ROUND 3: Melbourne Storm v. Parramatta Eels (AAMI Park, 26/3/22, 24-28)

It’s hard to believe that Parramatta will get a better win in the regular 2022 season than their sublime golden point victory over Melbourne on Saturday night. Beating the Storm at home early in the season is always a massive motivator, and the Eels did it in the most spectacular way here – remaining neck and neck for the majority of the game, before Ray Stone scored the match-winning try off a ricocheted Mitch Moses field goal attempt at the 82nd minute.

It was a heroic effort, especially since Stone had already scored the final Eels try, and suffered a season-ending knee injury during this second putdown, meaning this was his last play for Parra before joining Redcliffe next year. The win immediately enters the all-time blue and gold highlights reel, not least because it marks three in a row against the Storm. Yet there was courage on both sides, most vividly from Brandon Smith, who busted through the line in the dying minutes of the match with a broken hand to set up one last burst from Paps and Munster and ensure both stanzas ended with a 12-12 deadlock.

Reagan Campbell-Gillard took the first carry, Junior Paulo the second, and Nathan Brown the third, while RCG ran it again on the fourth and Moses booted it all the way to Nick Meaney at the ten. It was a calm and controlled set, and the Storm responded with a muscular effort, as Cam Munster and Justin Olam slammed up the middle, before Munster chipped to the left corner, where Moses was astonished to hear that Gutho had been pinged for a knock-on. Still, he was unable to risk a challenge two minutes into the match, so Melbourne had the scrum.

Brandon Smith came close to scoring off the first play, coming to ground half a metre out, before Nelson Asofa-Solomona got just as close before the crossbar, and took another charge a tackle later, while Smith added to the symmetry by coming to ground right where he had on play one. That consolidated the Storm into a sharp sweep to the right, where Jahrome Hughes toed it into the corner, as Reimis Smith climbed a full two metres off the turf to beat Waqa Blake in the air, and was in the act of moving the footy forward as Blake came down.

This was the closest call of second effort in years, and it ended being decided in favour of Parra, even though it looked like Smith had (just) started to move by the time Blake got to him. Melbourne bounced back by keeping the Eels in their own thirty until Nathan Brown put it down, a frustrating way to begin his first stint in the starting lineup in 2022. Just as quickly, the Storm got six again, off an Isaiah Papali’i ruck error, and congealed on their first left sweep, as Kenny Bromwich sent a beautiful assist out for Meaney to slice over untouched.

Yet the purple army now had their second denied try, this time due to an Olam obstruction on Will Penisini, while the Eels got a restart of their own when Munster found himself offside inside the ten at the beginning of the next set. They were inside Melbourne territory for the first time, hitting the ten with a big left step from Dylan Brown, but were unable to do much with the kick, which RCG caught on the full amidst a swarm of Storm defenders in front of the posts, before getting offside to propel Melbourne back into attacking mode immediately.

NAS got them rolling with a late offload to Brandon Smith, while Ryan Papenhuyzen almost broke up the middle, and in the process garnered the third restart of the night by catching Mahoney offside. Still, the Eels survived, and got a flop off Munster as Dylan Brown continued to build momentum up the left, only for Hughes to intercept a messy pass from Lane, who followed RCG with an offside penalty early in the subsequent set. Jesse Bromwich accelerated further with a deft offload to Munster, and drove the Steeden into the twenty a tackle later.

Josh King built on Bromwich’s platform, and culminated an incredible start to the year (64 minutes against the Tigers, 67 against Souths) with an even later offload, falling to his knees five metres out, but still managing to twist around and feed it on to Brandon Smith. Despite battling a broken hand, the Cheese got his head low and burrowed through Gutho for the first try of the afternoon beneath the posts, setting up Papenhuyzen for an easy conversion from right in front. After two botched tries, the third had been the charm, a rousing purple start.

Parra survived the restart, while RCG showed he could offload as well, to Paulo, and Papenhuyzen proved he was equal to Moses’ highest kick so far. Penisini and Meaney made twenty post-contacts between them at the start of the next set, Munster continued that momentum with thirty-five metres across field, but it all came apart just as rapidly with Hughes’ first error of the game, a forward pass to Jesse Bromwich. With only 29% of territory, this was a precious scrum for Parra, and Blake got them underway with a strong opening run.

