ROUND 23: Gold Coast Titans v. Melbourne Storm (Cbus Super Stadium, 19/7/21, 20-34)

The Storm inched that little bit further towards history on Thursday night against the Titans, rivalling the Roosters of 1975 with the most wins on the trot in Australian rugby league history. At nineteen, they were two above the Panthers of 2020 and the Bulldogs of 2002, while you had to go all the way back to the Chooks of 1912-13 and the Bunnies of 1908-09 for 16 straight. The Titans had challenged Melbourne once before this year, with the 20-16 game in Round 13, but it was Origin season then, so you might expect a more convincing win now.

Instead, with Jahrome Hughes, Justin Olam and Brandon Smith off the park, the Storm struggled to mount a solid argument against the Titans in the first stanza, and came away 16-12 the worse for wear. In true Melbourne fashion, they returned to their clinical professionalism after the break, forcing Gold Coast to wait until the last five minutes for their final try – thanks, in part, to Nicho Hynes increasing confidence stepping into Hughes’ boots, in a neat dress rehearsal for his likely position at Cronulla next year.

Nevertheless, the 20-34 scoreline spoke to a Gold Coast outfit who put in some of their best moves of the last couple of months to keep Melbourne at bay, culminating with a pair of plays from Jayden Campbell and Tyrone Peachey that undid recent errors and ended the game on a note of heroic resilience despite the loss. David Fifita may have been quieter than usual for his first game in the starting pack in weeks, but Tino Faasuamaleaui stepped up with some big plays, while Campbell put down his first double and best tryscoring options to date too.

Jarrod Wallace took the first run, and Tino followed in his footsteps, making big contact to compensate for Moeaki Fotuaiaka’s absence, before Jamal Fogarty took his first kick since Round 18, and Ryan Papenhuyzen caught it for his first start since Magic Round. George Jennings fumbled the play-the-ball early in the set, gifting the Titans an early scrum feed – and then their first try, as Patrick Herbert drove deep into the right corner, fending off Marion Seve and offloading for Greg Marzhew to slam past Josh Ado-Carr and Cam Munster. 

This was a Storm-like start from Gold Coast, even if Fogarty missed the conversion, so Melbourne had to plug the gap immediately, amping up their defence to keep the hosts in their own end on the restart, before Ado-Carr took the kick on the full. Christian Welch brought it over halfway, midway though the set, and Papenhuyzen carved up the left edge, where Marzhew managed to drag him into touch, but not before Herbert had lazily swung an arm into his face.

Yet Hynes made the second unforced error in as many sets, although the poor judgement came from Felise Kaufusi, who mistimed the pass slightly, and sent it soaring over his halfback’s shoulder at an awkward angle. Meanwhile, the Titans had their second scrum of the game, only seven minutes in, waiting for a minute while Kevin Proctor got some brief shoulder attention, before David Fifita brought in four defenders to hold him up on play one.

As quickly as Gold Coast got six again off a Chris Lewis ruck error, Kaufusi made up for his poor pass with a tough low tackle to knock the footy free from big Tino’s grasp. The second try almost came as quickly as the first, as Hynes completed the comeback from the Storm’s error-laden first ten minutes by drifting the play across to the left edge, where Ado-Carr followed Herbert by driving it right into the corner, but in a rare lapse of judgement opted to shift the Steeden back inside, rather than bust through for what would have been a likely four points.

The Storm still got a repeat set, due to a Fogarty error in the midst of defending the Foxx, and yet Welch became the next forward to succumb to a tackle, coughing up the footy as Fifita and Fogarty converged on him. By this stage, Gold Coast were double Melbourne’s completion rate, at 80% to 40%, recalling the Storm’s lopsided game against the Raiders last week, when they conceded the first try, scored three by the second quarter, and then didn’t post another four-pointer for the remaining hour. Would they come back as quickly here?

The answer, in the short term, was no, since the Titans nabbed their next try a moment later, in a totally different, but equally dramatic way, to their first – and once again off a Herbert assist. Fogarty booted an absolutely soaring kick, and Herbert leaped above the Foxx to tap it back towards the chase, where Jayden Campbell caught it on the bounce to surge over untouched. From kick, to tap, to putdown, it had all the elegant inevitability of a mathematical proof, putting the Titans ten ahead when Fogarty converted from right in front.

