Thursday night’s game at Kawana Waters welcomed live audiences back to the venue – and they got a treat with one of the closest and clutchiest finishes to a top eight clash in some time. The Raiders were back in the eight for the first time in ten weeks, after winning four of their last five, while the Storm were edging closer to the Roosters’ nineteen straight wins of 1975. With a victory here, the purple army would be four premiership points ahead of the Panthers, and that much more confident of a grand final berth at the end of the year.
While Melbourne did come away with those points, the Raiders put up a terrific fight, welcoming Bailey Simonsson back with the first try of the night, off a Jack Wighton cut-out assist, and then repeating that formula two more times, at a critical consolidation point in the second stanza, to give Bailey his first hat trick in the NRL. Combined with some incredible individual plays from Wighton, that brought it all down to a six-point game in the last quarter, as both teams scrambled to make the most of second chances and surprise turnarounds.
In the end, it all came down to Corey Harawira-Naera, who attempted a game-changing play, but ended up changing the game in the wrong direction – with a high shot on Jahrome Hughes that saw both men leave the park immediately. From here, Melbourne clocked up two penalty goals to come away with their final tally of 26-16, but it was a minor victory that Canberra prevented any more tries at this closing juncture – testament to the strength and spirit with which they’d taken on Craig Bellamy’s army after just rejoining the top eight.
Wighton took the kickoff, and Josh Papalii the first run, before a purple pack stormed in to prevent Joe Tapine making metres on the second carry. The Raiders covered more ground in the later part of the set, thanks to a strong charge from Harley Smith-Shields, before Nicho Hynes followed his kickoff with his first take under the high ball, and Dale Finucane left the park ninety seconds in for an HIA, bringing Chris Lewis on earlier than expected. He wouldn’t return from the sheds, leaving a big hole in Melbourne’s forward pack.
Jordan Rapana was just as good as Hynes beneath the kick, setting up Canberra for a more enterprising second set, as Hudson Young danced across the face of the ruck, dodging and weaving around a few tackles before Rapana made the first really concerted push at the line. He continued that action into a fullback-on-fullback play at the other end of the park, where his chase produced a knock-on from Hynes that the Storm promptly challenged. It was one of their worst this year, showing a Cam Munster escort before confirming Hynes’ error.
The Storm retained their challenge, since the Munster penalty came before the mistake in question, but it was small consolation as the Raiders started their next set from the ten – and scored two tackles in, when Bailey Simonsson celebrated his return to the NRL by collecting a silky cut-out ball from Wighton straight on the chest, crossing over untouched before Reimis Smith could reach him. This was one of the best assists of Wighton’s career, sailing past Young and Jarrod Croker while dancing along the razor’s edge of a forward pass.
Croker struck it beautifully from the sideline, but it hit the upright, in only his fourth miss of the season. Nevertheless, the sheer simplicity and elegance of that last left sweep buoyed up the Raiders on the restart, as Simonsson took the second carry, charging fast and hard up the left edge, before Josh Hodgson booted it straight down the field in a slightly anticlimactic finish. Even so, the visitors were amped up in defence, forcing Hynes to kick in his own end, as Felise Kaufusi and Jahrome Hughes went into damage control with a barnstorming chase.
It was good enough to bunch Canberra down their own end for most of the next set, to the point where Wighton’s kick came within his own thirty, as the game started to settle into a war of attrition, with both sides battling it out for field position. Hughes and Munster tried to break the deadlock with a left sweep midway through the following set, and while Smith-Shields brought Josh Ado-Carr to ground at the end of it, he was pinged for a second movement to drag him into touch, as the Storm got a boost up field, and the first six again.
They had a whole set in the twenty, but only needed two tackles, as Jesse Bromwich laid the platform with a sharp run into the left corner, and then played the ball quickly enough for Brandon Smith to scoop it up, read the field subliminally, dummy left and plunge through Elliott Whitehead for the first Melbourne try of the night. In doing so, he broke a mini-drought, after having gone tryless in his last four games following four-pointers in 7/8 fixtures in a row. Hynes was always going to convert from this angle, and the Storm were two ahead.