Paulo then flicked some second phase out to Gutho, and received some from Nathan Brown, meaning all of Parra’s frontrowers had offloaded. He took a beat to return to his feet, but Mahoney compensated with a sharp pass to Dylan Brown, who burst past Hughes and lobbed it across for Gutherson to slice through the line and slam down the first blue and gold try untouched. Moses had almost as easy a conversion angle as Papenhuyzen, locking up the game at 6-6 on the cusp of the second quarter, and pre-empting the close contest to come.

Parramatta looked like a new team on the restart, partly because Paulo seemed fully recovered. He got another offload out to Mahoney, before Simonsson made massive contact with Munster out on the right edge, but bounced off as if he’d only brushed him. Moses hoisted it high once again, and this time Papenhuyzen couldn’t secure the towering bomb. It was almost comic when he reached out his boot to trap it, so this was the perfect time for Hughes to get some redemption by successfully challenging Lane for the massive bounce.

This marked the start of a brief Parramatta resurgence, although it ended abruptly with a pair of penalties from Kaufusi and Blake for holding down and a dangerous tackle respectively, producing the most dramatic acceleration of field position so far. It was hard to believe that Melbourne wouldn’t score with a full set in the Eels’ twenty, most of it spent on their line, especially since Jesse Bromwich almost smashed over on the fourth, and Hughes ended with a terrific floater back to Reimis Smith, who looked set for all money to break the defence.

In one of the turning-points of the match, however, Parra stayed strong here, eventually cleaning up Hughes as he received the offload back from his winger, in a stark reminder of how much better the visitors had organised their second phase play this afternoon. That said, Olam’s offload to Munster was tight at the start of their next set, even if it didn’t propel them beyond a fairly standard Hughes bomb to the right corner, where Blake took it on the full. Admittedly, Moses had to kick in his own forty, but he still booted into the Storm’s red zone.

True to the spirit of that 6-6 deadlock, the game was settling into a stalemate of end-to-end footy, as both sides searched for the individual play to break it all open. Parra got their next chance with an Alec MacDonald error, and opted for a rare wide scrum, which Dylan Brown broke with his most restless run so far. The Eels gradually drifted left, as MacDonald made up for his mistake with a tough tackle on Moses, who responded with a beautiful kick at the left padding, where Hughes delivered an even more prodigious effort to bring it back into play.

The dexterity of this effort, which required Hughes to scoot around the post and dash back over the chalk in the face of the chase, completed his comeback from those opening errors, although it didn’t galvanise the Storm into anything especially brilliant on their next set. Instead, Tom Opacic punctured Hughes’ visionary moment by wresting six again from the Melbourne halfback, as the Eels showed the hosts how to capitalise on repeat sets in the opposition end, while invoking and exceeding some of the Storm’s frustrated moments too.

The try came off a clinical left sweep that ended with Dylan Brown drawing on Hughes’ wide ball out to Reimis Smith, but with a more precise, parabolic trajectory. Blake received it, and mirrored Olam’s huge hit on Penisini, as he accelerated straight into Papenhuyzen on the line, lifting him clean off the turf and depositing him on his back with the same determination (if not quite the same brute force) as the Sivo-Tedesco encounter a couple years back. Moses was up to the sideline conversion, and the Eels sailed six ahead with five minutes to half time.

With that kind of momentum behind them, and such an efficient use of extra field position, they felt good to score on the restart, so it was a real momentum-killer when Mahoney made an unforced error midway through, fumbling the footy as he shaped for a short pass. Melbourne were back on the ten midway through the set, where they went sweep for sweep, as Kenny Bromwich fed it out to Meaney on the wing, and Moses started blowing up at a potential obstruction from Olam – to no avail, as Paps added the extras to make it 12-12.

That remained the score heading into the second stanza, which would also see both teams rack up 12 points apiece to bring the match into golden point. Melbourne had the first set back, and were kept in their own forty by a staunch Parra defence, while Gutho broke through the line on the first blue and gold tackle to play the ball right where Hughes had booted it. Trent Loeiro became the next Storm young gun to make an error, with a ruck infringement, and for a moment it looked like the Eels might camp out on the Melbourne chalk for a while.

