ROUND 25: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v. Melbourne Storm (Cbus Super Stadium, 3/9/21, 16-28)

Melbourne and Cronulla were at opposite ends of the ladder when they met at Cbus on Friday evening – the Storm on top, the Sharkies on eighth. A win here would secure a finals berth for the Sydneysiders, and they could still make it if the Titans lost to the Warriors the next day as well. They were playing for their seventh finals appearance – an achievement in itself given they had only two wins in the first ten rounds of football – with Matt Moylan starting in the five-eighth jersey for the first time since Round 15 to give them an extra boost.

Surprisingly, and despite a couple of poor plays from Moylan, this was a real arm-wrestle for the first half – 6-6 by the 23rd minute and then 12-12 with a Katoa try on the stroke of half time – especially since the Storm should have been fired up after their shock loss to Parra last week. Put it down to having a handful of their biggest players off the ground, as well as the slight complacency that comes from playing with nothing to lose on the cusp of finals footy.

In that sense, the Storm only really felt urgent in the ten minutes back from the break, when they put down a pair of rapid tries that effectively guaranteed them the game. With a third try in the final quarter they secured their fourth minor premiership in six years and their fifth since 2011, while becoming the second team to score 800 points after the Parramatta outfit of 2001. It was a sterling way to celebrate Dale Finucane’s 150th game before heading to Cronulla next year, and spoke to Ryan Papenhuyzen’s brilliance since his return from injury.

Nicho Hynes took the kickoff, Tui Kamikamica had the first carry, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona marked his first game in six weeks with two strong runs on the second and fourth tackles. He bobbled the ball ever so slightly on the second, but he’d completely recovered by the end of the set, steadying Melbourne into a strong opening statement. On the other side of the Steeden, Aaron Woods got the first offload away to Blayke Brailey, while Braydon Trindall’s first bomb posed problems for Kamikamica, as Trent Loeira surged in to clean it up for him.

Jahrome Hughes sent it end-over-end for the second time, Will Kennedy took it well, and the Sharkies worked their way up the middle third, as Trindall went bomb-for-bomb with another high one. This was a high-energy contest, as the Storm also took it up the middle, suggesting that it might take the first error or penalty for one team to get the upper hand. It came at the end of the next Melbourne set, when Dale Finucane slammed in to force a knock-on from Mawene Hiroti – and sure enough the purple army scored two tackles out of the scrum feed.

This was exactly the kind of try you’d expect from a game with so much fast, hard, straight running. NAS took the first carry, barging through a Cronulla pack before being brought to ground just on the line, and played the ball quickly enough for Brandon Smith to briefly dummy to the right and do the same. Crashing through three Sharks just beside the left post, he set up Hynes for an easy conversion from right in front, making it about a point a minute.

Melbourne had real momentum now, so the Sharks had to really shut them down on the restart – and that’s just what they did, summoning a pack defence to keep the first couple of plays in the Storm’s red zone, before Jack Williams collected a loose carry from Justin Olam as soon as he tried to accelerate up the left edge. This sudden turnaround galvanised them into their most elastic and expansive play so far, as they made metres up the left and swept it across to the left, before Jesse Ramien dragged Dean Ieremia at the back of a Trindall chip.

The Sharkies had compounded their most elastic play and their first goal line attack with the opening dropout of the game, so this was a real consolidation moment if they could seize the chance. Hynes only booted it just beyond the forty, giving his defenders space to field a mad Toby Rudolf charge, although it didn’t prevent Woodsy taking it over the ten midway through the count. The last stage in this superb accumulation came with the first six again, right on the line, off a ruck error from Chris Lewis, and to their credit Cronulla brought it all together.

They’d already swept left at the start of this sequence, so they headed right now, where Trindall held up the defence before popping it out to Ramien, who bumped into Hynes, came to ground beneath a Melbourne pack, but still managed to offload it back to Sione Katoa, who fended off Ieremia just long enough to get it down before NAS arrived to slam him into touch. Trindall might have missed the conversion, but the Sharks had scored in the face of Melbourne’s toughest defence so far and made good on their first real burst of field position.

