Melbourne were under unusual pressure when they hosted the Sea Eagles at AAMI for the first match of Indigenous Round. They’d scored the most points of any team in the competition in 2022, but dried up with their last couple of losses, including a particularly painful Round 12 loss to the Cowboys, who had sextupled them 36-6. It was paramount they use tonight’s game to return to their early season form, when they won eight of nine, and were only beaten in golden point by Parra, especially since Jahrome Hughes had returned.
On the other side of the Steeden, Manly had lost four of their five games, and were without Tommy Turbo, Jason Saab, Brad Parker and Marty Taupau. They hadn’t played at AAMI since 2019, when they won off a Daly Cherry-Evans field goal, a critical rallying point as they set out to try to celebrate Kieran Foran’s 250th in style. Yet while they would have the last word in both stanzas, they capitulated overall to a renewed Storm outfit, and a sublime stint from Cameron Munster, whose pair of strips in the back forty ranks with his best footy to date.
Toa Sipley took the first run of the evening, Jake Turbo followed with a tough carry, Josh Aloiai almost spun through the line, Moses Suli drew in three defenders and Aloiai took another carry to drag it over halfway, before Daly Cherry-Evans took the first kick of the game. Foran met Dean Ieremia with heavy contact, while Jurbo was just as hard on Justin Olam. This had been a bit of a lacklustre start from the purple army, but they got a boost into Manly territory with the first penalty of the game a play later, thanks to an offside from Lachlan Croker.
Jesse Bromwich palmed his way over the halfway line on tackle two, setting up Olam to bust through DCE, then Haumole Olakau’atu, and set up Brandon Smith for a rapid dummy half dash up the short side. From there, the Storm pivoted back to the right, where Munster ended with a neat chip to the corner, as Ieremia tapped it back, and Felise Kaufusi read the bounce brilliantly, curving around Reuben Garrick, and hovering the Steeden over the chalk for a tantalising instant, only for the Manly backliner to apply just enough pressure to hold him up.
By the time Kaufusi had put the ball down, his boot had slid into touch, turning what would have been a powerful opening statement from the Storm into a continuation of the Sea Eagles’ early grit. It was agonising, then, for Aloiai to get done for an obstruction a beat later, giving the Storm a second shot from halfway, where Josh King was dragged backwards by Aloiai, inspiring Andrew Davey into a similar effort on Jesse Bromwich. Add a slip from Jahrome Hughes, and it looked like Manly might survive here – until the kick to the right.
Jorge Taufau was now faced with his first high ball since 2020, and while he did well to wrap both hands around the Steeden, he let it slide down his stomach to concede a scrum from the ten. This was the critical moment in the first ten minutes, as Cheese stormed out of dummy half, and shifted it out for Munster, who only had to show it once to dispose of Tolu Koula, before slamming over for an effortless four points. Full credit to Nick Meaney, too, for the deception line that drew in DCE, as well as for the sideline conversion that made it 6-0.
This sequence made it clear that Melbourne had moved beyond the last two weeks, and were in full Fortress AAMI mode. They delivered a strong restart, sweeping left early, and then targeting the middle, but struggled to make it out of their twenty a set later, thanks in large part to a tough Harper chase to prevent Meaney making a return off a shallow DCE kick. By the time Munster put boot to ball, he was barely outside his forty, and yet an oblique bounce, and an eyes-up offload from Kaufusi, set up Marion Seve to head deep into Manly territory.
All in all, though, this was a bit of a missed opportunity for the Storm – or a good scrambling recovery from Manly, who had to work it right off their own chalk, but didn’t concede any more out of it. They were stuck in the same position a set later, only to get a penalty for a Kaufusi slow peel, and then a ruck error from Munster, that together produced their best field position so far. Davey had his best run so far too, almost busting right past Hughes, and yet Olakau’atu fumbled the footy into a Munster hit on the right edge a mere play after that.
Twice the Sea Eagles had squandered momentum, so a Storm try now would cement the first quarter, and perhaps the first stanza, as their own. Hughes ended the next set with his first really soaring bomb, and Munster parlayed the enormous bounce into a second kick to the left wing, where Ieremia would have crossed over if not for one of the best defensive reads of Koula’s career. Tolu followed with a tough charge into Olam on the next set, and while the Storm had accelerated to the next level, Manly were also starting, slowly, to match them.
