ROUND 9: Melbourne Storm v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (AAMI Park, 8/5/22, 42-6)

St. George put in a solid effort for large stretches of this afternoon’s game at AAMI park, but they were no match for a Melbourne outfit that have now racked up 162 points in their last three games, and only conceded 20, to exceed the Roosters of 1935 (324) with the most points ever scored (335) in the first nine weeks of a regular season. Add to that 150th and 200th milestones for Kenny Bromwich and Nelson Asofa-Solomona, and this was always going to be magic from Melbourne, a perfect precursor to their Magic Round clash with Penrith.

The Storm had the first set and shifted it left immediately for Kenny Bromwich to celebrate his milestone match with the first touch, before Josh King tempted a Jack Bird offside on the back of Harry Grant’s first dummy half run. Jesse and Kenny contributed a couple of big runs up the middle, Reimis Smith made inroads up the left, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona brought them into the ten, where they got a restart on the final play off a second Bird mistake. Frank Molo did well to hold up Jahrome Hughes, but Moses Mbye infringed the ruck a beat later.

With so much position behind them, the purple army were always going to cross here, as Kenny took a Grant ball ten metres out, wrestled through Bird, trampled over Talatau Amone, and got to ground beside the left post. In a big let off for the Dragons, however, King got pinged for an obstruction, keeping it a 0-0 game as the visitors finally got their first touch of the footy. Mbye did well with the bomb, and they accelerated next time they had ball in hand, thanks to a slow peel from big NAS, arriving inside the twenty by the time Hunt took the kick.

Nick Meaney was up to it, putting his whole body on the line to leap a metre above Mikaele Ravalawa, and getting his men a boost back down the park when the St. George no. 5 got done for aerial contact. Justin Olam took the first tackle at the thirty, the Dragons withstood big charges from NAS and Cam Munster up the middle, and Grant continued to extemporise, scooping up the Steeden after noticing nobody was waiting at marker, and getting Melbourne in place for a rapid sweep to the right that ended with Suli forcing a Reimis Smith knock-on.

The Red V were only sitting at 71% completion to Melbourne’s perfect tally, so at the very least they had to get to the end of the set now. The big boppers stepped up, as Josh McGuire provided his first really decisive run, and Jack De Belin won a restart in the red zone, so it was agonising to see McGuire cough it up on the line on the last, leaving the footy live for Felise Kaufusi to scoop it up and get Munster in place for a strong charge over the thirty, where a Zac Lomax slow peel bumped the Storm out of their own end once again.

As the repeat set got underway, Reimis Smith was off the park with what seemed to be a shoulder injury, bringing Tyran Wishart in at right centre as Ryan Papenhuyzen built space for Kenny and Meaney up the left edge, where high contact from Molo got Melbourne yet another burst of position if they chose to take it. Instead, Papenhuyzen opted to go for goal, a sign of respect for the Dragons, but probably also a recognition that they had to get something out of all this early territory or else concede some of the flow back to St. George.

Despite missing it from right in front, Paps was already sitting on the most points for any player after nine rounds (115), just ahead of Johnathan Thurston (114, 2006), Noel Pidding (113, 1951), Daryl Halligan (112, 1994), Darcy Russell (112, 1959) and Tom Kirk (112, 1944). Still, this was a reminder to the Dragons that they could own the momentum with enough defence, and a few big plays, since a 0-0 scoreline after so much Melbourne position was nothing to scoff at, even if Molo was put on report a tackle later for a crusher on Kenny.

It was a dirty play, testament to the Dragons’ desperation, and bad enough for Hunt to get a formal warning from Peter Gough. Yet this was the first set when the Storm didn’t shine on the back of field position, despite Kaufusi hitting the ten two tackles in, since he fumbled the play-the-ball a second later to give St. George their biggest let-off since the botched try. All these missed opportunities were costing Melbourne momentum, but by the same token there were only so many shots the Dragons could expect to get before the Storm peaked again.

This next set would be critical, then, especially since Kenny was called offside, and to their credit the Red V came pretty close, as Bird snuck a grubber to the right wing, and Ravalawa managed to exert enough downward pressure with his wrist, but without enough space to avoid the tip hitting touch. Put that down to a great chase from Meaney, an important motivator for the Melbourne backline now that word had come down from the sheds that Reimis Smith wouldn’t be returning to the park this afternoon.

St. George spent the first half of their next set five metres out from their line, and Hunt only got to the kick inside his twenty, while he didn’t get one of his biggest strikes either, allowing Meaney to bring it back to halfway on tackle one. Two plays later, Kenny drove past where Hunt had put boot to ball, and the Storm delivered their most mercurial sequence so far – short ball from Grant to Hughes, sweep out to Kaufusi, and then even shorter ball back into Paps, who hit it at speed and shrugged off Hunt with his eyes locked on the line.

