Saturday night’s game at AAMI was the blockbuster of Round 7. After a couple of uneven contests in which underdogs (Dogs, Broncs, Titans) put in resonding performances, we had the spectacle of second against third, Nicho Hynes against his former club, two top four outfits with four wins and a single loss, and Cronulla’s best start to the season since 2008. No surprise, then, that these were some of the best passages of footy all year, especially for the first sixty minutes, when the Sharkies held their own to only trail 18-24 by the 63rd minute.
From there, the Storm piled on ten more points, but that couldn’t take away from the arm wrestle of the first hour, which made this the match of the season so far. There was genius across the park, but this was an all-timer for Cameron Munster, who delivered one of the best runs of his career for a try at the half hour mark, and started the second stanza with such a good kickoff, splitting the backline on the sideline, that the purple army scored a try before a single tackle had been completed, despite the fact that they were defending this opening set.
Munster has rarely felt more like a point of continuity between the Slater-Smith-Cronk era and the current incarnation of the club as he did here, rallying the troops with play after play, and working alongside Ryan Papenhuyzen for some truly astounding combinations. Yet Cronulla held their own, only making two errors for a near-perfect night with the completions, and relying on Hynes more than ever before, as the backliner-turned-half showed how intimately he knew the structures of his former club in his probing and mercurial playmaking.
Big Nelson took the opening carry, and Felise Kaufusi the second, before NAS took another run on tackle three, and the Cheese drew on his starting frontrower credentials to build a platform for Jahrome Hughes to boot it just over the halfway line. Add in a sharp charge from Trent Loeiro and this was a perfect opener for the purple army, although the Sharkies hit back with a strong chase to prevent Nick Meaney doing anything once he took their first high ball. Cam Munster took the next kick, ten metres further forwards than Hughes, right to the line.
Mawene Hiroti responded in kind, sliding to ground to take it clean, and rising just as quickly to get Cronulla rolling once again. They accelerated on this second set, tempting Loeiro into a crowding penalty, and garnering themselves the best position so far, as Dale Finucane drove it over the thirty, McInnes over the twenty and Braden Hamlin-Uele into the ten, where he would have scored if not for a heroic trysaver from NAS. Ryan Papenhuyzen was even clutchier on the last, when he broke a Hiroti tackle to bring the kick back into the field of play.
In these five minutes, we’d already seen the most plosive footy of Round 6, since both sides were unleashing the torrential energy that Penrith had launched upon the Broncos the night before. Brisbane hadn’t been able to quite meet it, but there was the same volatility on both sides here, as NAS proved with another massive carry midway through the next set, where he was greeted by a Cronulla pack committed to matching his momentum. The Sharkies had got the first penalty, and they got the first error a play later, with a forward pass from Cheese.
They copped a blow at the same instant when Finucane was sent off for an early HIA, bringing Aiden Tolman off the bench earlier than expected, but they had the scrum feed to focus on now, as Toby Rudolf got a sharp play-the-ball away to Blayke Brailey, who didn’t have anyone at marker to contend with, and so built space for another mad Hamlin-Uele dash up the right. He didn’t crash over this time either, but his speed injected a new frenzy and panic into Melbourne that quickly crystallised around a (marginally) late tackle from Kaufusi on Hynes.
Hynes set up the tee a moment later after sitting at 3/6 last week against the Tigers, sneaking it inside the left upright to put Cronulla on the board for the first time. This was already an un-Storm like start, and things got even weirder when Munster booted the restart out on the full to gift the Sharkies a full set inside the Melbourne thirty. Tolman had the first carry, Teig Wilton followed off a deft pass from Hamlin-Uele, and Siosifa Talakai was flat-footed on the third, costing Cronulla a little more momentum before Kaufusi targeted Braden on play four.
All that work from the big men came down to a Hynes chip to the left corner, and while he didn’t find his mark, Talakai finished off this forward-heavy sequence with a second boot that wasn’t quite angled right to secure the dropout. There was an element of exhaustion to this last Cronulla set that made it critical they showcase some elastic playmaking next time they had footy in hand – or accelerate more cleanly and crisply up the middle. The two second-rowers got it rolling before Hamlin-Uele continued a massive night, and Moylan took the kick.
