QUALIFYING FINAL: Melbourne Storm v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (Sunshine Coast Stadium, 10/9/21, 40-12)

The first match of finals footy in 2021 was the real sequel to the Battle of Brooky – Tom Trbojevic pitched against Craig Bellamy, with every key player on the park apart from Lachlan Croker and Josh Ado-Carr. Manly had posted 56 points at Sunshine Coast against Parra in Round 22, and no coach has won more games against Bellamy than Das Hasler, while Melbourne had won eight of their last ten matches against the Sea Eagles, and four straight.

The last time these sides played finals was in 2012, when Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran commanded the halves as well, so the difference in the spine, this time around, was Turbo. To come away with a commanding win here, Melbourne had to utterly silence Trbojevic, and that’s just what they did, especially in the second half, when he only made one run for six metres by the time he conceded a dangerous hit in the final quarter. Above all else, then, Manly will need to maximise Turbo when they take on the Roosters in next week’s eliminator.

Daly Cherry-Evans got a difficult bounce with Ryan Papenhuyzen’s kickoff, meaning he had to leave it to Marty Taupau to take the ball as it sat up on the dead ball line. Kapow had only just enough time to bring it back into the field of play, meaning Manly had to work it up from their own line for their first set. They made some headway when Turbo elasticised early on the left edge, but the Storm absolutely suffocated him – a sign of things to come – as DCE was forced to kick early. Already, the Sea Eagles seemed on the back foot – and things got worse quickly.

Turbo did well to collect the next kick, and Taupau continued his opening carry with metres up the middle, shifting the footy out to DCE to mirror Turbo with a drive up the right. Yet the Sea Eagles didn’t get any further up the field this time, and the last play wasn’t a kick, but an error from Morgan Harper, who dropped Daly’s next pass, leaving it open for Brandon Smith to scoop up and offload through a big Haumole Olakau’atu tackle to Isaac Lumelume, who outpaced even Jason Saab to slam down the first four points in only his third game this year.

Saab’s speed has been a massive asset for Manly in the lead up to finals footy, so there was already a sense that Melbourne would methodically neutralise every weapon in the visitors’ arsenal. Papenhuyzen added the extras and just like that the Storm were a point per minute, while Lumelume had scored his first finals try, four minutes into his first finals fixture. That said, the Sea Eagles did pretty well to defend the restart, forcing Cameron Munster to boot it from his own thirty, and finally reaching the Storm half on their next set of six – but only just.

DCE kicked just over the halfway line, and the chase was decent, forcing Melbourne to work it back from their own red zone, and while Jahrome Hughes ended with a big bomb to the right, Manly continued to inch their way towards the Storm’s twenty, thanks in part to a good run from Turbo that set up the kick from just over the opposition forty. Right when the Sea Eagles were starting to apply some field position pressure, Taupau swung an arm into Hughes.

Melbourne made the most of it, clearing significant spce up the middle to arrive at the Manly twenty by tackle four. Jesse Bromwich followed with a big runt in fron of the posts, and shifted it out for Munster to assist brother Kenny on the left edge. This was almost the same spot as Lumelume’s try, although it was a very different kind of putdown, as big Kenny relied on the momentum of a tangled Manly pack to slide the footy onto the line, despite a heroic last-ditch effort from Turbo, who somersaulted over the top in an effort to get beneath the play.

Papenhuyzen missed the kick, but the Storm maintained a point per minute, while Munster had delivered the first great assist of the game to celebrate his 150th milestone, holding up the line to create space for his second-rower to smash over. Manly now had to field their second Melbourne restart without having posted a point themselves, and they found it harder to contain them this time, as Hughes and Christian Welch laid a billowing platform for Munster to cap off his superb assist with a spiralling bomb and a one-on-one strip on Harper.

No sooner had Munster turned the tables than they potentially turned again, as the Storm sent up their first Captain’s Challenge to claim he’d only fumbled the play-the-ball off a tap on the head from Olakau’atu. The challenge was successful, the big Manly second-rower was penalised, and Melbourne had a full set in the Sea Eagles ten straight after posting their last try. In effect, this was a radically augmented restart, as Bromwich repeated his earlier drive at the posts, and Smith followed with a questioning, searching dash across the middle third.

Smith’s intentions weren’t immediately clear, but he had his own process, inchoately intuiting the weakest spot in the Manly defence for an assist a few plays later – a flat pass, out of dummy half, right on the chalk, for Welch, who scored the fifth try of his career by running a courageous diagonal line to smash past Taupau and execute the third straight putdown on this left edge. Papenhuyzen added the extras, and the Storm were still at a point per minute, begging the question of whether this might become a landslide if Manly didn’t step up here.

