Saturday night’s game at Suncorp should have been a watershed moment for Melbourne, who had just become the first team since the Roosters of 1975 to make it nineteen victories in a row. Nicho Hynes was coming off the bench for the first time since Round 6, Harry Grant and Brandon Smith were both starting, and Felise Kaufusi was celebrating his 150th game in the NRL. Everything was on point for a historic win to propel the purple army into finals footy.
Instead, the Eels used the importance of the game for Melbourne to effect a sublime culture shift, just as they built progressively on Melbourne’s near-misses to absorb and claim the purple army’s momentum as their own. While the first quarter started as end-to-end footy, a volatile ambience spread over the field from the twenty-minute mark – and time and again the Eels tapped into it, culminating with an extraordinary consolidation in the final quarter. It didn’t hurt, either, that Josh Ado-Carr was off with a mild hamstring injury just after the break.
Christian Welch took the first hit-up, and then the first offload on tackle four, although the Storm couldn’t quite break halfway before Jahrome Hughes took his opening kick – a shallow affair that Haze Dunster was able to clean up without any trouble. Joey Lussick also booted it from within his own end – his own forty – although Parra probably had a stronger set, overall, than Melbourne, even if they didn’t make quite as much position – a sign of things to come.
Hughes’ next kick came from the same place, Nathan Brown took a strong run, prompting a tough legs tackle from Grant, and Parra became the first team to cross into enemy territory, thanks to a high-risk play from Waqa Blake that didn’t pay quite off. While he did get outside Smith, he couldn’t find any support players, and was moving too fast to get to ground before Josh Ado-Carr dragged him into touch. Conversely, Melbourne expanded well on their own left edge now, thanks to a floater from Cameron Munster that hit the Foxx out on the wing.
Galvanised by this mini-surge, Hughes’ third bomb to the right corner was his strongest yet, placing considerable pressure on Clint Gutherson as the purple army mounted their best chase so far as well. Sensing a swing towards the Storm, Mitch Moses kicked midway through the next set, in an effort to reshape this early part of the match – and it worked, since while Melbourne forced their way up the middle pretty professionally, they didn’t risk another left sweep, forcing Hughes to kick from his own forty once again, but this time to the other wing.
Blake Ferguson had his first great moment of the night now, landing on his back to take the footy, before the Eels received the first restart off a Munster error. Moses consolidated further with the most soaring bomb of the game so far, under considerable pressure from Munster, who was clearly keen to make up for his mistake, and Paps did well to collect it on the full. Continuing the end-to-end rhythm of this meeting, the Storm got a restart early in the count, thanks to a Brown error – but it all came apart with a poor play-the-ball from Olam.
This was the first real rhythm-breaker of the game, and the first period of close-range attack, so Parra had to make the most of their full set in the Melbourne red zone. Junior Paulo hadn’t scored since the two teams met in Round 2, and took a valiant run at the posts on tackle two here, building enough momentum around the middle for Moses to feed it out to Fergo two plays later. It was a beautiful set piece – straight over the Foxx to Fergo, who hit it with his left hand, regathered it in his right, and slammed over for four before Mitch added the extras.
Moses hadn’t been kicker since Round 16, so it was great to see him slot it through here – especially since he can be pretty streaky with the boot, often settling into a cascade of conversions once he puts the first one across. The Eels have also won all four games this year when they’ve scored first, so this try culminated an opening flow that felt like a culture change after their more recent performances. They got more position on tackle one of the restart too, when Jesse Bromwich took out some of his team’s frustration with a crusher on Papali’i.
From here, Parra elasticised up the left edge, and might have gone back-to-back if Hughes hadn’t prevented a Shaun Lane offload, slowing the acceleration just enough for Ado-Carr to take the subsequent kick on the full, right on the Melbourne line. Papenhuyzen built on this defensive acumen by breaking through the defence on the next set, for the fastest surge so far, but the speed ended up overtaking them, as Isaac Lumelume booted it too far on the last.