Unfortunately, that over-reliance on the big men came apart at the end of the set, when Talakai leaked a penalty for tackling Papenhuyzen while he was leaping onto the high ball. The Storm only had 3 tackles in the opposition half, compared to Cronulla’s 15, so they needed something special here, ideally a repeat set, or at the very least an example of the enterprising play the Sharkies hadn’t quite nailed down on their last bout of possession. It came down to a soaring Hughes kick to Xavier Coates, but Ronaldo Mulitalo got there first.
Finally, Cronulla used their next set to shift right, where Jesse Ramien made good metres in the face of Justin Olam. This seemed to revive their work down the middle, as a limber Rudolf carry capped off a 65 metre advantage with a good kick to keep Melbourne deep in their own end. No hooker has run more than Harry Grant in 2022, but he only got his first charge now, and even then was kept to ten metres, although his burst trickled across into a Reimis Smith half-break on the right, before Moylan followed Mulitalo by shutting down a Coates collect.
For the first time all night, the Sharks struggled to make metres on their next set, so Hynes seized the moment with a brilliant kick that would have become a 40/20 if Papenhuyzen hadn’t delivered the best return in response. Josh King tried to invigorate the middle with a bouncing offload to Munster, and Grant took up the baton with a second run that very nearly produced a break and try on the right. Hughes finished with a kick back in field, where Munster caught it, but this halves combo didn’t produce points as the Sharkies regathered.
Still, for the second time, Cronulla struggled to work it off their own line, forcing Hynes to deliver another soaring kick – this time straight up the middle, where Papenhuyzen had to wait a few seconds to scoop it up, as it bounced back for ten metres that the Storm more than recouped when McInnes was pinged for a dangerous tackle a second later. Meanwhile, word had come down that Finucane had failed his HIA and wouldn’t be rejoining the park against his former club, a disappointing and surprising result since the contact had seemed quite mild.
This turned out to be a tipping-point for Melbourne, who scored the first try of the game as the second quarter arrived, off their first penalty of the afternoon. All it took was a typically clinical combo out on the left wing, where Munster soared a beautiful wide ball across for Meaney to flick it back inside for Olam to slam through Kennedy for four. Papenhuyzen was always going to add the extras, making it a four point game, and putting himself nine clear of Mitch Moses, and thirteen clear of Val Holmes, for top tryscorer of the 2022 season so far.
It may have been the best sideline conversion of his career as well, straight and sharp through the posts. He didn’t show any signs of slowing down on tackle two of the restart, coming in low and hard on the defence, before Brandon intensified his trajectory out on the left for what initially looked like a potential break. On the other side of the footy, Cronulla seemed in danger of being trapped on their own line once more, only to escalate into one of their best sets, all things considered, given how clinically they now countered the coasting Storm wave.
They made enough position that the purple army were only at the halfway line by the fourth play of their next set, where King tumbled to ground and lost the Steeden in his team’s third error so far. With 11/11 completions, the Sharkies were going set for set, and holding their own, a necessity when playing Melbourne in Melbourne, while Kennedy glimpsed a space up the left at the start of their next set, and Hynes sent a short one out to Rudolf to consolidate the play before they entered the Storm’s ten metre zone with Jack Williams on tackle four.
Hynes’ next kick was well weighted, but still landed straight in Hughes’ hands, as the Storm rapidly accelerated into another burst of position, and kept the Sharkies in their own end at the start of the following set, in what would have been a definitive shift in momentum if Hynes hadn’t stayed strong with the boot. Lobbing it to the right wing midway through the count, he established the enterprising right play that Cronulla had been looking for all night, a remarkably daring move in his own twenty that paid off when Ramien collected it on the full.
From there, the Sharkies escalated into a sublime team try, as Ramien found space, fended off Meaney, and offloaded back to Hiroti, who clocked up an extra fifteen metres and sent some second (or third) phase play back for Ramien to begin a shift out to the other side of the park. Hynes was the pivot, Moylan was the accelerator, and Kennedy provided the assist with a superb short ball that put Talakai across on the left, before Nicho showed Paps he could pull off a perfect sideline kick as well, straight through the posts to regain the two point lead.
No sooner had Hynes upped Cronulla than the Storm put down another try off a dangerous play from McInnes. This time it was a potential hip-drop on Paps that saw the ex-Dragon put on report, although he barely had time to register it before Munster reached top gear. In a piece of pure footy brilliance, he dummied it at the thirty to get away from Hynes, accelerated into the twenty, danced over a Rudolf ankle tap at the ten, and crossed over before Kennedy could stop him. Even better, Paps seemed fine as he booted the two to make it a 12-8 lead.