Over the last five minutes, Melbourne had 91% of possession, and they used the restart to exhaust the Sea Eagles’ big men, with Welch himself spearheading a hard drive up the middle before Reimis Smith gave away a restart to slow down the next Manly set. Smith seemed to know the field position wouldn’t be an issue, since even with six again the Sea Eagles struggled to make it to the halfway line – and didn’t, only nabbing 26 metres as Munster came close to reprising his one-on-one strip, and the Storm defenders surged in from every possible angle.

Manly needed a rhythm-changer, and they got it when Smith and Josh Aloiai clashed heads, forcing the cult hooker off the park as Harry Grant came on earlier than expected. Yet Dale Finucane continued the relentless drive up the park when play resumed, while Turbo wasn’t able to do much more than land on the kick as the Storm continued their project of slowing down Manly plays one and two. Grant made his mark with a fifteen-metre dummy half run on the next set, and Lumelume and Jesse Bromwich converged to smother Saab on his line.

Things were starting to look pretty desperate for the Sea Eagles as the second quarter arrived – they needed a big individual effort, and Dylan Walker hinted at it with their best run so far to make it into the Melbourne red zone, and cap off their best attacking set all night, but it all came apart when Olakau’atu struck the grubber too hard and conceded seven tackles. In the blink of an eye, the Storm were back on the Manly ten, thanks in part to a deft Munster-Grant offload, where they got six again, and then a penalty from Jake Trbojevic for lying in the ruck.

Papenhuyzen took the kick, making it a three converted try lead, after thirteen from thirteen completions, while the Sea Eagles got a chance to take their breath, and regroup for the last sixteen minutes before the break. This was pretty much perfect footy from the Storm, who got another augmented restart when Olakau’atu came in for a high tackle on Finucane two tackles in. Melbourne already had no trouble finishing their sets with these field position boosts from Manly, whose (relative) finals inexperience was starting to become a real liability.

Once again, they were back on the Sea Eagles’ goal line in no time, although this was the first time they didn’t quite nail the ending, pulling back from securing the dropout that would have likely produced a fourth try, and instead shifting it out for a crash play from Felise Kaufusi that was wrapped up by Brad Parker in Manly’s best tackle of the night. The rhythm shifted further when Robert Jennings was pinged for a marginal escort on Josh Schuster, gifting the Sea Eagles their first tackle in Melbourne’s twenty after weathering twenty in their own red zone.

Olakau’atu took out his mounting aggression by throwing Papenhuyzen over his shoulder right on the line, clearing up space for Karl Lawton to plunge over out of dummy half.  While Lawton came up short, the plosive intensity of this play formed a pivot for DCE to shift it out to the right edge, where Harper caught it low and smashed over the line untouched. In yet another agonising moment for Manly, however, Daly’s pass was deemed to be forward, although they remained camped out on the Melbourne chalk with Lumeleme called offside.

The Sea Eagles probably needed one more penalty, and one more surge of field position to score – and they got it when Tui Kamikamica dumped Jake Trbojevic on his back. Taniela Paseka followed Olakau’atu with a big drive at the line, Manly pivoted to the left this time, and Turbo didn’t get a touch of the footy all set, meaning it came down to DCE’s chip to the right wing. Luckily for the away crowd, Saab delivered here, making up for conceding the opening try to Lumelume by leaping over the Melbourne winger to score the first Manly try.

He didn’t actually take it cleanly, batting it up in his left arm and collecting it on the second catch before coming down untouched. This went some way to make up for Harper’s near-try in the same part of the park, especially once Reuben Garrick added the extras, but it was still disturbing that Turbo hadn’t played a role in the set. Meanwhile, word came down from the sheds that Smith had failed his HIA, meaning that Grant would finish off the game at hooker unless Nicho Hynes came off the bench – a big loss given Smith’s role in those opening tries.

Manly had a great set on the restart, from a barnstorming Olakau’atu run up the middle, to some DCE magic on the right edge, and while the Storm survived, they found it hard to work it back from their own end when they got the footy again. As Smith returned to the sideline with his right cheek swelling up, you sensed a mercurial shift in momentum, an opening for the Sea Eagles – until Turbo followed his non-involvement on the try with what amounted to an unforced error, fumbling the play-the-ball as Finucane withdrew to give the Storm a scrum.