They hadn’t lost any energy next time they had ball in hand though, as Smith started with a monster run that dishevelled the Eels enough for Paulo to infringe the ruck. After so many repeat sets early in the count, Melbourne looked good to capitalise here, but instead Felise Kaufusi started his milestone match with a pretty drab play – a cut-out ball that sailed over the sideline instead of finding Lumelume. Moses and Gutho absorbed this energy quickly with a good combo up the right edge, before Paulo offloaded for Gutherson with one tackle to go.
Everything came down to Moses’ kick – not only the best grubber of the night, but a vision of everything a grubber should be, slowing down deceptively as it approached the chalk only to bounce up again when it cleared the goal line. Fergo should have been able to read this play intuitively, so it was agonising when he overran it – such a drastic and dramatic reversal that the Storm were able to consolidate immediately, and with a classic consolidation try to boot.
They started with their best right sweep of the night – a short ball from Munster, a subliminal dummy, and a superb cut-out from Papenhuyzen. This in itself would have been a confidence-builder, a sign that the Storm could shift it across field as elegantly as they normally do. The icing on the cake here came from Lumelume, who received the Steeden from his fullback, and made good on his previous kick to the corner – not by kicking this time, but by delivering an equally clutchy play on that right edge, with a last-ditch pass back inside before hitting touch.
Reimis Smith was in place to collect it on the chest, crossing over untouched before Paps added the extras to wrap things up at 6-6. The second quarter arrived as Melbourne stuck into their restart, which the Eels survived, before recouping some rhythm with big metres on the next set and a terrific Dylan Brown bomb that Moses very nearly took and grounded with one of the highest leaps of his career. Everything hung in the balance now – Parra had bounced back after the Storm try, but they’d also had two near misses on the back of kicks.
Ironically, what they needed was another Melbourne near-miss to congeal and motivate them to reach for the next level. They got it at the end of the next set, when Munster sent out a floater to Ado-Carr, who barged straight into Gutho, and came to ground, but not without setting up Olam for what should have been a dropout if Olam hadn’t booted it too far. A few sets ago, Lane had struggled to offload on the left edge, but Nathan Brown got one away now, steering Moses to another dangerous bomb, and Parra to their best chase so far.
Despite a couple of passes and tap-backs, the footy ended up with the worst possible player – Ado-Carr, who put the frustration of the last Storm sequence behind him by surging halfway up the park, where Fergo brought him to ground, albeit not decisively enough to prevent Lumelume drawing on the same energy, a play later, up the right sideline. Yet Dylan Brown responded with one of the great hits of his career, coming so late and low from deep infield he almost slid past his target, only to wrap a last-ditch arm round his boot and unbalance him.
By this stage, we were deep in the brinksmanship of finals footy – both teams struggling to harness the volatility and adrenalin that seeped over the field with each near-miss and frustrated-inspired play. Lumelume had bookended his assist with two disappointments up the right edge, so it was a critical consolidator for the Storm when Munster made good on Olam’s aborted dropout attempt with a well-weighted grubber in the same part of the park.
They were inside the ten by tackle three, and unable to complete their sweep on the left edge, shifting it out to the right where Lumelume added to Munster’s consolidation moment as Reimis Smith returned his earlier favour, feeding him a short ball that turned into an easy assst when Dunster and Blake came in too tight on the sliding defence. Yet the try still felt clutchy, since Lumelume came in at such an acute angle that he very nearly made an unforced grounding area here, so close did his knees come to the line before he got the Steeden down.
In the spirit of this closely-contested game, the score remained 10-4 when Papenhuyzen sent the kick wide, while the Storm spent most of the restart in their own end, with only Hughes making a metre or two over the halfway line to improvise an impressive banana out to the right edge – a terrific save after the briefest of Melbourne lulls, good enough to restrict Parra to a 32-metre gain on the following set. Meanwhile, Bryce Cartwright made a mark off the bench with a beautiful combo with Paulo, passing and receiving the offload up the left edge.
This ushered in another volatile sequence, as Moses responded with his first poor kick of the night, and Olam made it a hat trick of errors with a forward pass midway through the next set. Both teams had thrived on opposition near-misses, so it felt like a final try was imminent in the last four minutes before the break. Near-errors were also motivating now, so the Eels seemed preternaturally strengthened by what may have been a forward pass from Dylan Brown on the left, and then some dangerous contact from Fergo the refs somehow missed.