For only the second time this year, after their Round 11 game against Canberra, the Storm were trailing by ten, which said something about Gold Coast’s determination, but also the visitors’ own sloppiness with some of their key players off the park. High on that flow, Corey Thompson took a wide ball from Wallace to dodge round Jennings, carrying the Steeden thirty-five metres up the left sideline before his men got six again off a ruck error from Munster. It was shaping to be the best set of the game by the time the ball reached Ash Taylor.

It was agonising, then, when Taylor fumbled the play-the-ball, handing Melbourne a critical letoff as they packed their first scrum of the evening. Kenny Bromwich got an offload away midway through the set, Hynes almost broke through the line, and Papenhuyzen capped off this escalating momentum with the best run of the night since Herbert’s mad dash for Marzhew. This was also a drive into the right corner, where Paps broke through several lines of defence, and brought in a whole pack of Titans as he reached the footy over the chalk.

Nevertheless, Gold Coast survived, and elasticised again on their left edge on the next set, where Taylor popped it out for Brian Kelly before delivering a decent kick to make up for his fumble a minute before. The Storm moved competently enough on their next bout of possession, but seemed starved for creative options, much as their body language had wilted in the wake of Campbell’s try. Like Taylor, Munster’s bomb was decent enough, but not the game-changing play the purple army needed.

On the other side of the Steeden, Campbell busted through a Harry Grant tackle early in the next set, paving the way for Fogarty to burn up the middle, before the Titans completed their eighth set to force Melbourne to work it back from their own twenty. Munster booted it just inside his own thirty, Campbell collected it on the sideline, and goose-stepped his way into a couple of extra metres, before Marzhew garnered a late penalty for a finger in the eye from the Foxx. He did well to milk it, but the set came to nothing with an Erin Clark cold drop.

It happened right on the ten, after a strong acceleration up field, and abruptly enough for the Storm to absorb all of Gold Coast’s recent momentum if they played this next scrum right. Poised on the second quarter, they were also at a critical tipping-point in the first half, so everything had to be about consolidation now. While Munster didn’t manage the offload through Tino on tackle two, Grant’s kick was a pearler, defying Thompson twice – first, when he stuck out a boot to contain it inside his own thirty, and then when he toed it at the ten. 

By the time he scooped it up, the Storm had trapped him on his own line, and yet Fogarty made his kick over the halfway mark, meaning the purple army only had this next set to draw on the residual rhythm-killer of Clark’s knock-on. If they hadn’t scored here, the game might have had a very different shape, and at first they looked like they might reach the nadir of their night now, as a Welch knock-on travelled back ten metres. They needed a big individual play – and Ado-Carr provided it, thanks to a deft wraparound pass from Paps on the left edge.

From there, the Foxx did what he does best – accelerate up the wing, careening back inside to dance over an ankle tap from Fogarty and pass a surprisingly calm ball across for Marion Seve to score. Papenhuyzen bookended it all with a kick in front, and we were back to a four point game, as the Storm faced a couple of big Gold Coast packs on the restart, before Tino condensed their import into a massive shot on Lewis – like three players hitting at once.

Munster, Grant and Jesse Bromwich showed they could muster a pack as good as any other at the start of the next set, with a three-man Goliaths-on-David effort to absolutely smother Campbell as they dragged him back ten metres. Each of them felt three times as big as the young fullback to begin with, so this display was exactly the kind of overkill that Melbourne needed to continue flexing their muscles. Sure enough, the Storm went from their own ten to the Titans’ ten on play two of the next set – their best command of the park so far.

The play started with Reimis Smith receiving the footy and busting through the line up the left, running a good sixty metres, and eluding several tackles, before shifting it inside for Jennings to reach the Titans’ red zone, where Fermor slammed in for a last-ditch trysaver. Nevertheless, the Storm had put money in the bank with this massive acceleration, giving Grant the attitude he needed for the confidence play of the first half – dummying a few times from the ten, only to crunch through the defensive line for Melbourne’s second try.