Mbye was last line of defence and did the job well, slamming in with enough chest-to-chest contact to stun and stunt Paps’ run, but Hughes parlayed his energy into a grubber to the left, where Munster got hands around it on the bounce, Lomax ripped it free, and then lost it himself, leaving it to tumble on the turf where NAS launched his full frame onto it. For a moment, this looked like a great hit back after Paps’ almost-crossover, but it turned into a second denied try when the Bunker showed Lomax had flicked it forward off Munster.

Yet this double disappointment (two missed tries, near-misses from Paps and NAS) just made the next sequence all the more magnificent, as the last two key players showed just what determination can get you. NAS started with his biggest charge up the middle of the park, taking four defenders to stop him in his tracks, so amped up that De Belin had to remind him the tackle was over. Paps then stepped into the spotlight, receiving the Steeden from Hughes twenty out, and adding yet another amazing charge to his ever-increasing tally.

First he wrong-footed Hunt, who missed the tackle and slipped to ground; then, he dummied and pivoted off the right boot just when Suli seemed in place to clear him up; finally, he smashed to ground, with Suli and McGuire on his back, powerless to stop him planting the footy down. It was a majestic run, and a worthy crown to all the position that Melbourne had acquired over the last twenty-five minutes, bringing them to six unanswered points once Munster booted through the two.

It was a big gesture, then, when a pack of Dragons combined to bump Paps over the sideline a few minutes later. Yet the Storm almost relished this opportunity to show how clinically they could defend their line, as Olam stormed in for an absolute barnstormer on Bird, coming in low and lifting him clean off the ground, before dumping him on his back in a play Jack himself had to congratulate. As if that wasn’t enough of a rhythm-killer, Coates jammed in off the other side of the park to force a cough-up from Suli. The set had ended with a whimper.

The Red V made decent position on their next set, and were just outside the twenty when Bird took a shortside run on the penultimate play. Olam slammed in to stop him, and while the contact wasn’t as drastic this time, the outcome was more dramatic, since he forced the footy free, leaving it live for Munster to scoop up on the side and pop back inside for Meaney to take the run of his life. The first part was special, as he fended off Lomax and accelerated up field, but the rapid pivot back inside was sublime enough to be a career highlight.

So rapidly did he move, and so radically did he wrong-foot Mbye, that the St. George fullback had no option but to stop dead, hands on his hips, and watch as his quarry sailed away from Blake Lawrie and then McGuire to soar over beneath the crossbar for six tries in eight games. Paps booted through another two and the Dragons got a real scare at the end of the restart, when Coates tapped the high ball back through Feagai to Kaufusi, who managed to wrest order from chaos with an underarm offload to Grant in a sea of red and white jerseys.

Yet Feagai bounced back, in one of the best defensive moments so far, by working his way through a rolling chaotic Dragons mass to force the footy free before Grant could find the line. One of the trademarks of the Storm, however, is how well they accelerate before the break, and so Munster made the most of an overlong Hunt kick at the end of the next St. George set, when he tapped and ran while half the Dragons line still had their backs to him. Aaron Woods tried to recover the rhythm, but took it too far and got done for high contact.

All things considered, then, the Dragons did well to head to the sheds only twelve points behind, although they had to score as fast as possible when they returned to the park. They had the first set back, as Mbye fielded a kickoff with big hang time, and Trent Loeira came off the bench for some fresh Melbourne energy. McGuire got an offload back to Hunt midway through, and Mbye ended with a bomb to the Storm ten, where Paps took it on the full, and stumbled after playing the ball, still clearly feeling some discomfort in his right leg.

Grant got them rolling with another brilliant dummy half run, making forty up the middle, almost busting through the line, and showing Moose he could offload just as clutchily with some second phase for Munster – a rapid burst of acceleration that made it all the more impressive when Mbye secured the grubber in the corner. The Dragons had a new spring in their step as Hunt dummied a couple of times on his next run, and then hoisted his highest bomb to Papenhuyzen’s corner, before the Storm reprised their opening shift to the left.

This was an important flex in the wake of Paps’ decreased agility, and Grant leaned in to it, making the most of a rapid play-the-ball from Loeira to executed a more compressed but equally brilliant dummy half run that ended with him turning around to face the Melbourne line and flicking the footy out to Munster, who shifted it back to him at the forty. The acceleration almost overtook Grant then and there, but he reined in the fumble and shrugged off Hunt’s contact at the thirty, driving it all the way to the ten before he met resistance.

Even here, Grant almost controlled this massive burst of speed with a miracle ball out to Kenny Bromwich, but it wasn’t quite the right angle, and by the time Olam took it on the bounce, and smashed over, there was no doubt it had travelled forward. It was hard to say whether this was a rhythm-builder or a rhythm-killer for Melbourne, since while they’d proved what they could (almost) do, and injected a new level of volatility, Munster and Grant were clearly exhausted from their mad charges, with no purple points to show for it.

