ROUND 2: Melbourne Storm v. South Sydney Rabbitohs (AAMI Park, 17/3/22, 15-14)

Thursday night’s match between Melbourne and South Sydney will stand as one of the great arm-wrestles of 2022 – an extraordinary game of two halves in which the Storm put down fourteen unanswered points in the first forty, and the Bunnies did the same in the last twenty, bringing the finale to golden point, when a Ryan Papenhuyzen field goal sealed the deal. In spirit, though, this felt like a Rabbitohs victory, and their first decisive statement of the post-Adam Reynolds era; a scintillating prelude to their match against the Roosters in Round 3.

Latrell Mitchell was back on the field after his hit on Joey Manu during the 2021 finals season, while Lachlan Ilias was only trotting onto the park for his third time in the NRL, putting an enormous amount of pressure on Cody Walker to organise from the halves, especially since he still seemed to be feeling the effect of his cork against Brisbane last week. The Bunnies hadn’t won in Melbourne in seventeen years, while the only player in their squad who had won at AAMI was Mark Nicholls, back when he donned the Melbourne jersey in 2016-17.

On the other side of the Steeden, the Storm were returning to AAMI Park for the first time after the pandemic, and also celebrating Craig Bellamy’s 500th game as coach. The covid era hadn’t hurt them too much, since they’d broken the record for most tries in a regular season – forty or more, twelve in a row – as well as the highest points differential in a season. They were ready to roll, and set the bar with a terrific trio of tries, the last an instantly iconic Munster-Grant combo that was just what they needed for this emotional AAMI homecoming. 

Yet the Bunnies would bounce back in the final quarter, when they slammed down fourteen unanswered points of their own, the last two off a Grant scrum error that they chose to parlay into a run at the line, rather than a simple penalty kick. This would usher in the most dramatic accumulation of position all night, leaving them only two down ninety seconds from the final siren, when Latrell stepped into Reynolds’ massive boots with a two-point field goal. Even though they didn’t win, the ecstasy of this play will be enough to propel them for weeks.

Ilias took the kickoff and twisted around to feed it to Tevita Tatola, who laid the platform for a strong opening set that saw Siliva Havili make some tough metres after contact, and Ilias boot it within the Melbourne ten, where the Bunnies rallied an equally strong defence, including a stellar Tatola-Cook tackle on Reimis Smith, to force Cameron Munster to take the first kick just inside his thirty. Latrell was met with boos as he collected his first ball, but any plan that Munster might have had to isolate him was offset by the first penalty of the game.

It came off dangerous contact from Nelson Asofa-Solomona, and the Rabbitohs got another bump in position when Dean Ieremia leaped up to tap the Steeden back into play, but fumbled it over the sideline instead. South Sydney were dominating position, so it was a big shift when four defenders danced back balletically from a tackle on Havili to set up big Nelson for a strip. Add to that a barnstorming run from Jahrome Hughes up the middle, and the Storm were in first gear, prompting Harry Grant to follow with an early chip in the same direction.

He didn’t make it to the footy in time, but this was still a gee up for the Storm, who got the ball back off a second successive strip, this time on Keaon Koloamatangi, as Nelson brought them into the ten on tackle three, Munster showed and spread it to the right, Coates managed to withstand a Alex Johnston legs tap and remain in the field of play, and Campbell Graham provided the one-man vision that was needed by leaping a metre over Ryan Papenhuyzen to collect the high ball on the full. Souths had to survive this next set without conceding a strip.

Perhaps that’s why Ilias opted to boot it early, on the cusp of halfway, but Melbourne were fired up now, as Felise Kaufusi plunged himself into the defence, Nelson took his biggest charge yet to drag a couple of defenders into enemy territory, and Hughes end-over-ended it to Johnston, who only just contained it before he was swarmed by the chase. Jai Arrow did a good job of replicating Nelson’s drive over halfway, and Ilias ended with a bomb to the left, where Johnston came up with his second straight catch, but lost the ball back to the Storm.

Still, Melbourne were working it off their own line here, so it was a big boost when Walker was called offside within the ten. Jesse Bromwich and Josh King might not have got the offloads away early in the count, and Kenny Bromwich may not have broken through on the left, but Munster made up for it with a break up the middle, where he tempted another offside from Walker, and provided the Storm with the pivot they needed to consolidate out on the right, which is exactly where Grant lobbed the footy with a full tackle count left to go.