A couple more strong sets and they might have hit back, but with Jurbo offside early in the next set, it felt almost inevitable when Meaney broke clean through the line, even if Ieremia had a second disappointment on the wing, where he was just a little far forward to receive the flick assist from his fullback. Still, the purple army got six again, off a ruck error from Sipley, and had their first real campout on the Manly line, where Croker might have managed to slow down Meaney, but not without conceding another six again, and another set at the chalk.
This was the biggest crisis for Manly, and the largest accumulation of Melbourne position of the first quarter, which it brought to an end as Hughes’ kick ricocheted off Trbojevic and into a secure cleanup from Sipley, who fell onto it but still managed to gather it in with one hand. The Sea Eagles might have been exhausted, but it was the Storm who copped the momentum loss, since at full force, and at AAMI, they should have been able to deliver more than this fractured attack, which lacked all of the flow and nuance we’d glimpsed in the first quarter.
Hughes tried to resume that rhythm with another enormous bomb to the right, but Foran took it on the ground, while Taufua was unlucky not to get a penalty when Xavier Coates climbed on top of him in an effort to secure it. DCE consolidated further with his best, hardest and longest kick so far, booting it 65 metres to keep Melbourne trapped in their own end for the first few tackles. It was the kind of kick that can change the entire shape of a game, so it was absolutely agonising, once again, when Davey got done for a bread-and-butter flop.
Melbourne were still fractured though, as Seve only just cleaned up a bouncing Bromwich ball on the right edge, while Manly hadn’t tired in defence, with Dylan Walker scooping up the Steeden after a Croker-Foran combo disposed of a Cheese dummy half run on the last. With sixteen Melbourne tackles inside the Manly twenty, and 32 inside their half, the Sea Eagles had done pretty well to be only six points down, and they now delivered their best set of the match, which Munster countered by calling for, and then taking, a Foran bomb on the full.
Nevertheless, DCE continued the flow with arguably the best individual play of the game so far, abruptly changing his trajectory in the midst of shaping to kick in order to accommodate a mad dash from Cheese, and not only managing to thread the needle, but getting an arm to Meaney to force an error on the return. With a full set inside the twenty, this was Manly’s best shot so far, and for a moment it looked like the Sea Eagles might deliver on their next left sweep, until Seve came in for a bone-rattling tackle on Foran to force the footy free.
This was the individual defensive play that Melbourne had been looking for, and sure enough Munster skipped and jumped into the left edge to make the best post-contacts so far, before Tui Kamkamica collected some second phase footy, palmed off Croker, and broke his way through the line, laying the platform for Munster to trap Christian Tuipulotu in goal for the first dropout of the game, ten minutes out from half time. DCE rolled it to halfway, King brought it back to ten metres, and Chris Lewis barged it to the brink of the red zone.
For a moment it looked like Melbourne would fail to synergise again here, right down to an incorrect Kaufusi play-the-ball that the refs failed to notice. That mistake proved fatal to Manly, since it prompted the best spine synergy so far – an inspired dummy half dash from Cheese, followed by a deft short ball in to Hughes, who announced his return to the halfback jersey by popping it further inside for Lewis to smash over for four more. There was no doubt about Kaufusi’s error, but by the time Lewis had come down, the Bunker couldn’t rule on it.
To rub salt in Manly’s wound, Meaney added another conversion, and while they weren’t doing that badly to be only twelve down, they needed to add a try of their own before the break if they were going to have a fighting chance in the second stanza. Instead, Seve executed a brilliant sequel to his hit on Foran with a driving charge into Harper up the left edge, while Meaney held his own under the high ball to prevent Taufua leading a big pack to drive him into touch. Still, Taufua’s effort gave the Storm their first real positional crisis.
Full credit to Jurbo, too, who summoned a mammoth pack on the second to cement this as the first set when the purple army were genuinely trapped on their line – and the pressure continued when Cheese booted it early, but couldn’t clear his own forty. With four minutes on the clock, this was Manly’s last big chance before the break, and it became a repeat set when Walker dug into the line on the last, and offloaded it back for Munster to dive on, knock on, and appear to briefly consider a challenge before his men packed the scrum at the ten.