They also had a better restart, ending with a soaring Trindall bomb that forced the Storm to work that little bit harder for territory when they got the ball back. In fact, they had the best state of flow for either team so far, although the thing about flow is that one team can easily steal it from another with a sudden error – and that’s what nearly happened when Moylan showed his rustiness with a unforced fumble early in the next Cronulla set for a Storm scrum.

All of a sudden, Melbourne were back on the Sharkies’ line, where Kamikamica almost surged over beside the left post, and Ryan Papenhuyzen did sail over further out towards the wing, in a kind of riposte to Cronulla’s skill with the sweeps – a dummy sweep, as Hughes popped it out to Hynes, Hynes shaped for the wing, and then popped it back into to his fullback, who sliced through the defence like it was butter. This would have been Pap’s first try since his injury, but the Sharks got a letoff with a pretty clear Chris Lewis obstruction on Briton Nikora.

The Storm might have quelled Cronulla’s flow, then, but they hadn’t entirely absorbed it as their own, and so the next Sharkies set felt like a gradual return to their earlier bout of field position, from the truncated sweep to the left, to the third dropout from Trindall – the most he’d ever forced in a single game, with only a quarter of football behind him. Woods was at the red zone by play one, where he stood in the tackle for a good couple of seconds, and Kennedy was inside the ten a tackle later, as the big men got going with a few big crash plays.

As it turned out, they made one too many, as Teig Wilton opted to run the footy on the last on the left, where the Storm managed to summon a pack to hold him up, having learned their lesson from the two aborted efforts that permitted Katoa to cross over on the other side of the field. Four plays later Papenhuyzen came dangerously close to another break on his own left wing, but the Sharks survived once again, getting seven tackles to make their way upfield.

They capitalised quickly, with their first really convincing surge up the right, and then got another chance when Olam put a late shot on Nikora right on the line. This was a Pyrrhic victory in some ways, since it did take Briton from the park, although you had to wonder whether he’d gone off partly for the free interchange, since his head didn’t seem to hit the ground, and there didn’t appear to be all that much ricochet in it either. In any case, Trindall took the two, levelling the score from right in front – pretty impressive for eighth against first.

The next set began as a second great restart for the Sharkies, hard and fast up the middle, but devolved into a second rhythm-killer from Moylan, who tried to make space up the left, only to be dragged over the sideline by Marion Seve. A moment later Hynes got Melbourne within the ten, where it looked like Smith might be in for another enterprising play, off a short ball from Harry Grant. He’d counted without Siosifa Talakai, who was determined not to let Smith cross over again by surging in with the most bone-crunching low hit so far to get the ball free.

This ushered in the most vulnerable period of the first half for Melbourne, as Ieremia took the next high ball clean but passed it slightly behind Papenhuyzen, who reached out an arm to rein it in, to no avail. The Sharkies swept left immediately, where Kennedy almost found space, before Braden Hamlin-Uele started one of his more punishing periods of the game by bringing it right to the line, where Smith got some joy by spearheading a pack to hold him up.

Cronulla moved right just as quickly, where Moylan coughed up a Ramien offload, and then reached out his arm to tap it back for Brailey to dive on fifteen metres downfield. This was a key tipping-point in the game, since if Moylan had knocked on during either of these plays he would have made it a hat trick of errors, and cost his men some serious momentum. Grant Atkins’ onfield call was that the tap-back had bounced off Aaron Pene on its way to Brailey, but the Sharkies wisely sent it upstairs, where it showed the footy clearing the no. 11’s chest.

Cronulla might not have scored here, despite another mammoth run from Hamlin-Uele, but seeing Moylan regather, if only in retrospect, steeled them for the last part of the first half, as both teams went head to head with a pair of consolidation tries. The first came from Melbourne, off a Kennedy error, as Papenhuyzen got his four points on the left edge after all, in a kind of revised and refined version of the Hynes linkup that almost put him over early on.

