ROUND 10: Melbourne Storm v. Penrith Panthers (Suncorp Stadium, 14/5/22, 6-32)

Penrith used their brutal loss against Parra to propel them into one of their best wins of the season at Suncorp on Saturday night, beating their biggest ever victory over Melbourne (36-16) to come away with an astonishing 32-6 margin. In part, that was attributable to the absence of Reimis Smith, Jahrome Hughes and above all Ryan Papenhuyzen, since Tyran Wishart had a fair few wobbly moments at stand-in fullback, after Nick Meaney was named earlier in the week for the no. 1 jersey only to be reallocated to the wing.

But this was also a tribute to the sheer vision and intensity of the Penrith machine, who never gave Melbourne a chance. Both teams have only conceded 12.2 points per game in 2022, but the mountain men felt like they were facing a bottom four outfit for stretches, as Melbourne got a taste of how their opponents have felt over the last couple of weeks of football. It was weird to see the Storm relegated to underdogs, so they need to restore their continuity and flow before they meet a North Queensland side hungry for second place on the ladder.

Jarome Luai reined in an awkward bounce on the kickoff, Harry Grant careened awkwardly out of an early tackle, and Nathan Cleary got his first boot just inside the forty, sending Tyran Wishart a pretty big challenge under his first high ball. Luai knocked it on, while Grant got attention from the trainers, bringing back memories of Christian Welch’s departure in the first part of last year’s preliminary final. He remained on the park, while Melbourne ended their first set with a soaring Cam Munster kick.

It was good enough to pin Penrith on their line, and once again Cleary booted it just inside the forty. While Melbourne made more position, they didn’t get to the end of their set, as Cooper Johns flicked it forward on tackle four, gifting the mountain men their first incursion into opposition territory. It only took four plays for them to click into gear, as Cleary and Isaah Yeo both double-pumped, building width for Isack Tago to slice through a gap and cross under a last-ditch tackle from Grant once Luai flicked the assist back inside from the wing.  

Cleary added the extras, and the Panthers were just under a point per minute. They worked it quicker off their own line this time, getting Cleary halfway by the time he hoisted up a monster bomb that Wishart did well to take on the volley. Nelson Asofa-Solomona crawled through the defence midway into the count, but Wishart wasn’t ready to take his late offload, so Penrith got a full set in the Melbourne half, hitting the ten by the time that Kenny Bromwich put in a big trysaver to prevent Luai darting over beside the left post.

Nevertheless, the Panthers made good on their second shot on the Melbourne line, and once again it came off the vision of Cleary. This time he kicked on the last, popping a pinpoint chip to the left edge, where Viliame Kikau only had to leap over Marion Seve to take the millimetre-perfect ball in both hands and tumble it onto the turf. Cleary had an easy conversion angle, and the visitors were now sitting on a point per minute, 28 minutes in, while the Storm were struggling to produce their regular cohesion in formations.

In that sense, they were a bit like the Sea Eagles the night before – and Penrith were only warming up, as Moses Leota took his fifth run to make twenty up the middle, and Cleary continued to edge towards the Melbourne line with his kicks, booting the next one just outside the purple forty. The Storm couldn’t have asked for a better time to receive the first penalty of the night (and the first Penrith error in thirteen minutes of football) when Luai was called offside in the ten, and hit the twenty three plays later for their best position so far.

Munster chipped it right on the last, but he couldn’t match Kikau’s dexterity beneath the kick, knocking it on to give the visitors a seven tackle set. Tago fumbled the footy on play one but managed to regather it, while a rapid play-the-ball got Api Koroisau into the twenty by play four, so it was agonising to see the left sweep come apart, as a Luai cut-out headed past Tago and over the sideline. Combined with Luai’s penalty, this was the first sign of Penrith vulnerability so far, and the Storm had to capitalise on it immediately.