Grant had some big men to contend with, and yet in a single run he had made them look like they were just standing around. In one sequence, the Storm had showcased their dexterity at both long and close range – and while neither play was overtly arrogant, they provided our first glimpse of Melbourne’s capacity to take control of the park as if by birthright, a stark contrast to their dejected body language ten minutes into the match. With Paps adding another conversion in front, they took the lead for the first time to bring it all to 10-12.

They didn’t waste any time applying pressure to the Titans either, driving the footy all the way to the ten as the last ten minutes arrived, and forcing Fogarty to kick his next one inside the Gold Coast thirty. Midway through the next set, they started to really luxuriate in their elasticity, shifting it silkily out to their left edge, and settling into Cbus like it was their home ground, so it was a bit surprising when Kaufusi came up with another awkward ball on the wing, and Jennings followed Hynes by losing it, in his second error of this opening stanza.

This was a critical letoff for the Titans, so they had to build quickly on their next set, although Fifita’s run on the third tackle – only his third of the night – wasn’t too promising, quashed as soon as it began by a clinical Melbourne pack. That made it all the more spectacular when Campbell proved that David can indeed dominate Goliath, leaping above Munster to take Fogarty’s next bomb on the full, before careening to ground in the same methodical motion for his first career double. Fogarty booted through the extras, and Gold Coast led once more.

If Campbell’s first try felt like the last term in a mathematical proof, then Campbell himself was the proof here, capturing every critical ingredient in the try (apart from the kick) in one single trajectory. Preston Campbell had also scored his first double against Melbourne, so there was a lovely symmetry and continuity in seeing Jayden maintain the tradition, as his men got a restart on the restart, off an error from Welch. Their flow was peaking again, but the score would stay at 16-12, despite a one-point field goal attempt from Taylor on the siren.

Yet even Taylor’s attempt spoke to the panache and grit of the Titans, who had bounced back brilliantly after Melbourne’s two tries. Over the next forty minutes, the visitors would surge to a 34-20 win, but this 16-12 victory to Gold Coast at half time was nothing to scoff at either. The Storm had a pretty methodical set back from the break, ending with a Munster kick from the Gold Coast forty that Campbell took clean in the face of a convincing chase, before summoning a big pack to prevent Fifita from getting an offload away three tackles later.

Munster, by contrast, popped it out the back to Seve later in the first set, although once again Fermor came up with a terrific save – not a trysaver this time, but a momentum-killer, shutting down Hynes just as he was preparing to elasticise on the right edge. Fogarty was the next Titan to be frustrated while searching for second phase, before Tyrone Peachey made the first error of the back half with a marginally forward pass on the penultimate play, and big Tino tried to minimse the damage with a monster shot on Seve.

Not only did Seve get some joy by collecting a very late offload from Kenny Bromwich a few plays later, after Melbourne experimented with some different options between the ten and twenty, but he fed the footy quickly for Grant to assist Munster out on the left wing for what was arguably the key consolidation try of the night. It was a splendid one-man effort, but also drew in a whole pack of Gold Coast defenders, as Munster burrowed through them all to get the footy down, seeming to dispose of the home team’s whole momentum in the process.

Papenhuyzen doesn’t have a great record with sideline conversions, but he got lucky here, landing the Steeden at the angle between post and crossbar to send it careening behind the line for two more. Melbourne had restored their two-point lead, while the fortuity of this kick provided that extra incentive to maximise the restart, especially since their two tries in the first stanza had occurred within four minutes, much as their three tries against Canberra last week had unfolded in the first quarter.

They certainly delivered the most kinetic restart so far, as Munster booted hard, low and early, setting up a play that only Ado-Carr could deliver – and, perhaps, that Campbell could only save with the confidence of his best opening forty and first career double behind him. Sliding in from the side, he popped the footy into touch just as the Foxx got there, although the Storm still got a repeat set in the ten, forcing the Titans into their most desperate goal line defence.

Hynes had a pretty quiet night so far, and he was frustrated again here, cleaned up by three Gold Coast defenders to prevent him assisting Papenhuyzen on his inside for what seemed a fairly certain try. Paps got another shot on the fourth, drifting across the rack, and commencing a sweep that ended with Lewis being dragged over the sideline a tackle later. Going down the short side – such a short side – was a risky play, and it hadn’t paid off, a credit to the strength of the Thompson-Kelly-Fermor pack that bumped him into touch.