Not only that, but the penalty now went to Kenny Bromwich for an offside error, meaning the Eels had surfed the escalating brinksmanship through so many near-misses and near-mirrors that the try felt preordained. Sure enough, they scored on the very next play, showing the Storm they could sweep just as fluidly by sending the Steeden from left to right sideline, where Dunster put it down untouched for a 10-10 halftime score after Moses missed the kick.
This was an impressive scoreline for Parra in itself – little could they know that they would prevent Melbourne getting another point, and win the second stanza 12-0. As if inchoately aware of the threat to come, the Storm mounted a massive pack to drag Dylan Brown right back to the line on the first tackle back from the break, although the second play was more worrying, downing Paulo with what seemed to be an ankle injury. Things went from bad to worse at the end of the set, when Moses dropped the footy before he could get to his kick.
Luckily Paulo was back on his feet as the Storm started their set at the forty, but this was still a rough opening for Parra, who got another scare when Grant hit the line at speed on the left, and very nearly broke through. The hosts headed that way again on the last, where Munster replicated his earlier floater to the Foxx, and while the Eels scrambled to clean it up, Will Penisini followed Moses’ cough-up, and Lussick infringed the ruck, so it was a game-changer when Paulo showed his fitness by charging in to knock the Steeden free from Tui Kamikamica.
All of a sudden, we were back to the pattern of the second quarter – near-misses, close calls and escalating volatility. This was the precarious space that had served Parra well in those critical final minutes, so they felt more at home here, as Brown made terrific metres up the middle, and Marata Niukore followed on the right edge to give Fergo a glimpse of the try line. The Eels consolidated further by drawing on two of their best plays from before the break – the massive sweep out to the left wing, and Carty’s dexterity with shaping second phase play.
While it didn’t come together here, it didn’t need to, since Kaufusi was called offside before it all fell apart, setting up Moses to boot through the game’s sole penalty goal to bring his men into the top four on the live ladder. They didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart either, as Blake pummelled up the left, Carty followed in his slipstream, and Dylan Brown abruptly pivoted with a bomb to the other side that Moses knocked straight back to Niukore. Once again, though, Ado-Carr ended up as the beneficiary of a Parramatta tap-back.
He got on the outside of Paulo for a decent run up the left edge, but Grant was unable to mirror his vision on the right, popping the footy a metre forward before Hynes regained possession with a determined tackle on Gutho to mark his presence off the bench. The changeovers were coming so fast and hard now that they were threatening to devolve the finely-tuned volatility of the game into a messier kind of chaos, so both teams reset the rhythm with conventional sets, driving it hard, straight and methodically up the middle third.
Nevertheless, this equilibrium couldn’t last for long, as Smith became the next Melbourne player to be put on report with a high shot on Niukore, who came off for an HIA as Ray Stone left the bench. Ado-Carr had also been off the park since his contact with Paulo, but word came down from the sheds now that it was only a minor hamstring strain and that he would likely be fine for next week’s game against the Sharks. It didn’t take the Storm long to feel his absence either, as Fergo now executed a Foxx-like try against a new combo on their left side.
This was a classic Ferguson try, as he received the short ball from Gutho, palmed off Reimis Smith with his left hand and effectively somersaulted over the Steeden, landing ball-first to put Parra a converted try ahead as Moses just missed the sideline conversion. The kickoff was enormous, hitting the post, almost defying Gutherson behind the line, and keeping Parra in their own territory for the entire set, forcing Moses to boot it from well within his own thirty.
Paulo made up for the aborted restart with a huge hit on Papenhuyzen – and it had a similar impact to Munster’s kickoff, leaving the Melbourne five-eighth without a decent chase when Fergo took his next one on the full. After a period so defined by Munster’s boot, Moses hit back with a big bomb, but the spiral hadn’t quite asserted itself by the time it reached Smith’s hands, while the Eels took another step backwards when Nathan Brown was put on report for late contact on Tom Eisenhuth, who became the next player to leave the park for an HIA.