The rain was intensifying as a rollicking Panthers defence prevented them getting too far downfield, although Munster did the job with the boot – or at least so it seemed, since the kick appeared destined to produce a dropout when Taylan May took it on the bounce, only for the no. 2. to elude the defence and risk a wide ball to Tago a metre out from the dead ball line. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Munster resumed control with a one-on-one steal on Tago, before winning his men a restart when Dylan Edwards infringed the ruck.

Melbourne now had their first sustained stint in the Penrith red zone, and Grant got on his bike on play three, delving into the defence before the crossbar, and then offloading back to Yeo, who sent it on to Munster. Again, Cam sent a beautiful kick off the boot, but now to the other wing, after seeing Brian To’o was caught in field. Nick Meaney got the catch right, mirroring Kikau by leaping to take it on the full and then slamming down the first four for Melbourne, and under even clutchier conditions, a mere metre out from the sideline.

He converted his try a moment later, slotting the Steeden straight through the uprights to bring us to 6-12 on the cusp of the second quarter. Grant and Brandon Smith charged the restart with a pair of tough midfield runs, but Edwards took Munster’s kick easily, and the Panthers had to hit back big now. Koroisau might have made the next error, but it was quickly eclipsed by the most egregious mistake so far, as Seve simply flicked it forward out of dummy half, with no significant pressure from Melbourne at marker.

Cleary ended the next set with another perfect crossfield chip, but this time the purple chase was up to it, forcing a knock-on from Stephen Crichton before a Koroisau offside bumped them even further up the park. Munster would have broken straight through on play three if not for a final touch from Cleary, while the Panthers got their first penalty of the night, mere centimetres off their try line, when Josh King was called offside. It was almost as frustrating as the Seve error, and a vulnerable enough moment for Penrith to really capitalise here.

They shifted right late in the count, hitting the twenty for Cleary to boot a strong one under pressure, and while Melbourne did well to collect it after Penrith missed the bounce, the mountain men now mounted some of their most rigorous defence to keep the Storm trapped down their own end, starting with a massive Yeo-Koroisau shutdown on Justin Olam. Yet that just made it even more of a rhythm-shifter when James Fisher-Harris got done for a late tackle, as the Storm stood to reabsorb all Penrith’s momentum if they could consolidate now.

Instead, they lost the footy out on the right, where Luai scooped it up to get his men seven tackles. Without Papenhuyzen and Hughes, the purple army were really struggling to build a steady pattern of attack, so they needed a couple of big individual plays to get them back on the board. Brandon Smith provided the next one, diving on the Steeden after a Tago drop, and dishevelling the Penrith defence sufficiently for Scott Sorensen to make a second effort. Ten minutes out from the break, Felise Kaufusi took the first tackle at the thirty.

Kenny Bromwich was almost at the ten a play later, while Trent Loeiro followed with a crash play in front of the posts, and Cleary and Edwards slid in, like Koroisau and Yeo before them, to contain an Olam charge, albeit not without Cleary hanging out the left arm for inadvertent high contact. With a repeat set on the line, Melbourne had their most significant position thus far, so it was impressive when To’o managed to clean up a loose pass to get Penrith back on the front foot, before the visitors received their second penalty with a slow peel from Johns.

It would be disastrous for the Panthers to get their third try after shutting down Melbourne’s first assault on their line, and Yeo knew it, putting in his best midfield run so far to hit the twenty on tackle two, before Cleary popped a short one out for Kikau to exhaust the defenders on the left edge. Crichton glimpsed space on the the wing on the last, off a bullet ball from Cleary, where a Storm pack managed to drag him into touch, but not without Olam making (pretty marginal) high contact to grant the mountain men a fresh set.

Melbourne’s last stint on the Penrith line had ended badly, so it was critical they stay strong here – and they did, with one of the most plosive defensive efforts of the year so far. Three tackles in, Crichton reprised his barnstorming run, but further back in field, where he hit the footy at speed off an enormous Yeo cut-out and Edwards catch-and-pass, and accelerated off the right boot with his eyes on the line. Munster was the only man between him and the chalk, and put his whole body on the line to prevent him getting the footy to ground.