This time Hynes started the sequence, collecting a wide ball and popping it out to Olam, who added his best timing of the game, twisting so restlessly in the tackle from Ramien that it was genuinely unpredictable in what direction he’d offload. He eventually opted to send it out to Paps, who dashed back inside just as quickly, slicing past Ramien before he’d even risen from the ground, and ducking under Trindall to slam the Steeden down. Hynes bookended the sequence with a well-placed conversion from the side and again, the Storm were six ahead.

True to this arm wrestle, though, the Sharkies managed to level the score again before half time, with an even better consolidation try, off an even clumsier Melbourne error. It came at the back of a messy offload from Nikora, who (unsurprisingly) had been cleared to return shortly after leaving for his HIA. Lewis tried to contain it, Atkins called a knock-on, and the Storm wasted their Captain’s Challenge to confirm what was pretty clear in real time – that Lewis had indeed knocked it back, only to fumble the footy forward as he tried to regather it.

Cronulla had one more set before the break, and at first it looked like just maintaining possession would be achievement enough, as Trindall lost the footy backwards on the left edge, and Kennedy scrambled to scoop it up with forty seconds on the clock. Undaunted, the hosts shifted it right, where Moylan ran into the line and popped it out to Kennedy, who didn’t catch-and-pass so much as inadvertently ricochet it out to Katoa for another try on the wing.

This was the perfect consolidation try – not just because it bookended the first stanza with a Katoa double, and not just because Moylan had finally come good on this right edge, but because the sheer precarity and improbability of the whole sequence embodied just how valiantly Cronulla had battled the odds throughout the first half. They were at the other end of the eight from Melbourne, but you wouldn’t know it as Katoa rose in triumph as the siren rang, while Trindall made it three from three with the boot to take them 12-12 to the sheds.

This was a remarkable achievement for Cronulla, especially since the Storm have lost all three games this year when they were equal at half time. Yet Melbourne hit back pretty convincingly here, defending well on the Sharkies’ first set back from the break to begin their attack at the halfway line, and then working their way up to the right corner, where Seve smashed over out of dummy half, bumping off Tracey and disposing of Moylan and Kennedy.

Hynes missed the conversion but he still got a chance to make it a six point lead at the end of the best restart so far, starting with Trent Loeira busting through a couple of defenders up the right edge, before the Sharks conceded a pair of penalties – Brailey for crowding NAS, and Woodsy for finding himself offside. It was a sign of respect for Cronulla that the Storm opted to take the two, and this conservative decision fuelled them into another try on the next set.

Finucane got things rolling with a pummelling run, determined to make this restart as good as the last, although the Storm lost some pace on tackle two, when Grant remained on the ground for an age, trying to milk the penalty. Yet this brief pause was just as effective as the decision to take the penalty, as Grant took a quick play-the-ball from NAS a tackle late and went from dormant to magnificent, breaking through the line, showing the Steeden from side to side, and flicking it across for Papenhuyzen to careen over for four beside the right post.

Hynes had another easy kick from in front – and just like that the Storm had gone from equal to double Cronulla in ten minutes. They were on +499 on the live ladder too, and it felt like it, rolling through another restart that Hughes capped off with his biggest bomb since the break. When Trindall collected it, the Sharks hadn’t touched the footy since their first set back from the sheds, so they had to make some rapid headway here, although it wouldn’t be with Trindall’s next bomb – a wobbly, slightly messy effort that Lumelume took right on the turf.

Instead, they needed an error – and they got one, along with some much-needed field position, when Hynes lost the footy on play four of the following Melbourne set. Kennedy consolidated with a fast kick down the left edge, and Lumelume chased it right to the dead ball line, where it was hard to tell, in real time, whether he’d got to it before or after touch. The replay showed how valiantly Hiroti had refused to give up on this play, applying so much chase pressure that Lumelume made contact just as the Steeden hung over the dead ball line.