Koula started with a weaving run to the right wing, Sean Keppie won six again in the middle, and finally the left sweep came together, as Taufa celebrated his first game since Round 17, 2020, in the darkest days of Covid, by building on some nice early service from Walker, a sharp follow-up pass from Foran, and an efficient assist from Garrick, to cement himself at fifth highest Manly tryscorer (88) behind Steve Matai (91), Bob Fulton (129), Steve Menzies (151) and the great Brett Stewart (163), as his team mates rushed in to give him their best.
This was exactly the fairytale try the Sea Eagles needed, especially since Garrick didn’t make the sideline kick, so it was disappointing that they would only nail one more unconverted try across the second forty. Conversely, the Storm bounced back from having not scored a single second half point in the last two weeks, and avoided breaking a club record by making it a third scoreless stint after the sheds, by putting down sixteen very emphatic points to come away with a respectable twenty point lead by the time the final siren rang out.
King had the first carry back, Kenny Bromwich cleared some space on the left edge, and Chris Lewis took on the defence with vigour, getting Hughes in position for a big kick inside the forty that Garrick managed to bring back over his own thirty on the return. Walker tried to make an early impact with a very late offload just after Taufua added to the biggest carry count of the night, but Kenny was in place to scoop it up, getting Melbourne their next set within Manly territory, as King hit the red zone on play four, and Munster chipped to the right wing.
Coates read the play perfectly, climbing Taufua and Harper for his eleventh try in his eleventh game, equalling his season best tally for the Broncos last year, and providing a little bit of spectacle as well, as he bobbled and then regathered the footy just in time. Munster had managed the height of the ball brilliantly, while Meaney was just as good with the conversion, curving it around the closest post from the right sideline. We were only six minutes into the second half, but if Manly didn’t score next they risked losing the remainder of the game.
Jake came in for some tough contact on Loeiro on play one of the restart, and again Hughes didn’t break the forty for his kick, but he got such a tricky bounce that Garrick had no chance of picking it up before the chase arrived. The Sea Eagles experimented with a right sweep a few plays later, but Hughes was in place to collect it, and DCE was unable to compensate with a 40/20 on the last, while a good Kenny charged ensured that the Storm finally got into enemy territory without a penalty, as Hughes nearly created as good an opportunity as Munster.
Like his last kick, this one didn’t start out that spectacular, but produced unexpected dividends, as the shallow trajectory found Coates, who had time to pop it out the back for Loeira to take another boot into the right corner. Meaney and Ieremia converged on it, and Ieremia might just have got it down if the footy hadn’t bounced unexpectedly high on the cusp of touch, defying him at the last as he slid over the backline, and gifting Manly their first significant field position since the break, which Foran ended with a bomb to the crossbar.
This was arguably the best kick of the second stanza so far, and ushered in the best position, as a Kaufusi escorts won the Sea Eagles a full set right on the line. King and Kenny smashed in to prevent what seemed like a certain Olakau’atu crossover on the right edge, but Olam stripped the ball illegally in the process, turning this into Manly’s best accumulation of territory all night. Smith and Loeiro executed the critical tackle on Walker midway through, bringing him to ground at an awkward angle on his knee, and robbing this set of all its rhythm.
After a minute or so, Walker returned gingerly to his feet, but it was all over a second later, when Schuster’s no-looker failed to clear Harper’s head, completing one of the Storm’s best periods of defence so far. Even better, Hughes shaped to kick on tackle four, only to glimpse space to bring it to halfway, getting Munster in place for a soaring boot that Taufua had to collect right on his own line. Croker made ten out of dummy half three plays later, and Foran followed DCE with a 40/20, coming much closer until Meaney scooped it up on the sideline.
Olam was raring for a break midway through the set, and nearly made it too, injecting even more adrenalin into the Storm attack, before Hughes struck it hard and high. Tuipulotu hesitated for a critical second, looked back to see if Garrick was fielding it, and so lost it, gifting the purple army their first close-range scrum of the evening. Foran stepped up now, coming in hard on Hughes to force a cough-up early in the count – one of the best one-on-one tackes of the game – and with a Munster flop, Manly had yet another chance to make good now.