Even then, he was pushed a metre back in goal, wrestling Crichton as Loeiro came in on top to ensure that the tip of the Steeden never quite hit the turf. Nevertheless, the Panthers got another set, since the replay confirmed that Meaney had come in high on Edwards (or, rather Edwards had slipped into him to make the contact high). With five minutes on the clock, and conscious that they might lose momentum if they failed to score off another close-range set, Penrith opted to take the two, and Cleary slotted it through for a 6-14 differential.

Luai was already busting to break the line on tackle one of the restart, as the Panthers leaned into a continuity and flow that Melbourne were really struggling to muster, despite Munster. Koroisau almost sent Yeo into space a few plays later, while the set ended catastrophically for the Storm – with Wishart staring down a slippery Steeden off a massive Luai boot, and pulling back his eyes at the last second to contend with the bulk of Kikau charging towards him at full pelt. That’s all it took for him to loose the footy, which rolled back for any Panther to take up.

In the end it was Tago who got there, slightly overtaking Luai to tap the footy down and bring Penrith to a fourteen point lead once Cleary booted through the two as the rain continued to intensify. The final note of the first stanza was Brandon Smith leaving the park for an HIA after colliding into Kikau’s thigh, but he was good after the break. For the first time in three years, the Storm headed to the sheds conceding twenty points, so they rallied themselves with a big set back, including Tui Kamikamica’s first touch of the footy this year.

Wishart looked up to see another big chase converging on him under his first high ball back, although this time he maintained possession, while a tough run from Kamikamica cleared up space for an even better Grant charge down the middle. In these two sets, Melbourne had regathered themselves, circled the wagons, while their defence was sharper too. A few plays into the second Penrith set, Johns and Kamikamica not only withstood a big fend from Spencer Leniu up the left but managed to force the knock-on to get their team mates a scrum.

Kamikamica continued to make a massive impact off the bench, driving the Steeden over the halfway line, and yet the Storm now faltered for the first time since the break. Whether he didn’t realise it was the last, or thought running the ball was the best option, Munster fed it out to the left, where Kenny Bromwich was wrapped up clinically by the Penrith defence. Even worse, Coates was still down in backplay when Wishart fielded the next high ball, eventually hobbling back into the line with what appeared to be a groin issue.

Melbourne needed a boost, and they got it when a Yeo ruck error propelled them back down the Panthers’ end, although the visitors survived seamlessly, while Cleary weathered another strong bout of defence by shaping for a 40/20. He didn’t get anywhere near the sideline, but it didn’t really matter, since the footy hit the ten anyway, while the Storm were only just making inroads into Penrith territory when Meaney got done for an obstruction. If Melbourne didn’t hold their line now, this could be the start of a flood of Panthers points.

The visitors got six again in the ten, thanks to an offside from Grant, and spent some time extemporising on the left edge, where Cleary himself took a crack at the line before Sorensen tried to smash over in his wake. Seve knocked the footy out of Luai’s hands, and although it travelled fifteen metres backwards, the Panthers still got a dropout, as Tago chipped it back to the wing, where an oblique bounce totally defied Wishart, leaving only Coates to bump it into touch with Tago on his back.

This marked the start of the biggest accumulation of field position for either team so far, as Munster infringed the ruck on tackle one, and Cleary opted to grubber on the fourth, slotting it straight between the posts as Wishart only just beat Luai for a second straight dropout. Meanwhile, Munster was receiving an HIA assessment on the sideline, after copping some friendly fire from big NAS, and while he was cleared to remain for the moment, it was still a worrying sign for the Storm as they prepared to field yet another Penrith onslaught.