Full credit to Hughes, who finally got the second phase play this set had been looking for, with a beautiful ball through Cook contact that Grant wasted no time translating into one of the gutsiest kicks of Round 2 – straight to the wing, where Coates read it perfectly, soaring up to take it on the full, both legs scrunched in the air, and somehow avoid Johnston in the landing, much as Walker had been blindsided by Grant’s kick a moment before. The star hooker might have swung the conversion away from the posts, but this was still a stellar Storm consolidator.

Jesse Bromwich found the full brunt of Tatola, Nicholls and Koloamatangi waiting for him on play one of the restart, and Nelson succumbed to this renewed South Sydney defence a beat later, coughing up the footy into a low shot from Murray, as Tatola piled in on top. As clinically as Melbourne had built momentum, the Bunnies had a shot of stealing it with the first scrum of the game, so it was agonising when Walker was flummoxed by the dewy football as he was shaping to shift it out to Latrell on the very first play, as the scrum turned Melbourne’s way.

In effect, the Storm had another shot at their restart now, so little rhythm had the Bunnies been able to muster, and while Jesse Bromwich was more prepared for the defence this time, backing his way into a Murray-Tatola hit, he wasn’t prepared for the additional brunt from Cookie, who came in low, and facing his own goal line, to force the knock-on when he landed on the turf. All of a sudden, the game had become all about brinksmanship, making it feel like the next team to finish a set, or even secure a repeat set, would control the next passage.

Souths spent most of this set working their way along the ten, until everything came apart on the left edge, due in part to a spotty Ilias kick, and in part to some momentary confusion from Cook, who didn’t seem to register where they were in the tackle count. Again, it felt like the Storm still had some residual restart energy, which Munster capitalised on by booting it early, from within his forty, only for the Rabbitohs to catch King offside. Again, too, they had a full set in Storm territory, and their next chance to make good on all these shifts in possession.

They responded with their first right edge raid of the game, as Ilias made up for his previous kick by digging deep into the line, flicking the footy out for Walker to feed it on for Latrell to do the same. Graham was the last piece of the puzzle, and did well to receive the around-the-corner offload from his fullback, but the timing came apart once more, as the star backliner lobbed it out for a support player who simplt wasn’t there, and the Steeden soared straight over the sideline. As the second quarter came to a close, this game was becoming messy.

That in itself was a kind of victory for South Sydney, who had managed to prevent Melbourne rising to the clinical economy they so often show at AAMI. The Storm are the Storm, though, so the cardinal and myrtle only had a limited amount of time to score before their hosts started to circle the wagons yet again. As it turned out, the next purple set was a step in this direction – a remorseless barrage up the park that ended with a kick that ushered in the Bunnies’ worst set, and Ilias’ worst kick so far, a side-of-the-boot lob directly into touch.

By contrast, the Storm looked like they were flying as they gave their opponents a lesson in right edge sweeps. This was pure spine synergy, a single gliding formation that started with Munster playing it early to Hughes, who responded with a catch-and-pass for Papenhuyzen, who responded in turn with a perfect cut-out for Coates, who danced his way up the line before popping it back inside for Paps to take it over the chalk. This was pure football poetry, of the kind the Storm have made their own, even if Grant shanked another sideline kick.

No sooner had the Bunnies made a couple of valiant efforts to keep the Storm in their own end than Grant made up for his botched kicks with the most epic individual play so far. Receiving the footy out of dummy half at his own twenty, he showed it precariously from side to side, spreading a wave of chaos across the South Sydney defence that completely wrong-footed big Tom Burgess, and left Koloamatangi with absolutely no quarter, before speeding all the way to the Rabbitohs’ red zone, where he found a desperate Latrell squaring him off.

Munster was there in support, however, receiving the pass like he and Grant were one body, and lunging over the chalk before Johnston or Ilias could touch him. Rising to his feet, hair streaming, tongue out at the dejected Rabbitohs defenders, this was the iconic individual play that the home crowd needed to welcome them back to Fortress AAMI. It was a tribute to the visitors, then, that Papenhuyzen’s conversion from in front would be their last time on the board until Paps booted through a desperate field goal two minutes into golden point.

For the moment, though, it felt like this sublime Grant-Munster combo must usher in a torrent of Storm points, even when a Kaufusi error on the restart got Souths some of their best position of the game. After things failed to come together once again on the left, Walker kicked it back inside, where Melbourne recovered the footy from the maelstrom, and were back over halfway by the time that Paps hoisted his next one high. Graham hit back by ducking under a loose arm from King, but couldn’t muster the long-range effort Grant had garnered.

