at the last minute, almost as an afterthought, to ground it one-handed on the chalk. Perhaps the sheer exhaustion of this putdown prevented Garrick from nabbing the sideline conversion, but even so the Sea Eagles had reduced the deficit to two, and continued this surge with a pair of beautiful bombs – the first from DCE, and the second a banana from Foran that DCE missed but still used to trap Munster in goal.

This was the last key consolidation moment for Manly, who’d managed to recover the sublime groove they’d glimpsed in the wake of Garrick’s first try, so it was agonising when Olakau’atu conceded an obstruction midway through the set. Turbo did well to let Grant’s next kick bounce into touch, but the Storm contained the next bout of attack on both sides of the park – Munster and Paps by prevented an Olakau’atu offload on the left, and Ieremia by cleaning up a right-edge kick from DCE, who’d been forced to extemporise off an awkward Foran chip.

The Sea Eagles weren’t having any issues starting their sets, as Saab now took a soaring crossfield Hughes bomb on the full, in the face of a tough chase, injecting the next few tackles with a rollicking energy that culminated with a DCE-Croker offload on the fourth. Yet Foran followed his poor chip with a basic bomb that Paps collected easily on the full, paving the way for the fourth and final Melbourne try, which came off a Hughes linebreak four tackles later.

Receiving the footy from Munster, Hughes broke into space halfway up the park, busting through tackles from Sipley and Schuster, who only got fingertips to him, before booting it at speed at the Manly thirty. Garrick got both hands on the bounce on the try line, with Reimis Smith on his back, but lost it, and while he reached a hand back in goal, and actually made contact, he didn’t apply enough downward pressure to prevent Munster circling around and planting it down himself. Paps converted, and the Storm were 8 ahead with 10 minutes left.

This was a perfect final try, showcasing speed, strength, an ability to capitalise on luck, and a capacity to wrest magic out of clutch situations – all the ingredients that have made the Storm so powerful during the extended Craig Bellamy era. To make matters worse for Manly, Sipley was pinged for crowding (thanks to a successful Melbourne challenge), and Marty Taupau followed with an early tackle, setting up Paps to booth through the last two to make it 28-18.

Smith possibly milked this, staying down before returning to his feet with a cheeky smile to the camera, but Manly had a few chances to fight back, most of them revolving around the Bromwich boys, as Jesse made an error, Kenny conceded a set restart with an offside, and was then sent to the bin for a professional foul. Finally, Welch was penalised for a dangerous hit, but with nine seconds left Manly didn’t have time for more than a closing Parker error.

This was a rousing win for Melbourne, then, who had one of their few genuine contests of the 2021 season (and arguably the best player in the game to contend with, at least with Nathan Cleary off the park) and still came away with a convincing win. They’ll be looking to roll through the Raiders to kick off Round 22, while Manly will be anxious to mobilise Turbo much more after this relatively quiet game when they face up Parramatta on Saturday night.

About Billy Stevenson (722 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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