It felt almost inevitable, then, when the mountain men made good on their left edge, where Koroisau took a couple of steps out of dummy half to clear up space for Cleary to sail a beautiful ball to Kikau, who responded by making the offload look just as easy, flicking the footy out of Johns’ low shot for Luai to smash over untouched. Cleary added the extras, and Penrith were twenty points ahead at 26-6, after clocking up 232 run metres over the last ten minutes compared to Melbourne’s 72.

Like the Sea Eagles against Brisbane the night before, the Storm had to revise their goals as the final quarter loomed. A win felt almost out of the question now, so they needed to put down a couple of tries to ensure they didn’t lose too much momentum heading into next week’s game against the Cowboys. What they didn’t need was for Kikau to bust through the line a couple of sets later, and withstand the best trysaver of the night when NAS’ mammoth effort was called late contact, granting Penrith yet another stint in the Melbourne twenty.

They shifted left, they shifted right, they drove it up the middle, and yet the Storm remained strong, getting the ball back only for Munster to have to hand it over to the mountain men due to an Olam offside play. By this stage, it was starting to feel more like a Penrith training run, or as if Melbourne were a bottom four team, and yet Seve got some joy now, slamming in to prevent Luai making good at the end of the next left sweep, and forcing the Panthers to drag it back to the right, where Meaney didn’t do as well in the face of a big Crichton charge.

It was the most casual, off-the-cuff try so far, as Cleary simply lobbed a no-looker back for Edwards to pop a short one along to Crichton, who bumped off Meaney and made his way over the line, before Cleary slotted through the two to bring Penrith to a staggering 32-6 point lead. Melbourne were now getting an insight into how some of their opponents have felt over the last couple of weeks, as Munster opted to run the footy at the end of their next set, and ended up losing it to grant the Panthers a midfield scrum.

You couldn’t blame Munster for trying to improvise at this point, and to their credit the Storm survived the next blast on their line, although Munster’s next kick went even further awry, landing squarely on the chest of Crichton, who knocked it to ground, but managed to regather it just as quickly. Ten minutes out from the siren, the game had lost some energy, or perhaps Suncorp had lost some energy, since the Melbourne crowd were very muted, and the Penrith crowd were more than assured of the win.

The next blow for the Storm came a few plays into the next set, when Koroisau forced a Wishart error, as once again Penrith packed the scrum. In a rare letoff, however, Edwards coughed it up early in the count, so it became Melbourne’s turn to get the feed, as Seve started with one of the best purple runs of the night to slide away from a series of defenders up the right edge and force a Tago offside, although that just made it all the more shattering when he followed with his second egregious error of the night.

If his forward pass from dummy half had been poor, then the next pass must have been traumatic for the home crowd. No sooner had he tapped the ball off his boot than he sent an absolute bludger back in field – too far ahead for Grant to save it, let alone for Kaufusi to scoop it up. This was the last note of the night, symbolically, for Melbourne, although they continued to struggle over the final five minutes, starting with a Josh King offload that Grant knocked along the ground to grant Penrith their next set from halfway.

On the back of Brian To’o’s last run, all of the Penrith backs now had at least a hundred run metres to their name, while Wishart took his eyes off the footy for the second time this evening – not under the high ball, but as he ducked under the bounce off a Jaeman Salmon offload to hit May before he made contact with the footy. The rain was torrential as Fish took the first run into the ten, and everything seemed in place for another Penrith try, so it was a minor miracle when Munster took Cleary’s grubber on the ricochet.

All Wishart’s struggles at fullback came to a head a few plays later, when he circled around the ball in goal, hesitating whether to scoop it up or pop it down, leaving space for Liam Martin to spiral around him and finally get a hand to it. He didn’t get the try, and the Panthers remained at 32-6, but this was still a historic win, a massive hit back after their shock loss to Parra, and a big boost for next week’s game against the Chooks, while the Storm now have to steel themselves for a North Queensland outfit desperate to jump from second to third.

About Billy Stevenson (750 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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