No surprise, then, that Melbourne had the last word before the break, as Grant shaped to pass, saw Turbo was out of position, and booted it past DCE, while Kenny Bromwich came in for the chase to ensure that Tom had no option but to dispose of it in goal. This play had clinically disposed of both fullback and halfback, but DCE hit back immediately with a short dropout that Papenuyzen lost in the face of an equally strong chase from Parker, only for Grant to steady the Storm with a big tackle on Jake before Harper made his second cold drop.

Harper lost it in the same part of the park, off another pass from DCE, so there was a sense that the first stanza was coming full circle here, as the Storm returned to the tryscoring opportunity that started the game. They delivered just as well now, as Hughes surged into the left wing, reaching the cusp of the twenty for Lumelume to cross into the red zone and Kamikamica to anchor the set with a hard run up the middle. Paseka then cleaned up Munster with a ball-and-all, and Turbo did the same for Hughes, leaving the Storm with one final play.

Munster shifted it left, where Papenhuyzen came up with possibly the most elusive try of the year, dummying ever so slightly to slink past DCE, who only got a hand to him, and then leap over Olakau’atu, before sneaking over the line to score four more. He was like the wind, bending so mercurially through the Manly defence that he barely seemed to be embodied, before booting through the two to put Melbourne at quadruple Manly as they left the field.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Sea Eagles had a big job on their hands when they returned from the sheds. They managed to prevent Melbourne crossing the halfway line on the first set, but things deteriorated from there, as Saab almost fumbled the high ball, and Turbo was driven over the sideline by a big purple pack a few plays later. Tom got a letoff when the refs deemed the tackle was complete, but this was still a big statement of intent from the Storm, especially since DCE sent a flick offload straight into Justin Olam on the last.

Between these two plays, the Manly spine felt neutered – and DCE’s next kick said it all, a 40/20 effort that had the right trajectory, but not enough speed, sitting up two metres in field for Melbourne to get rolling once again. No side has scored points quicker than the Sea Eagles in 2021, and they needed to put down the next try here, so it was agonising when the Storm responded to DCE’s kick by somehow both compressing end elasticising Papenhuyzen’s try.

Munster set up the play, shifting it out to Olam, who fended off Harper, danced over Olakau’atu, and contended with a Walker tackle as he offloaded one-handed inside to Grant, who shifted it across to Papenhuyzen in turn. If Paps’ last run was mercurial, then this was sublimimal, a series of ever-so-slight pivots from boot to boot that saw him elude every player and duck away from Garrick like he was made of rubber, before curving around behind the posts to set himself up for the easiest kick of the night and bring his men to quintuple Manly.

Papenhuyzen may have just delivered the best Melbourne run of the year here, so you wouldn’t have expected the restart to give way to two successive dropouts to Manly. That it did was a testament to DCE’s renewed vision with the boot, which awoke Turbo as well. His first kick produced Melbourne’s messiest moment, as the footy rolled unexpectedly to the dead ball line, where Hughes had to stay on tiptoes to collect it without hitting touch, and so lost his balance in the process, flicking it into the air as Papenhuyzen ran in to clean it all up.

By this stage, Melbourne had already conceded the dropout, and they conceded another off one of the best DCE-Turbo linkups so far – a Daly chip to the left edge, where Parker tapped it back and Tom tapped it across to Garrick, who followed with a grubber to trap Grant just over the try line. To hit back, Munster had to show he could drive the footy just as dexterously – and he did just that, sending it short to the right sideline, where Schuster only got fingertips as Reimis Smith leaped up for the contest, sending it into touch and so giving it straight back.

After failing to capitalise on such a sudden shift in rhythm, Manly needed a really egregious Melbourne mistake to score again next. Weirdly, they got it, while Saab got a chance to completely compensate for conceding the Lumelume try in the opening minutes. It came at the most unexpected moment – at the back end of a long range kick that Lumelume and Papenhuyzen converged on without a Sea Eagle in sight. Saab was closest, and even he was a good ten or fifteen metres behind the play, so this didn’t look anything like a try opportunity.

Yet this very fact gave Lumelume the confidence to dive on the footy instead of patiently scooping it up, and he mistimed the contact, sliding the Steeden fifteen metres back towards the Melbourne line – enough space for Saab to finally overtake him, slam it down, and reach Turbo as equal second tryscorer of the season at 25, two behind Alex Johnston on top. Garrick added the extras, and Manly just needed to be methodical now, so it was frustrating when Schuster let his aggro get the better of him with the most dangerous tackle a few sets later.

