ROUND 16: Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v. Melbourne Storm (4 Pines Park, 30/6/22, 36-30)

Manly suffered one of the most devastating late game losses to the Cowboys two weeks ago, but even that couldn’t have prepared them for the last-minute win that the Storm almost put down at Brooky to kick off Round 16. Despite some issues with position and discipline in the first stanza, the Sea Eagles soared ahead for a 36-12 lead by the final five minutes, when the purple machine got belatedly into gear, but made up for lost time by grounding four tries in as many minutes, and almost landing a comeback for the rugby league history books.

Even then, this was an extraordinary achievement for a team that only seemed to miss Cam Munster’s presence for 75 minutes of football before getting back into the Craig Bellamy groove. Jayden Nikorima was back in the starting side for the first time since 2016, and had his fair share of rusty moments, but by those final minutes it was as if Munster had been there all along – or Billy Slater, Cameron Smith or Cooper Cronk, so vividly did this game testify to Bellamy’s systems approach, his capacity to build brilliance even with big guns off the park.

In other words, it was a splendid way for Brandon Smith to celebrate his 100th game in the NRL, which the Cheese marked with one of the great individual tries of the season, a forerunner of the surge of points to come in the back five, which he also initiated with an inspired individual strip on Daly Cherry-Evans. This was all the more remarkable in that DCE had a stellar night with the boot, banging them from all over the park, still pumped up on Origin energy, although this wasn’t enough to get Des Hasler 18/35 against Bellamy.

Manly moved it up the park confidently on the first few plays, and gained an early burst of position off Haumole Olakau’atu’s first touch, which defied Nikorima’s first defensive shot in six years, and tempted high contact from Tui Kamikamica. They were at the ten two tackles later, where Olakau’atu took his second charge, this time from close range, off a short ball from DCE, and put the footy down for a second time, although this time the fault was his, thanks to a good low hit from Nikorima, a big opening statement in Munster’s absence.

Kieran Foran responded with tough contact on Chris Lewis early in Melbourne’s first set, and Harry Grant responded in turn with some of his trademark speed off the play-the-ball garnering his men an extra set to reset the balance of field position, before Kamikamica started worked his way back from that opening error with tough runs to the twenty and then the ten, where it took the combined force of Lachlan Croker and Sean Keppie to held him up. Still, the Sea Eagles survived, thanks to some good Morgan Harper work out on the right.

True to the spirit of this already volatile game, Keppie put the ball down a few plays later, and Grant followed with a forward pass to Ryan Papenhuyzen on tackle one, gifting Manly the scrum feed, and a chance to resume their set right about where they left it off – until Trbojevic made the next mistake on tackle one, reaching out both hands to collect a dummy half pass from Croker, only for his Origin exhaustion to momentarily get the better of him with a cold drop. Melbourne had the scrum feed in turn, and had to consolidate immediately now.

Papenhuyzen bumped off DCE on the left edge and experimented with a few trajectories before Grant shifted it back inside. Soon enough, though, the action headed back to the left, where Paps tried to break the line with a grubber this time, only for Tolu Koula to consolidate all the messy energy of the last ten minutes into his second try in the NRL. Reaching out his left hand, he popped the footy up, turned to face his own goal line as he shifted it to his right, and then burst into space, staying ten ahead of Hughes and then Christian Tuipulotu.

No Storm player was ever going to match his speed, which was enough to propel Manly into their eventual pointscoring flow, even if Reuben Garrick missed the conversion to remain at 136 season points, top of the table, and three above Val Holmes. For a moment it looked like Harper might reprise Koula’s mad dash on the restart, on the other side of the park, but he misplaced the critical assist to Jason Saab, sending it so low that the wiry winger never had a chance of taking it clean. Add a Toa Sipley offside, and the Storm were back on the attack.

They didn’t waste time drawing on Koula’s powers of consolidation either, despite a good one-on-one stop from Olakau’atu on Kamikamica, shifting it clinically from the right wing and back inside, before Hughes sent the best chip of the night back inside too. Manly may have come up with it, but Tuipulotu fumbled the first play-the-ball, making it 2/7 sets (with four unanswered ponts) and leaving space for Nikorima to start another professional right sweep, out to Marion Seve, that tempted a Harper error, and another restart on the line.

It was the first full set in the opposition twenty, and Melbourne wouldn’t have been Melbourne if they didn’t score beautifully here, by taking advantage of Manly’s weaker right edge, which has conceded seventeen more tries than their other wing in 2022, with the silkiest pair of passes so far. Hughes got them rolling, and Paps got the assist, running right up to DCE, and correctly ascertaining that Tuipuloto would come in too hard off his line, before lobbing a superb cut-out for Nick Meaney to sail over for their first four.