They opted for the same left side play midway through the restart, except that this time they didn’t shift it outside Justin Olam, as if spooked by Smith-Shields’ effort on Ado-Carr last time they spread it wide. Instead, they used this elastic momentum to pivot back out to the right, where Rapana had to slide to his knees to collect the kick. Now Melbourne had the upper hand, coming in with a series of big pack efforts before Matthew Timoko tried to break the stalemate with a tough right edge run and a one-on-one collision with Justin Olam.
In the end, Canberra did pretty well out of the set, especially when Dean Ieremia coughed up the footy – losing it backwards out of the line, and so maintaining possession, but costing his men a lot of field position. He made up for it brilliantly a few tackles later, however, using his fumble as the platform for one of the best long-rangers of the Storm’s season, and the best try of his own career. It started with another rapid sweep to the right, this time ending with Kaufusi and Reimis Smith shifting it out for Ieremia to take control at the halfway mark.
From there, Ieremia showcased some sublime footwork, careening outside Croker and then pivoting abruptly to smash past Rapana, tuck the Steeden under his right arm and curve round behind the posts, where he set up his fullback for another easy conversion. Even better, he exuded the confidence, bordering on cockiness, that can make Melbourne’s flow so hard to counter, since while Hynes and Hughes were both surging up on his inside, he didn’t flick a single glance in the direction of support runners, so sure was he of securing the four points.
The Storm were now triple Canberra at 12-4, so the green machine had to hit back immediately on their next set, which started with Rapana taking the high ball and making a comfortable fifteen metres on the return. Sam Williams booted his most soaring bomb so far, and Tapine followed with one of the best Canberra chases, but Hynes was up to the task, while Brandon Smith walked around wincing in backplay after a big tackle on Wighton.
The set briefly faltered with an Ieremia slip on the second play, but Hynes got them rolling with a near-break up the right, before Hughes showed Williams he could go bomb-for-bomb, sending the footy roiling abve Sunshine Coast to give the Melbourne defence ample time to get their line in order. As a result, the Raiders were only halfway by tackle three, where Tapine garnered them some extra field position with a deft offload to Hodgson, before Williams booted it over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space before the next set.
Little by little, the Raiders were starting to hit back – not, admittedly, with a play to rival Ieremia’s run, but with a resilience that gravitated the game back towards the arm-wrestle of the first ten minutes. They had to dig deeper on the next set, when the Storm got another restart, off a Wighton error, and for a few tackles they seemed to be succeeding, until Hynes built on his earlier half-break by cutting through the line up the right, bringing the purple army within the ten, and providing them with the momentum they needed for their next try.
If Tapine’s last offload to Hodgson had been a small victory for Canberra, it was utterly eclipsed by the way he and Hodgson now wilted in the face of Melbourne’s next second phase play. Receiving the footy at the end of a compressed left sweep, Munster mirrored and condensed Ieremia’s footwork, dodging around an oncoming pack tackle, and finally succumbing to it, but not without offloading out for Lewis to tuck it under his arm and slice past the Canberra 9 and 10 to smash down beside the left post.
Again, Hynes had an easy conversion angle here, bringing Melbourne to an alarming 18-4 advantage with barely a quarter of football gone. They didn’t show any signs of decelerating on the restart either, as Christian Welch took a limber run up the middle, before spreading it left for another sublime Hynes dash that could have produced results if Timoko and Smith-Shields hadn’t combined for the best defensive display so far from Canberra. Converging on the left edge, they took advantage of Hynes’ momentum to drag him over the sideline.
This was a good riposte to Smith-Shields’ failed effort on the Foxx ten minutes before – proof that Canberra could (literally) use Melbourne’s momentum against them if they positioned themselves right. As a result, the next set was critical, making it all the more agonising when Emre Guler put the Steeden down after a pair of offloads from Young and Rapana that got the green machine from twenty to posts in a single play. The next set was thus even more critical for Canberra, since a Storm try here could easily destroy them.
Luckily for the away crowd, Kaufusi made Melbourne’s first handling error of the game two plays later, spilling the Steeden forward in the face of Wighton, who provided exactly the one-man effort, and display of leadership, that Canberra needed at this point. Packing the scrum just outside the twenty, they had the chance to sink right back into the adrenalin of that last pair of offloads, especially since Sutton and Guler ran the footy to the same part of the park, before Hodgson opted for a sweep out to the left edge.