This was about as explicit an example as you’ll get of lifting above the horizontal, as Schuster dumped Hughes on his back, and was sent to the bin for his troubles. Hughes also left the park, and was replaced by Jesse Bromwich, but he was cleared to return shortly after, while the Storm took advantage of the free interchange to rest Kamikamica. Even worse for Manly, Walker was off the park for an HIA as well, after three tackle busts in the last fifteen minutes.

Manly survived the next set but it only took one more dangerous tackle for Melbourne to get their next points. Hughes copped it again, but luckily the contact was much milder, so he was able to remain on the park. Papenhuyzen only added two points, so this wasn’t a massive blow for Manly – the real killer was that it was Turbo who had made the error, on the back of a second stanza when he had only made one run for six metres. To come away with a decisive win here Melbourne had needed to silence Turbo, and they’d done that pretty deftly so far.

There was a sense of déjà vu as Melbourne returned to their goal line attack a few sets later, when Munster came up with a beautiful offload right on the chalk, and Papenhuyzen answered with an equally elegant kick to set up the next dropout. They swept right on the third, as Kaufusi drove the footy up to the line, and then out to the left, where Lumelume dragged the defence back in field for Nicho Hynes to feed it out to the right once again. All this oscillation felt as if it must open the defence, but instead the Sea Eagles got a big letoff.

It came off only the third mistake of the night from Melbourne – a mistimed ball from Paps – but even this was quickly absorbed back into the purple army’s staunch defence, which prevented Manly from crossing the halfway line on their next set. DCE’s bomb was a beauty, yet Papenhuyzen’s catch was just as good. By this stage, it just didn’t look like Manly was going to score anymore, since once again Turbo had failed to touch the footy, while the team as a whole weren’t able to do much with this most uncharacteristic of purple handling errors.

Even when Papenhuyzen let Foran’s next bomb bounce, it didn’t really feel like poor judgement, since Turbo missed it anyway, while Paps was always going to force the error from Garrick. If anything, Melbourne were relaxing, confident the game would flow in their favour, and sure enough they were able to regather immediately off a bouncing ball from Hughes as Garrick followed his knock-on by holding back Jennings, leading to a pack fracas on the right edge that might have led to a reprisal of the Battle of Brooky in a less restrained football era.

Again, you could call this the messiest period of the night from Melbourne, but that just spoke to their confidence, so it was no surprise that they’d score eight more points after relaxing a little here. After all, they were utterly dominating run metres, with Papenhuyzen at 125, Welch at 114, Lumelume at 104, and Hughes and Olam at 88 apiece, while Manly had repeatedly failed to capitalise on errors. If anything, the Storm’s mild messiness seemed to make Manly messier – their loose play was contagious, while never harming their own form.

The last tipping-point came when Welch channelled Martin Lang on Ron Wishart by intercepting a Garrick pass from the wing. Welch knocked on, and Melbourne lost the challenge, but this was still a dominant enough display for them to build on its momentum when Turbo coughed up his first close-range run since the break – and this said everything about the game. On average, there are thirty points between Melbourne and Manly in finals, and while there were only twenty now, the Storm remedied that in the closing five minutes.

Munster got them rolling with a pinpoint-perfect left boot 40/20, and the rest was history, starting with Nelson Asofa-Solomona barging his way into Keppie and offloading through a legs tackle from DCE for Olam to score. The PNG cult hero now had nine tries against Manly, his most against any club, while NAS was rivalling Turbo’s stats for offloads, tackle busts, linebreak assists and try assists. Papenhuyzen added the extras, the Storm hit a 26-point lead, there were only two minutes left on the clock, and yet the tryscoring wasn’t over for the night.

DCE went short with the kickoff, Kaufusi escorted Parker, and yet the stats said it all, since Papenhuyzen and Welch had both managed to outdo Turbo for run metres as well. Both were on 125 to Tom’s 118, while Lumelume and Olam were close behind on 113 and 103 respectively, so the sheer achievement of that statistic perhaps made it less surprising when the Storm managed to score two more here. It looked almost as unlikely as Saab’s try, since Manly were right on the Melbourne line when Hughes took Foran’s chip straight on the chest.

Munster did what he does best, elasticising up the left edge, as Melbourne started to slow down the play, but as a deception move, since NAS’s last offload to Grant foreshadowed one final moment of brilliance – a two point field goal from Papenhuyzen to bring them to a clean forty. Craig Bellamy didn’t look entirely unhappy in the coaches’ box with this final gesture, which was even more powerful at the end of such a slow set – a bullet ball and perfect strike that put a full stop on the game, a testament to Melbourne’s enormous footy power in 2021.

About Billy Stevenson (628 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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