Even so, King was done for a slow peel a beat later, gifting the Bunnies yet another stint in the Storm ten. Burgess laid the platform in the middle, Graham took a barge on the right, where Munster was staunch in the cover tackle, and Jesse Bromwich just as good with the support, before Cookie quickly redirected attention away from the left edge, prescient this hadn’t been a particular productive region for the Rabbitohs tonight. Latrell now tried to lean back into that earlier aborted right side raid, only for the Storm to effect a clean changeover.

With nine minutes until the break, it was starting to look like the visitors might head to the sheds scoreless, so it was a good steadier when Johnston dove to the ground to take the most dangerous kick of the night, Grant’s assist aside – an enormous spiralling bomb from Hughes, who put boot to ball harder than any player so far, and at just the right angle. Right when the Rabbitohs were building on the brilliance of Johnston’s take, and glimpsing some real momentum in the left corner, Host lost the footy forward, and they were defending again. 

This was one of the critical periods in the game for South Sydney, the point where they could have entirely capitulated to Melbourne, so it was a terrific save from Ilias to take Hughes’ next kick on the bounce, after Coates missed it in the air, and then bang it into touch before the Storm chase could reach it. Latrell only just sailed the dropout over the ten, and it paid off, as Arrow promptly got the ball back. Something shifted now for the Rabbitohs – they’d survived the last big pressure point, and felt empowered into the fightback that led to extra time.

Even then, you couldn’t have guessed, from here, that the visitors would keep the Storm scoreless for the rest of regular play. Papenhuyzen was still on fire, breaking away from a trio of defenders at the start of the next purple set, while Grant made another thirty metres out of dummy half. Nevertheless, the seamless economy of those three tries was starting to fragment a bit, as Hughes became the next casualty of the slippery Steeden, putting the footy down cold a beat later to grant South Sydney a much-needed scrum four out from the break.

The AAMI crowd were hushed now, aware that the Bunnies were looking their sharpest in some time, and that a try before the sheds might seriously disrupt Melbourne’s momentum, but they were raucous again a minute later, when Hughes’ Walker-esque error was eclipsed by Walker himself putting down the footy into some enormous Coates contact out on the left. Paps continued to shine early in the count, this time with a deft offload to King, but to South Sydney’s credit they kept the Storm out, thanks in part to a forward pass from Hughes.

Little did the Bunnies know that they would return from the sheds to match Melbourne’s fourteen unanswered points, bringing the game to golden point by the time the final siren rang out. Latrell booted the kickoff to the try line, Tepai Moeroa lunged into the defence, Alec Macdonald was on the park for his second NRL stint, after only two Queensland Cup games in 2021, and Munster’s first kick back looked like it might just split the backline, only for Latrell to read the bounce brilliantly and withstand a Reimis Smith-led pack to stay out of touch.

South Sydney now got a bad flashback to the start of the game, when Burgess lost the footy to Papenhuyzen, and Coates tried to capitalise on it with a kick on the second, forcing Johnston to get on his bike to curve his body round the Steeden three metres out from the chalk, where he hung on for dear life as the Melbourne chase piled on top. Walker got his men out of trouble with a desperate kick to the other try line, but his left leg was still looking spotty after last week’s cork, so the Bunnies needed a big one-man play as a gee up now.

Taane Milne provided it, lifting Olam clean off his feet with a bone-rattling tackle that galvanised Burgess to muscle five post-contacts through a big pack up the middle. For the first time since the break, the visitors were inside the red zone, but they didn’t do much with it, as Latrell pulled in a precarious left edge sweep before they lost the footy altogether. Jaxson Paulo was cleaned up unceremoniously on the last without getting a kick or pass away. Milne’s hit had been spectacular, but the cardinal and myrtle hadn’t built upon it just yet.

Worse, the Storm successfully challenged a Munster obstruction a beat later, as Arrow was pinged for early contact – a pretty harsh decision, although the Bunnies didn’t have time to dwell on it as they were hit with their biggest defensive challenge since the sheds. For a moment, a Papenhuyzen long ball to Coates looked like it might pay dividends, especially when the young winger resisted a South Sydney pack long enough to bump it back in field, where Arrow compounded his penalty with a ruck error to gift the Storm another six plays.