Simonsson crossed over for a second time, but Ieremia followed his try with a superb trysaving tackle on Young now, slamming into the big second-rower at the very second he was shaping to assist Bailey, and effectively cancelling out the import of Wighton’s Steeden-spilling hit on Kaufusi. The Storm consolidated immediately on the next set, as Kenny Bromwich decisively put the spectacle of Canberra’s double offload behind them with a hard charge up the middle, followed by the latest and lowest second phase play of his career.
Things moved quickly from here, as Harry Grant collected the footy, and burrowed hard and low into Hodgson, driving the Canberra hooker about ten metres up field, collecting the kick and adding more metres to his tally before shifting it out to the right edge, where Reimis Smith capped off this sudden acceleration of position by bumping off Croker as clinically as Grant had disposed of Hodgson. Finally, he shifted it back inside for Hughes to take a second boot, deep in goal, where Rapana had to slide to his knees to clean it up.
Full credit goes to Brandon Smith too, for the superb wide ball that got the other Smith in place – in fact, full credit to the entire Storm, who seemed to congeal at this moment for what would have been a team try if they’d got it down here. Of course, that just made it paramount they score on the next set, lest this attacking prowess turn into a defensive victory for Canberra. No surpsise that they sent a Brandon Smith knock-on upstairs the moment it happened – and they got the chocolates with the replay confirming an illegal Sutton strip.
Hynes booted through the two to put his men quintuple Canberra at 20-4, and once again it felt we might be in for an absolute torrent of points, especially given how consistently the purple army had delivered whenever they’d reached the Raiders’ twenty. Jesse Bromwich commenced the restart with a tough run, and Lewis followed in his footsteps, before the Storm spread it early again, only to consolidate position for a tough Brandon Smith charge up the middle. Everything about this set exuded strength, calm and confidence.
Even a slight hesitation from Ieremia on the right edge became the pretext for Hynes to work it hard and fast up the middle, and boot it at speed, as the Canberra defence finally clicked into first gear with a sublime take from Smith-Shields right on the chalk. Hynes had to take the next kick on his line, but the Storm got time to recover their breath when play paused for Croker, who had copped some serious head contact with Ieremia towards the end of the last set, and left the field now for an HIA, as Corey Harawira-Naera trotted off the bench.
Like Finucane, he wouldn’t return to the park, and his absence put a pin in the Raiders’ acceleration over the last five minutes, despite a successful challenge to contest a Rapana knock-on and a dropout thirty seconds out from the siren. At the same time, Canberra managed to prevent the Storm from nabbing a try before the break, and this may have paved the way for the very different dynamic of the second stanza, when they would come back to halt the flow of purple points.
Jesse Bromwich took the first run back, and the Storm shifted right on play two, where Hynes continued to eat up the metres, before Lewis added to his stellar night up the middle, and Hughes booted it low and fast down to Rapana at the Canberra ten. Meanwhile, word came down from the sheds that Finucane had technically passed his HIA, but his symptoms had led the medics to keep him off the field, while we learned that Smith had staggered a bit during the first stanza due to a shot in the groin, before copping a shoulder injury towards the end.
A set later, Smith-Shields finally got total closure for his second effort on the Foxx early in the game. He’d dragged Hynes over the sideline in the last quarter, and now he shut down a Melbourne sweep by coming in just as Ado-Carr received the footy from Olam, wrapping around him at speed to bump into touch without any risk of an illegal play. Seeing Smith-Shields come full circle seemed to galvanise the Raiders as a whole – and dishevel the Storm, since Kaufusi was pinged for crowding, and Munster really had to clutch to take Williams’ kick.
For the first time in a while, the game hung in the balance. Canberra had accumulated more than enough field position to score here, so if they could make a decent play on the next set (even if it wasn’t a try) they might gain control over the next part of the night. Rapana got them rolling with his best run of the match, cruising up through the middle third and garnering a restart off a Reimis Smith ruck error, while infusing his men with enough momentum to continue charging it hard and fast, before Simonsson got his second four-pointer after all.