The Sharkies may have delivered a sublime team try, but Munster had countered with a one-man effort that seemed to dispose of their entire team – and that’s true football leadership. Even now, however, the Storm couldn’t afford to be complacent, as Cronulla delivered one final plosive period of attack before the break. It started with Hynes continuing to build options on the right edge. A well-timed ball got Kennedy space on the wing, where he offloaded back to Hiroti, who took the tackle despite Ramien roaring out for it back in field.
This didn’t dent the Sharks’ momentum, however, as they reprised the superb left sweep that preceded Talakai’s try, but with a more eccentric variation now – a no-looker from Moylan to Wilton, and then an offload from Wilton back to Moylan, who swam his way through the defence and would have crossed over beside the left post if not for a superb Kaufusi save. Paps only just prevented Brailey from doing the same out on the right edge, and you could see the exhaustion written all over his face in what felt like one of the clutches of his career.
Yet the Sharkies still weren’t done, as Hynes once more opened up metres up the right for Kennedy, Ramien and then Hiroti, before his men once more swung it back to the left, where a deft pair of passes from Moylan and Kennedy set up Mulitalo for a kick at speed. Grant got there first, but Mulitalo banged straight into Papenhuyzen, who barely moved, but was held to have tackled him off the ball, setting up Hynes for one final penalty kick that itself capped off this extraordinary final period, ricocheting off the posts but without anything coming of it.
This had easily been the best forty minutes of footy all season, and Munster continued that sublime flow with his best boot of the game on the second stanza kickoff, splitting the difference between Talakai and Mulitalo with a deceptive spin of the Steeden. Less than a minute on the clock and Melbourne had the scrum feed ten metres out – and then the next and easiest try of the game, off a short pass from Hughes to Olam, who took advantage of a Ramien slip to make it a double while setting up Papenhuyzen for another effortless kick.
In one of the more extraordinary recent moments in Melbourne history, the purple army had fielded the first set back from the break, and had still scored the opening try before a single tackle had been completed, garnering themselves the biggest lead of the night, in what was quickly turning into an all-time game for Munster. Only three minutes had passed, but it felt like ten, and Cronulla still hadn’t touched the footy, as Paps barged his way into a small gap that closed just in time, and Alec MacDonald made a mark off the bench with a neat offload.
Tolman was in damage control as he ate up the metres late in the Cronulla set, and Hynes followed with a fifty-metre boot, although it only took the Storm three tackles to make it back into Sharkies territory, where Munster hoisted it high to the left edge, and Meaney knocked on before Hiroti got a hand to it. This wasn’t quite a letoff for the visitors, since they didn’t get any extra position out of it, but even the slightest chink in the Melbourne armour had to be a motivator now, so it was big when Wilton set up their first real surge since the sheds.
He did it up the left, where Talakai and Mulitalo reprised some of their brilliance from the first forty, and while the Sharkies lost twenty metres a play later, they built on a Grant offside to make good on this combo with their most theatrical putdown of the night. Mulitalo took a second terrific ball from Talakai, outpaced Reimis Smith and launched into the air, both legs a good metre above his head by the time he landed Steeden-first. Hynes was kicking better tonight, but he got unlucky now, as the footy ricocheted off the right post to keep it 18-12.
Munster tried to reprise his opening kickoff but the Sharks were wise to it now, while Andrew Fifita made a half-break and offload to take the edge off an enormous defensive opener on Mulitalo, who’d taken the first run. Brailey toyed with the Storm a play later, signalling a new comfort and elasticity to the Sharks in the wake of this last try, a more relaxed belief in themselves as genuine equals that Hynes channelled into one of his most languorous bombs so far – and that just made it all the more dramatic when Munster got back on his bike again.
It happened early in the next set, with two plays that were sublime in their simplicity – dummy out to the left as he was disposing of McInnes, pass back inside for Papenhuyzen to cross over untouched. No team in the comp can pull off this kind of visionary simplicity like Melbourne at their peak, and it was even better to see Munster set it up, as the ghosts of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith suddenly seemed to be propelling him through the line. Paps was always going to convert at this angle, bringing the purple army to double Cronulla.