This wasn’t a disastrous Melbourne set, but it was still a significant letoff for Gold Coast in the context of this two-point game, especially since permitting the purple army go back to back would have been unthinkable at this stage. In one of his best takes since returning to the field, Papenhuyzen leaped a metre to meet the high ball in the air, landing so late that he tempted Peachey into dangerous contact. In the spirit of this clutchy game, however, Welch made his second error, losing the footy into a tackle from Fifita, who slapped him on the back in joy.

We were now treated to a brief flashback of the opening minutes, as the Titans broke from the scrum and fed it out to Herbert to barge up the right edge. This time, though, the play didn’t go all the way to the corner, shifting out to the other wing, midway through the count, where Thompson saw a mercurial hole open and close before him. For a brief beat it looked like Gold Coast might have returned, circuitously and ingeniously, to that opening try, as Fogarty lofted a harbour bridge ball back over Ado-Carr’s head for Marzhew to put it down.

Yet the try was denied, due to the second successive forward pass from the home team. If the Storm scored now, they could decisively shut down the spectre of that opening try – of the whole Gold Coast opening surge, which had percolated and trickled into an unexpectedly close contest. Grant broke into space on play two, bumping off Campbell at the forty to burn another ten metres before Seve failed to link up with Ado-Carr on the left, meaning it all came down to Munster’s decision to run it on the last.

Papenhuyzen was the final player to touch the ball, and was felled by yet another Fermor save, although the Titans hadn’t quite contained the import of that run from Grant, who had now made more metres (115) than any other Melbourne player. That said, Marzhew and Thompson were still ahead of him at 128 and 120 respectively, so the stats were on Gold Coast’s side in this one respect, even if Fogarty’s next kick was the shallowest of the night, allowing Tepai Moeroa to barge into their red zone by tackle three of the subsequent set.

In the most visceral turnaround of the game so far, Grant dabbed on the last, Campbell scooped it up, and then played it – to nobody. With no Titan present to scoop up the Steeden, Kenny Bromwich got a hand to it instead, setting up the Storm for an unexpected repeat set within the ten. No surprise that Gold Coast never recovered from this shock handover, and the most embarrassing play of the night – their defensive line felt as non-existent as their dummy half when Papenhuyzen fed the footy out for Ado-Carr’s easiest try of the season.

After several situations where it felt like the Foxx might save the day with a long-range effort – most recently at the back of Munster’s early kick – it was almost anticlimactic to see him cross over so easily, for a four-pointer that virtually any other winger in the comp could have scored. In doing so, he cruised past Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab, who were on 20 tries apiece, to become the second top scorer of the season, behind Alex Johnston at 24. Paps missed the kick, but the Storm still had their biggest margin so far with a 22-16 lead.

Jesse Bromwich got the restart rolling with a rollicking run on the second, and the Melbourne spine continued to come into their own in the later plays – but so did Campbell, planting both feet apart and steeling himself for the full brunt of the chase as he prepared to field a Hynes bomb. Nicho stepped into the spotlight a set later, starting a left sweep out to the Foxx, before running a deft line up the inside, where he took the ball back from Ado-Carr to slice past the left post untouched for the Storm’s third try in a row.

Full credit to the Foxx, too, for the mercurial run back in field, and his best pivot of the night – straight off the left boot before he’d even received the Steeden from Papenhuyzen, who was always going to convert from right in front. The purple army were now a converted try ahead, 42 and 497 on the live ladder (compared to Penrith at 38 and 329) while Gold Coast hadn’t scored since the break. Even if a win seemed beyond them now, they needed to put down another try to prove that opening surge had been no fluke.

Hynes, who had been pretty quiet over that first half, continued to enterprise on the restart, bumping off a couple of tackles on the right edge, and garnering a restart off Taylor, who took out his frustration with a knee (really more of a thigh push) to Nicho’s chest. He was put on report, but the real issue was that this unnecessary play spoke volumes to Gold Coast’s mindset at this late stage in the game – not the display they needed from their five-eighth.