That said, the Dragons didn’t do much with their next set, thanks to a Woodsy knock-on, while the Storm didn’t take long to bounce back either – and in the most spectacular way. Hughes set the scene by trapping and scrapping a Suli kick, and Olam delivered an elegant offload for Munster to goose-step the footy out to Meaney, who had a second dash up the wing, but calmer this time, with enough space to hold the Steeden in both hands and size up the entire field before chipping it back inside to a line that Papenhuyzen was always going to run.

Paps has a unique ability to accelerate so rapidly that he almost trips over himself, and he did exactly that here, taking the Steeden on the bounce and surging-tumbling over the try line. Only when he’d planted it down did he permit himself to grasp his leg in pain, although this time it was a hamstring issue on the left, a byproduct of his effort to keep the right out of action as much as possible. Meaney booted through the extras, Papenhuyzen came from the park a moment later, and Wishart slotted in as fullback as the Storm got rolling once again.

Hughes had one of the most heroic takes of the game a set later, soaring a metre above Hunt to win the high ball in front of the crossbar, while Grant continued to supercharge the set by making metres for King, who offloaded over the top for Coates to feed it out to Kenny. Meaney was the last part of the puzzle, and he wasn’t in place, but it didn’t much matter when he booted through the first successful penalty kick of the afternoon off a Ravalawa offside. Melbourne had twenty unanswered points, and the third quarter was almost done.

Munster was casual on play one of the restart, playing around with his mouthguard as he got the set underway, while Hughes ended with an equally relaxed bomb. Everything grew languorous from here, as the Storm reached peak flow, the ball bounced, Coates leaped up to tap it back, and the bench came into the frame, with Chris Lewis shifting it on for Wishart to offload on the ground to Munster. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Cam now hesitated whether to kick or pass, and came up with a play that split the difference.

While he sent it off the boot, it was as tactile and precise as a pass, sailing thirty metres over the right edge to find Hughes, who took it on the chest like this was a training run. It was a sublime moment of halves synergy, with both men playing as one, while Meaney capped it by making the toughest conversion of the night look like the easiest. Papenhuyzen might have come from the park, but the sheer depth of the Storm, and the sheer wealth of playmakers, had stepped up without a beat, with Munster, in particular, achieving true football vision.

He clarified that vision a set later, when he hit the ten, and flicked the footy back to King, who offloaded in turn for a bouncer that travelled all the way behind the twenty by the time Jesse caught it, almost fumbled it, and flicked it out for Wishart to send on to Kenny, who finally congealed these clutchier efforts by setting up Grant for a hard charge to the ten. It was a circular play, but also a consolidation play, so when Grant played it fast, Munster seized the moment, sizing up the lack of markers in a single glance and plunging over the line for four.

It was as if Melbourne had experimented with how far they could elasticise before Munster and Grant brought it all together, and with Meaney adding another offload, they were edging ever close to the 1935 Roosters’ record for most tries scored in the first rounds of a season. This was the moment where the Dragons really started to capitulate, as Grant busted through on the restart and kicked at speed. Ravalawa did well to take it in the corner, but errors from Feagai and Mbye, and an offside for Amone, put them back on their own line.  

After a couple of silky strategic plays, the Storm now dug into a more pragmatic set piece, as Kenny drove it into the line, and Grant handed more than passed it on for NAS to slam through Bird and Jayden Sullivan for an emotional milestone try. Meaney missed his first conversion, and Brandon Smith, fresh on the field, conceded a pair of penalties for offside downtown and high contact, giving the Dragons an opportunity to put down a consolation try as we reached the last ten minutes – and to their credit, they delivered immediately, beside the right post.

Even then, however, they could only echo Melbourne’s last try, so dominant was the purple power this afternoon. Like Grant before him, Amone handed the footy to De Belin, after bumping off a couple of Storm defenders, as the big lock slammed through Kenny to get the footy down. Buoyed up by getting on the board, Hunt attempted a 40/20 with his next kick, and while Wishart told the touch judge it had come thirty centimetres short, the Dragons sent it upstairs to see if they could get another bout of position out of it.

They didn’t get any joy, while on the other side of the Steeden the Storm had now exceeded the Roosters of 1935 to put down 329 points in the first nine rounds of the regular season. They made it 335 a moment later, on the back of a Munster linebreak, when Amone conceded an escort, and they opted to tap and go. All it took was a short ball from Grant for Loeiro to crash through on the left for his fourth career try, before Meaney added his last conversion of the night to bring it to a 42-6 game.

That’s a pretty big difference, and yet the Dragons could still hold their heads high, since they were playing a team that is in a different stratosphere from every outfit in the competition apart from the Panthers. Even so, they’ll be looking to put down serious points against a Gold Coast outfit both flushed with the success of signing Kieran Foran this afternoon, and hungry for points after their close contest with the Roosters (at least in the first part of the game), while the Storm-Penrith showdown in the midst of Magic Round promises to be one for the ages.

About Billy Stevenson (732 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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