This was the first great tipping-point of the second stanza, as Melbourne went the way of the Rabbitohs earlier in the game, building to a peak only to deflate it all with a Grant putdown, before a Munster slow peel got the visitors back into opposition territory once again. Keen to work his way back from that double whammy, Arrow took a monster run midway through the count, before Graham delivered one of his most restless charges of the night up the right, where Cookie made the most of a rapid play-the-ball to pivot the play out the other wing.

Their last left sweep had been almost too chaotic for Latrell to rein in, and now the sudden accumulation of field position overtook them, as Paulo bumped on what should have been an assist to Johnston, who had no shot at scooping it up in the corner. Kaufusi resumed the rhythm by dragging a Host-led pack seven metres, and Munster showed he can barge as aggressively as any forward a play later, before the Storm leaned into their own chaos footy, thanks to a Kenny Bromwich chip kick that saw players from both sides scrambling for it.

The bounce utterly defied Ilias, leaving Latrell as last line of defence, but while he made a valiant effort to bring it in with the right hand, Paps got boot to ball first, setting up Ieremia to tuck it under his arm and pop it to ground with Paulo powerless to stop him. This seemed like a certain try, and was up on the board for a good minute, so it was a massive momentum-shifter when Gerard Sutton called Munster offside, in the key game changer for the Rabbitohs during this third quarter, especially since this was a pretty technical call.

Now, with such a dramatic shift in the game, and with a full set in Melbourne’s end, the Bunnies had to deliver. Davvy Moale was keen to show his chops, taking the opening run straight off the bench, and busting through the line a couple of plays later, while tempting Moeroa into a hold back that saw him sent to the bin. The Storm were down to twelve, as Burgess laid a platform, and Coates tried to restore the double strip magic of the opening minutes with a Walker intercept, with open space all the way to the South Sydney line.

Instead, he coughed it up, and while a Paulo error meant the Bunnies couldn’t capitalise then and there, they had petrol in the tank now, and had a good shot at bringing it all together if they could defend well on this next set. They took a clean and clinical approach, converging pack after pack as the Storm drove it up the middle, and only allowing them to get to halfway. Hughes responded with his best sequence since the sheds, booting it hard and high, and then rushing forward to collect the offload from Coates and pop it on for Smith to toe it again.

This had all the trappings of Melbourne genius, but the ex-Bulldog struck it just a little too hard, spinning it into touch for yet another South Sydney letoff – and yet another disappointment, as Ilias shaped to respond with some vision of his own from halfback, making as if to kick before tucking the footy under his arm and carving his way up the middle, only to be thwarted by a Murray-Jesse Bromwich obstruction. The visitors had now lost all the residual energy of that sustained period on the Melbourne line, as the Storm stuck in again.

Even worse, Souths looked like they might not score with a man in the bin – or that the best they could hope for was to prevent the purple army scoring again with twelve on the park. Hughes came tantalisingly close on their next set, complementing his previous long-range effort with a sharp dash before the right post, enough for Grant to dab it in goal off the play-the-ball as Milne made a valiant effort to bring it back into the field of play, but was foiled by several waves of Melbourne defence, a unified front that swarmed in from every angle.

Cookie took a moment to return to his feet following the tackle on Hughes, and Latrell went long with the kick, not secure enough this time to risk the short dropout, before ending with the clutchiest contest of the night, as he and Olam collided in mid air on their way to the footy in goal. For a moment, the cult winger seemed to believe he’d made it in time, and in real time it looked like it might be a simultaneous putdown, but the replay showed that Olam had made contact first, only to bounce the ball in the face of Latrell’s best defence of the night.

Again, South Sydney had the big individual play they’d been looking for, especially since Ilias was probably lucky not to get pinged for interference in backplay, so with Moeraa back from the bin, it was critical they ride this new wave of momentum as the final quarter arrived. With sixty minutes of football, and no points to show for it, Adam Reynolds’ absence was looming large, so it was inspiring so see Johnston build on Latrell’s vision with a elegant break and dance up the side, which Latrell tried to replicate a play later, on the other side of the park.

Instead, he knocked it on, in yet another disappointment for the Rabbitohs, whose night seemed to be up. After all, if they couldn’t score off the chances they’d received, what shot did they have of rivalling a Melbourne outfit who had remained more or less staunch? Bereft of South Sydney attacking options, the game was becoming a grind, as Latrell botched the next pass to Johnston, and the Storm packed their next scrum. Walker, in particular was looking exhausted, and somewhat at sea in the absence of his former half’s organisation.