The Sharkies did well to keep Melbourne in their own end on the restart, despite a couple of big carries from NAS, and opted for a methodical accumulation of field position on their next set, when they travelled the length of the park and finally pinned the Storm down their own end. Play paused now for Kennedy to get some attention after copping big NAS contact as he made a late shift from running to kicking the ball, a moment of hesitation that left him unusually vulnerable to the contact, but still able to remain on the field as the game resumed.
Mulitalo was the next man to go down, midway through the next set, off a Kaufusi crusher, but the Sharks didn’t do much with the extra field position, which came down to a fairly uninspired Moylan chip that Paps took like he’d always been the intended recipient. Moylan’s night got worse a few plays later, when he dragged Brandon Smith down by the jersey, and catapulted him into Talakai for what was technically a high shot from the cult centre. With NAS at the ten on tackle one, this was the most dangerous period in some time for Cronulla.
Hughes got his men rolling with an offload to Grant, who opted to kick then and there, early in the count, and found Coates on the wing, who clapped both hands on the Steeden, but was bundled up in a Sharks tackle. Still, he retained possession, giving Melbourne the rest of the set to sweep back to the left, and yet they never got there, since Olam didn’t duck quite low enough to avoid a misplaced Brandon Smith cut-out ball before it falconed off Ramien, putting both hands on his head to protect himself only to make contact with the fingertips as he did.
This was enough for the Sharks to lean back into their left-edge groove, as Moylan started a sweep late in the count, Hynes responded with a beautiful bullet cut-out to Talakai, and big Siosifa culminated his silky service on the wing with a sublime no-looker to Mulitalo, who had just enough space to pivot back inside to elude Reimis Smith and twist through Hughes at the very death. Hynes capped it off with his most mercurial kick from the sideline, curving it through the posts at the last second as the Sharks, like the Titans, found themselves 18-24.
Sixty-three minutes into the game, and a tackle into the restart, Williams made the first Cronulla error of the night with a fumbled play-the-ball. Hughes drove it up the right, King entered the ten, NAS stood in the tackle for a few seconds and even then almost broke over the chalk. The Storm got six again, Grant barged into a sea of defenders, was held up, and got the tip of the Steeden down just as the combined tackled coalesced, and just before it was completed. He’d only had two runs tonight, but this mad dummy half charge made up for it.
By this stage, there was no doubt that the Sharkies had the dexterity to go try for try for Melbourne, so this display of sheer brute strength and barnstorming determination was just what the Storm needed to reassert their control over the last fifteen minutes. All Wilton could do was lie prone on the turf as Grant rolled the footy down his face and over his arm to score, a piece of footage that must have haunted the Cronulla supporters in the AAMI stands as Papenhuyzen booted through the two from right in front to make it a twelve point game.
Hamlin-Uele collected Grant high early in the restart, and the Storm coasted and coasted, garnering another high shot, this time from Ramien at the end of a sublime left sweep that probably would have produced points if not for the penalty. Nevertheless, Paps took the two, slotting a beauty through the posts to put his men fourteen ahead. Four plays into the restart, Coates glimpsed space up the right, McInnes leaked his third dangerous tackle, and Papenhuyzen nabbed two more to become the highest-scoring Storm player against Cronulla.
This was impressive for the Storm but a little anticlimactic for the game overall, given the rousing reception the Sharkies had offered to most of Melbourne’s best moments, especially as the Storm came close to another try on their very next carry. They started with a spread to Meaney on the left, before Rudolf stole it and handed it back just as quickly to grant the purple army a full set in the red zone. Munster sent a beautiful ball back out to Meaney and Grant almost twisted over beside the posts, clearing space for Olam to smash over in his wake.
Olam didn’t get the hat trick, though, since Trindall got in place in time. A set later, Cronulla had their first touch of the footy in over ten minutes, and ended this precious bout of position with their second error of the night, as Kennedy completed another sweep to the left wing with a cut-out that sailed over the sideline. So much of Cronulla’s self-belief had crystallised around this part of the park, so seeing it all come apart now, after so much time defending their own end, was the last big note of their game, as they set in to stop another Storm try.
They were successful, and while these last fifteen minutes had been disappointing, you couldn’t criticise the courage and resilience they’d brought to the park tonight. Seeing Kennedy dragged over the sideline was an unfortunate closing note, but at least they kept it to 34-18 despite one last Melbourne assault on their line. Both teams should hold their heads high, then, when they rock up for Round 7, although the Sharkies have a considerably bigger task on their hands in the face of a Manly outfit pumped off their win over Gold Coast tonight.