Instead, MacDonald completed his journey back from that earlier error by shutting down Mahoney as he surged at the line off a short ball from Dylan Brown. This vision from the newest player on the park steeled the veterans into their best set so far, as Olam busted through Mahoney and Papali’i to offload to Reimis Smith, who in turn shrugged off Blake and popped it out for Paps to send Dean Ieremia ten metres up the right edge. Everything was in place for a Storm consolidation, as Munster delivered one of the best kicks of his career.

In a split second, he reined in a bouncing ball, and booted it to the left corner, shaping such a beautiful bounce himself that it didn’t matter that Meaney was flat on the wing, or that Simonsson was much further infield. This was the kind of football you can’t argue with, as the young fullback took it at speed and curved around behind the posts to make it a double, before Papenhuyzen capped it off with a superb sideline conversion. Meaney and Paps had bookended the break, and the Storm had laid down their most intimidating challenge so far.

They didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart either, as Brandon Smith drove it over the halfway line, and Hughes forced Gutho to get down on the turf to take his towering kick. The light was turning golden over AAMI as the Eels took their first carry since this catastrophic sequence, as Dylan Brown’s kick simply became another vehicle for Paps to demonstrate his dexterity with a tumbling take on the left sideline. Hughes’ kick was more dangerous, forcing Blake to contest with Reimis Smith in the air, as the footy finally came free.

Still buoyed up by that last tryscoring sequence, Munster was confident enough to send this upstairs to dispute the call of Smith knock-on, but to no avail. A failed challenge wasn’t enough to dent Melbourne’s momentum, however, especially since the Eels didn’t ultimately do much with their next set, despite a break on the right from Papali’i. For the second time, Hughes cleaned up a Moses grubber right on the chalk, a quick enough turnaround for Papenhuyzen to make thirty metres, before his men got six again off a Dylan Brown ruck error.

The Storm had basically used this last Parramatta set to consolidate their own momentum, so it was a real letoff when Brandon Smith lost the footy a tackle later. Moses struck the kick well, guaranteeing the Eels a full set inside the Melbourne thirty, so it was even more agonising when Makahesi Makatoa followed Smith with a messy cough-up on play two. Papenhuyzen capitalised as quickly on the scrum as he had on Hughes’ last collect, this time with a deft offload to Reimis Smith, as Brandon Smith left the park with an apparent injury.

Moses shaped his next chip well too, taking the footy deep into the line and dragging in several Storm defenders, but Simonsson was no match for Meaney, who shepherded the ball into touch as NAS was put on report for whacking Makatoa in the back of the head a few plays before. A mini-rivalry was being born here, and the two big boppers stared daggers at each other as the Storm continued to accelerate upfield, where Simonsson got some joy by taking Munster’s grubber right on the line, while getting to ground fast enough to save a dropout.

He left the park a minute later for an HIA, while Ray Stone came on in his place, unaware that he was about to join the all-time Parramatta highlights reel by the close of this match. Brandon Smith returned to the park at the same time, as both teams reshuffled two minutes out from the final quarter. Stone took a carry immediately, RCG brought them to the ten, and Moses concluded with a scintillating chip to the left corner, where Opacic reached up both hands to take it on the full, before tucking it under his right arm and scoring through Munster.

Parramatta had their first try since the break, and had levelled the score once more as Moses booted through the front-on conversion as Gutho barked out orders to his troops. A win in Melbourne can be a massive motivator at the start of the season, so the Eels had to build more momentum on the restart, and Paulo got them rolling by barging ten metres through NAS, in revenge for the big prop’s painful contact on his outstretched leg a few minutes before. The Storm survived, breaking their own end with a sublime Munster-Paps offload.

Papenhuyzen didn’t quite make the halfway line, but his rapid play-the-ball was enough to get Reimis Smith into Parra territory, where another offload, this time from Hughes, set up Jesse Bromwich to continue that mad acceleration up the right. Hughes ended the most rapid turnaround in pacing all night by completing that right side raid with a chip to the wing, where Blake lost it, regained it on the ground, and got the biggest letoff of the entire game when Reimis Smith was pinged for an aerial tackle, without a challenge in the Melbourne arsenal.

The Eels now had a shot to make good on their restart, and absorb all that energy back from the Storm, making the next encounter between Hughes and Lane one of the most critical since the break. Hughes said he’d dropped it, Lane insisted it was wrested out of his grasp, the on-field ruling was cough-up, and Parra sent it upstairs to prove the Melbourne halfback had enough contact to constitute a strip. With the extra field position to propel them back to their tryscoring flow, Parra had to capitalise on what was effectively a full set in the twenty.