Not only did this try come about the same time in the second stanza as Bailey had scored in the first, but it arose from almost exactly the same play – a cut-out assist from Wighton that sailed parabolically out to the wing, mirroring and echoing the curvature of the Steeden itself. The difference, this time around, was a flourish from Hodgson, who shaped to kick, and so provided his five-eighth with enough space to set up the long ball.
If Smith-Shields’ defence on the Foxx had brought the Raiders full circle, then repeating their first try was the key consolidation moment for either side, doing more than any single Melbourne putdown to build confidence and adrenalin. To cap it all off, Williams’ kick from the sideline also seemed set to reprise his first effort with the boot, swerving towards the post once again, and hitting it for a second time, only for the footy to careen back over the crossbars to put Canberra at half Melbourne with 10-20.
The Raiders looked as dangerous as they have all year at the end of the next set, when Wighton leaped up and reached out his hand to tap the Steeden back, tennis-style, to Hodgson, who was just as quick in shifting it out to Williams for a second boot. Unfortunately, the no. 7’s aim wasn’t as good this time around, but Canberra got the ball back immediately, off a cough-up from Tom Eisenhuth, while the Storm retained their Captain’s Challenge when their efforts to garner a Whitehead strip proved inconclusive.
They were pretty lucky, since the replay clearly showed that Eisenhuth had lost the footy, but the Raiders got some luck of their own a moment later, when Tom Starling got away with a knock-on at the scrum base. From there, Canberra poked their nose into every part of the park, as Wighton drove it left, Guler worked it up the middle, Williams shifted it out to Rapana on the right, and the green machine ferried it all the way back to the other corner, where the set came apart with two frustrated plays.
In the first, Wighton tried and failed to reprise his cut-out ball to Simonsson, ten metres further back this time; in the second, Williams mirrored his awkward kick off Wighton’s earlier tap-back with an overlong boot on the other side of the field, giving the Melbourne defenders ample time to pull back and watch it tumble over the left corner. Yet no sooner had Munster followed Eisenhuth with a cough-up of his own than Wighton and Simonsson made it a hat trick on the left wing, in another of the consolation plays that had typified Canberra’s game.
Even better, it came off Williams’ first great kick in a few sets – a crossfield bomb that landed right at Ieremia’s feet but ricocheted back into Wighton’s chest for the assist – before the no. 7 bookended it all with his first sideline kick to travel straight between the posts. Simonsson also had the first hat trick of his career to celebrate his return to the footy field, while Hodgson got adventurous on the penultimate play of the restart, sending it off the side of the boot to the right edge, where Harley-Smith shifted it back inside for Rapana to take a second kick.
For the second time in as many minutes, however, the Raiders came up with two frustrated plays just when they should be peaking, as Rapana booted it far too shallow, and Starling came in for a high shot. Worse, Hodgson made high contact early in the restart, and for the second time the Storm had a penalty kick, although this time it was Papenhuyzen who slotted through the two to restore their converted try lead on the cusp of the final quarter.
Two points were good, but the purple army had to treat this as the first step in bouncing back from Canberra’s compressed consolidation period, especially since Harawira-Naera wasn’t holding anything back in defence, coming as close to high contact as possible on the restart before pulling back to avoid going the way of Starling and Hodgson. Even so, this was a clinical set from Melbourne after points, culminating with a silky Grant kick that put Canberra on the back foot – until Wighton stepped up once again with a one-on-one strip on Grant.
Just like that, Tapine was in the twenty by tackle three, and Rapana grubbered it onto the try line a moment later, where Paps proved his value off the bench by diving on the footy for a subliminal pickup that was even more incredible for the greasy Sunshine Coast surface. Curving himself round the Steeden to take the full brunt of the chase, while ricocheting far enough away from the chalk to preclude the dropout, he delivered a one-man effort that was every bit as heroic as the individual plays that Wighton had brought to the table.
The game was now reaching peak volatility, as Hughes barked out his frustration at being called back from a linebreak for an Eisenhuth obstructon on Starling, only for Wighton to boot it inside the Storm’s ten, and fail to find touch, as Ieremia scooped up the Steeden to get his men rolling back down the field. This was probably the key turning-point of the game, since with another try here, or even a fresh set, the Raiders stood a decent chase of breaking Melbourne’s spirit. Instead, Wighton delivered his weakest moment of the game.