Little by little, the Storm had made their own luck over the last passage of play, and now they had a full set in the Parramatta red zone. Kamikamica dragged three defenders beneath the crossbar on tackle two, Tepai Moeroa hit back with a damaging disposal of Stone, and Olam broke through on the left edge, curving around behind the posts but only on the back of an overt Bromwich-Moses obstruction. Just like that, the Storm had exhausted this recent surge, and once again Olam had got no joy, even if the error didn’t come from his own play this time.
So much of this game had involved subliminal shifts in momentum, mercurial periods when one team managed to harness the volatile ambience of it all, so it felt almost inevitable when the Storm were pinged for a marginally early tackle from Lumelume midway through the next set. Olam came up with his best hit of the game to prevent Penisini crossing on the last, but Penisini would get his own back a couple of seconds later, in yet another rapid shift in fortune, as the game entered its final quarter with the most adrenalin-charged sequence of the night.
In fact, this was the period that cemented Parramatta’s comeback – confirmed them as a real top four prospect. True to the give-and-take of this particular contest, it started with the Storm’s fastest acceleration so far – so fast that the Eels were destined to score once they wrestled Melbourne’s energy back into their own arsenal. It started with a Moses kick that Hughes took straight on the chest and fed out at the forty to Hynes, who flicked it back inside at the Eels’ forty for Papenhuyzen to make another ten metres before he finally came down.
Undaunted, the Storm shifted left just as quickly, where Kenny Bromwich made space up the side for Olam, only for Penisini to get his revenge for the denied try. Taking a set to straighten up the middle, they might have scored then and there if play hadn’t paused for Papenhuyzen, who copped an accidental head knock from Dylan Brown. When the set resumed, the Storm shifted left again, where Fergo culminated one of his best periods since returning to top-tier footy, leaping up in the air to clean up a Bromwich kick in an athletic sequel to his own try.
As fate would have it, Ferguson was called offside within the ten, but without the subsequent Melbourne set in the Parramatta ten, the visitors might not have scored on their next touch of the footy. The purple pressure was the last ingredient the Eels needed to complete their comeback, prompting their best defence of the game – and then their best attack, when Grant flicked it forward. Nathan Brown got them rolling with a monster run, Blake followed by barging it up the middle like he was the biggest forward on the park – and they headed left.
Everything came together now, as Brown shifted it out to Carty, who assisted Dunster for a linebreak assist up the side – a scintillating run that ended with a flick back inside for Lussick to smash over for what would become the final try of the night. Moses added the extras, the Eels were twelve ahead, and yet they got a big blow when Gutho left the park, meaning they had to scramble until the very end to prevent Melbourne making history with twenty wins.
The next big surge came ten minutes out from the break, when Hynes fended off Dunster, broke through the line, ran half the park, and only came to ground within the twenty. In one of the most extraordinary Melbourne moments this year, Papenhuyzen was so desperate to receive the footy that he lifted Hynes off the ground, with both hands, so that he could play it – a fullback-on-fullback moment if there ever was one – setting up a convulsive stint on the left edge that, in another game, would have inevitably ended with four more for the Storm.
First, Olam broke through, but was held up by Moses, and while Bromwich got the footy back, the Parra defence scrambled for a second time, in exactly the same place, to keep him at bay. Melbourne had one more tackle to play with, and Hughes opted to run it, but the Eels were waiting for him too, contacting him so violently that he lost the footy forward. Frustrated on their left edge, the Storm clinically shifted their attention to the right, building into Lumelume’s wing on their next set, only for a three-Parra pack to drag him over the sideline.
Even Papenhuyzen couldn’t rally his men at this late stage in the game – his grubber six minutes out was a non-event, a stark contrast to a beautiful Moses long ball that only just went touch in goal to grant Melbourne a precious seven tackle set. In one last clutch effort, Paps didn’t permit his men to use a single one of them, kicking on the first but without managing to hit touch, as the Eels barrelled into the Storm’s red zone with four on the clock.
Moses seemed to be considering a field goal, Papali’i found space up the left, Peinisini had a crack at smashing over out of dummy half, and Melbourne had to work it out of their own left corner, staring defeat in the face. While Moses missed the one-point field goal a minute later, the Eels stayed strong, ending with a 143 differential and 32 points on the live ladder to put a decent space between themselves and the Roosters (117, 32), high on the flow of the best late season resurgence we’ve witnessed in years – a charge for finals football like no other.