On the other side of the Steeden, the purple army elasticised immediately with a cascade of offloads – one too many, it turned out, as Moeroa knocked on the footy to hand the scrum straight back to the Bunnies, who seemed to intuit that they had to depend on their big men now. Arrow started with a gutsy grind into the defence, burrowing his head down and holding on for dear life, and Murray popped a deft short ball inside for Tatola to make another dig at the line, but the backline couldn’t build on it, and like clockwork Johnston coughed it up again.

This had been some of the worst left-edge work from the Bunnies in ages, so it felt almost inevitable that their next burst of position, which came off a pair of errors from Munster and big Nelson, and a ruck error from Jesse Bromwich, would end with more frustration in the corner, especially since Paulo was clinically cleaned up on the right by an Ieremia legs tackle. That just made it all the more cathartic, however, when the left sweep teetered, seemed about to come apart, and then finally crystallised into Johnston’s first putdown.

Well might Milne roar in triumph after the assist, since he received the Steeden at the point of peak precarity, bobbling and almost losing it before shifting it across to the tryscoring machine on the wing. The foundation had been laid before that by Murray, who began with a brilliant wide ball, and then Walker, who finally found his feet organisation-wise with an elegantly lofted high pass across for Taane to bring it all together. Latrell might have missed the kick, but this edge play was like seeing the Bunnies’ whole night play out in miniature.

For all the chaos, all the frustration and all the near-misses had been resolved in this single sequence, at least if the Rabbitohs could manage to ride their flow over the final ten minutes, a trickier prospect now that Cookie had headed to the bench, possibly due to the tackle on Hughes that preceded Milne being trapped in goal. Still, they got a chance immediately, as Ieremia knocked on the kick at the end of the restart, and Grant was pinged for not packing the scrum in time – not the worst outcome for a Melbourne outfit only ten points ahead.

The purple army must have been somewhat surprised, then, when the Bunnies made the ballsy decision to tap and go, repeating the spirit of their last sweep with another moment of near-precarity on the left wing, where Milne barged his way into the line, hesitated a second, and flicked it out to Johnston, who lost it, but not without Olam being done for offside. So began another great period of South Sydney position, as Coates knocked on, and King also found himself offside, followed by Olam, who was sent to the bin for the rest of the night.

With a little over five minutes on the clock, there was no option for the Rabbitohs but to score on this set, since they now had a third more play-the-balls in the opposition twenty than Melbourne, and the most dramatic accumulation of position for either outfit. That decision to tap and go had proved critical, and all it took was two plays now for the Bunnies to show they could sweep just as well on the right, where Latrell lofted a cut-out assist to Paulo that burned off all the chaos of their previous edge plays, burnishing them into top tier footy.

Latrell was now booting from his preferred side, but still swung it away from the right post, keeping it a six point game as the Storm grimly lined up to defend the restart. Tatola already had his eyes on the try line with the opening carry, and Nicholls was red with spirit on the second, before Arrow stood for a few seconds in a three-man pack, and tried to get an offload. Murray did manage the second phase on the next play, and Walker scooped the slippery Steeden a millimetre off the turf, feeding it back to Latrell in his best pass of the evening.

That made it agonising when Graham dropped it a moment later – and ecstatic when the Bunnies sent it upstairs to get an early tackle from Loeiro. Tatola laid the manpower, as he had for the restart, and from there South Sydney glimpsed glory, in the best sweep of the game, and the best play of the game – short ball from Nicholls, short ball from Ilias, and sublime catch-and-pass from Latrell to Graham, who made up for that cough-up by dummying left, holding it high, and busting his way through Munster to slam down another four points.

As if that weren’t suspenseful enough, Latrell shanked another one from the right sideline, keeping it a two point game with ninety seconds on the clock. Reynolds’ absence was almost unbearable now, Craig Bellamy was standing in the coaches’ box, and the AAMI crowd was deafening in the stands, as a Walker error led to a dropout, Latrell bounced it over the ten, Murray was in position to take it, and Latrell made up for his botched kicks with the first decisive gesture of the post-Reynolds era – a two-point field goal with forty seconds to go.

At this point, it felt like the Bunnies had won in spirit, so it was pretty anticlimactic when a Walker error set up Papenhuyzen to boot through the one-pointer two minutes into golden point. Melbourne got the chocolates in the end, but the real victory belonged to the gutsiness of this South Sydney outfit, who have provided themselves with a terrific motivator after their Reynolds-less loss to the Broncos in Round 1. Here’s to what they can achieve against the Roosters next week, in what promises to be an even more galvanising game after tonight.

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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