Luckily for Canberra’s motivation, the Storm didn’t score, while Munster followed his uncharacteristic drop with an equally uncharacteristic hand in the ruck, only for Timoko to cost the green machine whatever residual momentum that might have remained in the wake of their most recent highlight reel. Coughing up a Williams ball to gift Papenhuyzen a near-linebreak and the Storm seven tackles, he made it a hat trick of aborted opportunities on the Melbourne line, as the hosts crossed over the halfway mark on tackle three.
True to the clutch spirit of this final quarter, however, the Raiders hung on here, as Young landed on the Steeden at the end of a Grant grubber, and Simonsson flung himself into the defence to try and restore their rhythm. It was starting to feel like the next team to score would win, as Whitehead broke through Smith, Hodgson rejoined the fray, and Williams followed Hodgson with a kick off the side to the boot to the right edge. He got a better spiral, but the Storm were up to it, while Hodgson made it two high shots with an arm on Hughes.
He was put on report by Gerard Sutton this time around, while the Storm got a free interchange, as Hughes came off the park for a brief HIA, and Hynes rejoined the field to compound Papenhuyzen with his own fullback power. Munster clamoured for a set restart two plays later, on the right edge, before Paps danced from side to side down the middle, and Welch offloaded for Grant to plunge and burrow through a mass of Canberra defenders to nearly score beside the left post, with only Papalii and the padding holding him up at the last.
Everything came down to the left edge, where Simonsson chased the kick without ever grounding it, but still managed to shepherd the first third of the Steeden onto the dead ball line by the time Reimis Smith got a hand to it. In fact, from one angle it looked as if the ex-Bulldog had planted it down in goal, as this clutchy final quarter got clutchier still, and both sides steeled themselves for what promised to be an absolutely barnstorming ten minutes.
With such momentum behind them, and such an incredible display of commitment from Smith, who’d taken Craig Bellamy’s injunction to never give up on the play to heart, it felt unbelievable that the Storm wouldn’t score on this next set, especially once Brandon Smith completed his comeback from groin and shoulder injuries to break through Tapine, Hodgson and finally CHN to get the best post-contact tally of the night – ten, twelve and finally fifteen. Bromwich followed with a steady run up the middle, and the Storm had two left on the line.
It all came down to a crossfield chip from Hughes that Olam collected on the left, where Timoko took the tackle, and forced the footy free. This was crunch time for the Raiders, who had their best team on the field, and moved through Papalii, Tapine, Hodgson and Wighton, before Timoko beat Olam for decent metres up the left, and Melbourne let Williams’ kick bounce to Young, who sent it back across field only for Munster to finally clean it all up, and possibly bobble it under Rapana’s contact, although this wasn’t noticed by refs at the time.
Nevertheless, the green machine survived, and got another of the second chances that had characterised this particular game, while Munster saved the day for a second time too, preventing Williams breaking through the line with a last-ditch ankle tap, before Papenhuyzen responded to a soaring kick with an equally expansive run to get his men back in Canberra’s forty by tackle three. Grant made two runs in one, ricocheting off the defence to surge in at another angle, before Simonsson took the kick on the right, and the Raiders stuck in again.
It was unbearable, then, when Williams made a cold drop early in the set – and even worse when Harawira-Naera was galvanised by a massive Whitehead-Papenhuyzen hit into a monster tackle on Hughes that got him sent off for his troubles. Form aside, and a twelve-man opposition aside, CHN’s hit exuded desperation, handing Melbourne the psychological advantage as Hughes left the park, and Hynes trotted back on for his second free stint off the bench. Corey had attempted a game-changer, but hadn’t got the change he expected.
To his credit, he recognised his mistake, apologising profusely as Papenhuyzen snuck the third penalty shot of the night past the left post to bring them to an eight point lead. They got one more penalty, in the final minute, off a Papalii obstruction, and Paps slotted it again to bring us to a final scoreline of 26-16. The Storm had come away with a win, and yet the Raiders had achieved a kind of victory here, CHN’s shot notwithstanding, by preventing them scoring another try – and that should propel them into next round’s game against the Sea Eagles, while Melbourne prepare to take on Gold Coast in a week’s time.