Munster hit back immediately however, making up for both his error and the Foran tackle with an even smoother individual effort – a strip on Koula – before bringing the footy inside the ten on play four. Inspired by his halves partner, Hughes reprised his earlier chip to Coates’ wing, and while the young flyer took it clean once again, the height wasn’t there, giving Harper and Tuipolutu just enough time to bundle him into touch. Yet all of this just served as the prelude for Munster to showcase his footy genius in one of his best ever plays to date.
No sooner had the Sea Eagles started working it off their own line than Munster came up with a second successive strip, wrenching the Steeden from Taufua’s grasp, dummying briefly to the left to defy Olakau’atu, clearing the turf, and curving around to give Meaney his easiest kick so far. Full credit as well to the three Storm defenders who pulled back from the pack at just the right moment to set up Munster to reach the highest ever NRL strip tally, one ahead of Josh Hodgson. This was the Storm we all know, utterly dominant as the last quarter hit.
As if things couldn’t get any worse for the Sea Eagles, the hosts got a penalty on the restart from Olakau’atu, who may have been burning off some of his frustration at the Munster miss with this high contact. Sipley did better effecting a turnaround, with a strip on Jesse Bromwich right on the line, but Manly needed more than this, especially since Walker had been led off the park by now. Coates had one of his strongest carries on the next set, making a real bid at the line, as Smith took his first, well-earned rest and Tyran Wishart trotted off the bench.
Munster continued to shine at the end of this set, with another mercurial chip that not only trapped Foran behind the chalk, but tempted an escort from Schuster to get Melbourne more time on the Manly line. This marked the start of a massive accumulation of purple position, as Sipley infringed the ruck for six more, Kenny took three defenders to keep him down just shy of the chalk on the left, Munster almost rolled through over in the corner, and Tuipulotu bumped Munster’s bomb into touch to concede the dropout with sixteen on the clock.
DCE went short with the kick – too short, gifting the Storm an easy two points in front of the posts. It was a supreme show of confidence that they decided to tap and go, and it paid off a play later, when Kenny continued his previous charge on the left, collecting a short ball from Meaney to smash over all but untouched by Olakau’atu. The driving vision came from Hughes, who looked set for all money to shift the Steeden on to Munster, pulling Daly right out of the line only to pop the cut-out across to his fullback, in the best deception play of the game.
These were the last points of the night for the Storm, with Meaney swinging the next one out to the left, while the try was all the more bitter in that both DCE and Kenny had been aiming for their 150th win tonight – and after 203 games, Bromwich had reached that milestone faster than any other player in the Origin era. Incredibly, though, Manly hit back a mere moment later, building their best sweep out of a Sipley-Kamikamica strip, culminating with a capstone play from Foran, who dragged in the defenders and soared out a harbour bridge assist.
All Tuipulotu had to do was catch and ground it cleanly, and so he did, although the Sea Eagles wouldn’t score another point tonight, as Garrick swung his next one around to the right. Even so, this was a confidence-builder, especially because Sipley had showed Munster that he could also strip twice in a single game, and produce points out of it, even if his two steals weren’t in the same sublime succession. Melbourne did well to prevent Manly moving too far on the restart, while Ieremia was raring for a left edge break as soon as he got the ball back.
The Sea Eagles’ next set started to slacken, forcing Schuster to put in a goose-step, and Croker to make a hard run out of dummy half, in an effort to remotivate the troops, before DCE booted it far and high, but couldn’t put Meaney under much pressure. Garrick was the next Manly player to step up, putting his body on the line for a terrific one-on-one contest under the high ball, but these individual Manly effors weren’t consolidating into a sustained attack, much as Foran’s next kick was eventually contained by Coates, despite a dangerous bounce.
With five minutes on the clock, Hughes was off, to preserve himself for next week, and Cheese was back in the fray, to put an emphatic full stop on Melbourne’s victory. The last five times these teams have played, the Storm had scored the first and last try, so it was a small win that Manly kept them out during these dying minutes. Still, the Brooky boys will need to regather before they host the Warriors at home next week, while the Storm will be heading into the bye on a winner’s high, pumped for a big one against the Roosters at the SCG in Round 14.