The Storm very nearly scored off this psychological advantage, spreading the Steeden so rapidly out to their left edge, at the end of the set, that the play came apart. Even then, Kenny Bromwich was nearly able to put it down, and yet Marzhew was in place for the clutch effort of the night, recovering possession and just bringing it back into the field of play. Taylor tried to work his way back from the Hynes fiasco with an edge play of his own, but he dummied one time too many, giving Lewis space to drag him into touch.

This was the dominant display of the night, as Lewis’ show of strength was compounded by a follow-up effort from Reimis Smith, who lifted Taylor by the collar and dumped him over the sideline like an intractable puppy. The Titans had only completed 4/8 sets by this point, while Melbourne were 12/14 and back in the ten in no time, where they repeated their left sweep on the last play, but with more caution now – too much, it seemed, since Gold Coast had ample time to trap Foxx on the sideline with a wall of defenders.

Yet Ado-Carr was up to the task, banging the footy off the side of his boot and back infield, where it careened away from Papenhuyzen at a crazy angle, begging out for a Gold Coast intercept. Instead, Paps collected it beautifully, and followed with an equally impressive, if more conventional kick, trapping Herbert behind the line for a dropout, only for Taylor to go short enough for big Tino to get it back from Jesse Bromwich. Herbert’s night got that little bit worse, though, when he knocked on Fogarty’s next bomb.

The Storm didn’t score off this precise play, but the error propelled them into refining their two left-edge attempts midway down the park, as Munster schooled Taylor in how to dummy, showing it once overtly, and then shifting it subliminally from side to side, as he took in every possible option, every conceivable combination, before deciding that the classic play was the best – short ball out to Ado-Carr, who crossed over untouched with Marzhew at his back. Papnhuyzen added the extras, and Melbourne reached their final tally of 34.

From a rocky start (for them) and a halftime lead for the Gold Coast, the Storm had settled into the footy professionalism they do so well – and that no other team in the league can match when they’re firing on all cylinders. Foxx was barking out orders as the conversion cleared the posts, a stark contrast to the Titans squad, who looked as dejected here as their defence had been deflated in the face of Munster’s monster run. Still, they survived the restart – not through any initiative of their own, but via a Lewis error off a Papenhuyzen pass.

Four tackles out of the subsequent scrum, Peachey lost the footy back to Munster, and while Wallace dumped Welch on his back, and Tyrone himself came in for a hard shot on Aaron Pene, Hynes had really found his flow on the right edge – and sent a beautiful wide ball across to Smith, who caught it just above the turf and responded with an even clutchier play. Shaping to grubber, and seeing Kelly come in to deflect it, he sent the Steeden through the ex-Eagle’s legs, but incompletely, so it ricocheted off his right boot and careened into the corner.

From here, Smith and Campbell converged on it, and with nothing to lose, Gold Coast sent the play upstairs to see whether Jayden had actually sent it touch in goal. Not only did the footage confirm the on-field ruling, but it showed that Kelly’s contact had been intentional, forcing Gold Coast to contend with another dropout. Once again, though, Taylor went left, and a couple of Titans reached up to tap it before Campbell got it back. A play later, Fogarty sent Marzhew into space up the right edge, where he dragged Paps all the way to the twenty.

The Titans were on the line a moment later, remaining on the right edge, thanks to a big run from Tino, and then mirroring Melbourne’s earlier shift to the left. They got a restart on the way, but didn’t need it, since Peachey plunged over Cooper Johns and landed on his back before the in-goal area, but managed to maintain enough momentum through a last-ditch Kaufusi tackle to reach the footy behind his head. Just as Campbell had made up for conceding the dropout by saving it, Peachey brought his error off the scrum full circle with his try here.

Even if Fogarty missed the conversion, and even if the game ended with a Taylor obstruction, Campbell and Peachey’s minor redemption plays were the last word, a reminder of just how valiantly Gold Coast had fought against Melbourne tonight. That should be a decent motivator when they open next week’s round as well, against the Knights, while the Storm, assured of their top four booth for many weeks now, will be looking to make bigger history – to become the first team in Australian rugby league history to win twenty on the trot.

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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