Lane came close to a break on the left edge, where he was shut down by a last-ditch tackle from Ieremia, before Reimis Smith contained Gutho in the same part of the park. The Eels had come pretty close here, and while the hosts were up to the task, they couldn’t summon the same scintillating pace on their next set. As it turned out, however, they didn’t need to, since Blake knocked on what initially looked like a fairly standard bomb from Munster to gift the Storm a scrum feed at the twenty, as Munster rallied his men around their biggest set so far.

It ended with a whimper, at least by Storm standards, as Chris Lewis followed big charges from NAS and Jesse Bromwich by coughing up the footy just beside the posts. This was a rare moment of vulnerability for the purple army during this second stanza, while even the staunchest Parramatta supporters probably wouldn’t have predicted they’d be packing their own scrum so quickly. Play now paused as Jesse Bromwich left the park for Tepai Moeroa’s first minutes, while Hughes clutched his chest in discomfort after an enormous tackle on Lane.

Melbourne’s next set was one of their toughest, consisting almost entirely of short runs, meaning Hughes had to boot it from the forty, where he rushed the kick in search of a 40/20, but instead shanked it out on the full, before taking some medicine for the pain that seemed to be impeding his judgement a little at this late point in the game. This was the chance that Parra needed, and the chance they had to capitalise upon, as Moses seemed to briefly consider the possibility of a field goal, before Gutho was shut down out on the left edge.

The Eels had tried and failed to build on this part of the park, so Moses shifted their attention to the right on the last, when he chipped for a superb Stone putdown, prodigious precisely because it initially looked so messy. Competing with Olam, Stone initially lost it, juggling it from hand to hand, and actually knocking it backwards into big NAS’ head, before it tumbled back over his shoulder. Even then, he never gave up on the play, chasing the footy down, and picking it up in both hands, tip to turf, on the bounce, to guarantee himself a clean grounding.

In microscosm, this sequence encapsulated a Parramatta outfit who had struggled at times to match the Melbourne machine, but had never given up on the game, and had ultimately self-corrected more seamlessly than their purple opponents. More incredibly, this wouldn’t even be Stone’s most memorable try of the night, although he’d have to wait for extra time to put down his next four. Meanwhile, Nathan Brown hit a hundred run metres on the restart, Moses bombed on the last, Lane tapped it back, Kaufusi lost it, and RCG came up with it.

It felt like Parra had to score here, or at least that Moses must boot through a one-pointer, since they had the best flow of the game behind them now. No surprise, then, that Mitch blew up for the second time this evening when he got in position for the kick, and barked out for a Dylan Brown pass, only to see his halves partner shape a wide ball to the wing that Lane fumbled into touch. That missed opportunity was all that Melbourne needed to level the score again, as Brandon Smith, with a broken hand, busted straight through Lane and RCG.

Sailing into open space, he shifted the footy to Munster, who flicked it on to Papenhuyzen to score. Cementing the fact that this four-pointer came off miscommunication between the Parra halves, Munster sent out the assist just as Dylan Brown got to him, and Paps got it down just as Moses launched on top of it. An extra millisecond and both Brown and Moses would have done the job defensively here, so this was a masterclass of Storm clutchiness, their unique ability to extemporise under pressure, bringing us to 24-24 once Paps added the kick.  

Like the Eels before them, Melbourne got a repeat set at the end of the restart, when Blake spilled Hughes’ bomb for the second time – and like the Eels, they didn’t get the field goal, as Lane charged down Papenhuyzen’s kick, before Moses also missed a two-pointer to bring the game into golden point. It felt like such a close game should end with a field goal, but the conclusion turned out to be both much closer and much wider than that suggested, as Parramatta came away with a four-point victory good enough for their all-time highlights reel.

It was closer because it started as a field goal attempt – the next and last field goal attempt, from Moses, who went for a one-pointer this time around, only to see the Steeden ricochet off the right post. It was wider because Stone seized the moment, scooping up the footy, swerving away from Hughes, and planting down a try to commemorate this incredible show of courage and resilience from the blue and gold army. The fact he suffered a season-ending knee injury just added to his heroism, cementing his name in the all-time Parramatta annals as he sets his sights on Redcliffe.

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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