This was a potential rallying-point for the Sharkies, so it was doubly dispiriting when Tepai Moeroa made his mark with a tough low tackle to prevent what would otherwise have been a certain Tracey try on the left edge. Meanwhile, Papenhuyzen invoked the superb flow of Melbourne’s last two tries with one of the best runs of his season, and arguably his very best since returning from injury. Scooping up a Moylan grubber, he dashed past the Cronulla five-eighth, made twenty, dodged away from Kennedy, and eluded Nikora to head out to the left.

Finally, Nikora regathered and converged with Aiden Tolman to bring him down, but the speed and dexterity of this run injected a new energy into the Melbourne attack, especially when Paps parlayed the same silky sinuosity up the left edge, where he built space for a hard Olam drive towards the sideline. Hynes ended with a beautifully weighted kick that Katoa had to clean up in goal, for the fifth dropout of the night, as the Sharks got in position to try and prevent the same damaging consolidation that put them on the back foot just after the break.

Their defence was strong here, as Trindall mirrored Moeroa’s tackle on Tracey with a trysaver on Moylan, before a big pack scrambled to prevent Kamikamica charging through on the left. Tolman was similarly staunch on Hughes back on the right, and it all came apart when Moeroa dove on the Grant grubber and richochet that should have got the purple army six again, five metres out from the line, knocking it on as he tried to collect it into his chest. Again, with a  scrum on the cusp of the final quarter, the Sharks had a potential turning-point on their hands.  

Conversely, Melbourne needed one more try here to really secure their lead, and while they did well to dishevel Moylan into booting it over the sideline, they were unable to execute their wing plays on the next two sets. Hynes broke through two tackles on the left but was unable to contend with a third, while Lewis lost the footy in the face of a Katoa tackle after receiving it from Nicho. Luckily for the purple army, Katoa got a hand to it at first, but the extra set didn’t do them any favours on the left, where Paps only just secured a bad Hynes ball.

Things were even worse on the right, where everything seemed in place for a clinical sweep try, only for Lumelume to let a wide ball from Hughes fly over the sideline. In is own way, this was a kind of victory for Cronulla, who had to endure a different kind of assault a set later, when the Storm opted for a series of big crash plays at the chalk, foregoing their wing attack until they secured a dropout after Hughes grubbered and then chased down Kennedy in goal.

Even here, they stayed around the middle of the field for the first couple of tackles, only venturing out to the right midway through, where Lumelume managed to clean up the ball on the sideline, without doing much else. From there, they swung back left, where Hynes’ bouncing ball to Ieremia wasn’t much better than his previous effort for Papenhuyzen. To succeed, the Storm had to find some middle ground between these front-on and wing plays – and Hughes provided it with one of the most original, unusual and enterprising kicks this year.

Not only was Hughes out of position when he grubbered, but he sent it at an oblique angle off the left boot, sensing more than seeing that Papenhuyzen would be able to storm in from the wing and slam it down. This was the kind of preternatural communion between fullback and halfback that has always characterised the purple army at their finest, so it finally felt as if Melbourne had decisively won the game, and come away with a scoreline that reflected their dominance on the VB Hard Earned Index – Paps, NAS, Finuncane and Grant all on top.

Trindall tried to steady the ship with one of his highest bombs of the night and while it just gave Papenhuyzen the platform for another twenty-five metre run, the Sharks got an unexpected burst of field position off one of the youngest players on the park – Daniel Atkinson, who lost the footy into a Katoa tackle, and then conceded a ruck error in his red zone, but made up for it in the end by getting the ball back and channelling Paps’ pair of runs.

Nevertheless, the Sharks had a great pair of runs still left in them too – first from Jack Williams up the middle, where he built the space and speed for a shift to the left wing. There, Tracey finally made good on his various aborted charges, bumping off the defence to slam the Steeden down in the left edge. Trindall missed the conversion, bringing the Storm to a 16-28 win – and perhaps more importantly, bringing the Sharkies 50 above Gold Coast on the live ladder, -97 to -47, as they sweat on tomorrow’s game with the Warriors for their finals hopes.

About Billy Stevenson (692 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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