Meaney made it six with a sharp boot from the sideline, and Melbourne did better with their restart, spreading it midway through the set for Seve to take a shot at the line, and reaching a soaring Hughes bomb that Saab took on the full and only just brought to the Manly twenty in the face of a purple brick wall. Despite a couple of solid charges, DCE couldn’t get inside the Melbourne thirty for his next hurried kick, although his aim compensated, trapping Meaney right on the chalk, and resulting in the Storm’s most circumscribed set so far.

They only crossed the thirty on the fourth, where neither a frantic Papenhuyzen run, nor an extemporised Hughes kick, could do much to build position. DCE’s last boot had reclaimed some of the momentum, and with a Grant offside early in the count, the Sea Eagles looked good to restore their footy flow on the cusp of the second quarter. They came close with a rapid shift to the right on play one, moving it so fast across the park that Koula might well have put down his second try if he hadn’t bombed the DCE assist with open space to kill.

Even for a newer player, this was an egregious error, and the Storm accelerated accordingly, although their speed got the better of them when a Jesse Bromwich bouncer bypassed Hughes, forcing Chris Lewis to dive on it. Hughes might have got the kick away under pressure from Kieran Foran, and Saab might have been denied a kick return by an aggressive Melbourne chase, but the visitors hadn’t quite pulled off the flamboyant set they needed to build on Koula’s error, while DCE, ever the leader, gave them a masterclass in how to do it.

Booting it early in the the count, he showed a glimpse of his Origin genius with a 40/20 that Paps was never going to contain, and it produced results immediately, as the Sea Eagles not only scored their second try, but upstaged Melbourne’s dexterity on the left edge. Foran got them rolling, taking the footy straight into line much as Paps got up in DCE’s face for his assist, and then lobbed it out to Garrick – a little high, to be sure, although that just made it more elegant when the stand-in fullback reined it in and nailed the cut-out pass to Saab.

Harper pulled back from the play at the exact right moment, Saab took it on the chest, and then curved around behind the uprights to ensure that DCE got his first two-pointer of the night. Manly had resumed their four-point lead, and got to the end of their restart this time, as DCE sent up the first real floater of the game, getting a bounce so mercurial, a mini-floater in itself, that it totally split Papenhuyzen and Meaney, who actually put out his hands in a gesture of confusion, and had to content himself with a second shot as Tuipulotu stormed in.

He missed this one as well, leaving space for the young winger to take it in both hands, and back his way through Paps and over the chalk. This last sequence had been a tribute to DCE’s sublime skills with the boot, so it was no surprise that he continued to take the kicks, and while he missed the two-pointer now, his men were still sitting on a solid eight-point lead as they settled into their third restart. It went the way of their first, however, ending prematurely as Brandon Smith’s line speed forced Taupau into a forward pass.

Melbourne had to hit back immediately here, especially since they got a bump on the first play, when Harper was pinged for an illegal strip. Last time they received a full set in the twenty they scored effortlessly, and for a moment it looked like they might do the same now, as Grant dashed from the right to left posts, half a metre out from the line, and would have scored beneath the padding if not for a mack truck tackle from Olakau’atu, before Olam parlayed that speed out on the left edge, paving the way for another illegal strip.

This time it came from Croker, and with a third restart in the Manly twenty the Storm had to score here, or else concede the momentum back to the hosts, so it was a drab finish when Hughes cost them the set, and Grant Anderson followed with a slow peel early in the next count. Olakau’atu and Taupau delivered strong runs to get DCE to the ten by the time he put ball to boot, and while he extemporised an oblique trajectory to the right edge, and while Tuipulotu followed Koula by scooping it up in one hand, he couldn’t remain in touch.

Even so, this wasn’t quite a momentum shift to Melbourne, who had to do more than force a single Sea Eagles error after failing to capitalise on all that time on the Manly line. Somehow, Koula didn’t get a knock-on after slamming in on Jesse Bromwich, in one of the best tackles of his burgeoning career, to force the footy free, but the hosts got the ball back soon enough, when Taupau dove on a fairly uninspired last tackle option from Nikorima, while Bromwich copped Harper’s boot in the face just as Grant infringed the ruck early in the next count.

That reversal of Bromwich’s fortunes seemed to galvanise the Sea Eagles as they hit the ten on tackle four, and while they didn’t score here, they did execute their most gymnastic play so far, in the form of another DCE-Koula mismatch. Now the messiness came from Daly, who sent the pass too far, forcing Koula to leap into the air to catch it, and pass in the same instant to Tupulotu, who would have nabbed one of the best tries of Manly’s season if he’d managed to get it down, much as Olam came agonisingly close to reversing the rhythm a beat later.

Finding himself with the footy at the end of the count, he sized up DCE, put in the most mercurial sequence of grubbers all night, and took on a Manly pack right on the sideline, dumping it back for Meaney, only to lose it in the process. The Sea Eagles survived, but both sides were starting to look exhausted now, as Grant took the next kick in his own end, and only Koula got in place to chase down a superb DCE grubber out to the right edge, meaning Meaney had just enough time to wait for it to tumble dead for a seven tackle set.

In another game, with two minutes on the clock, this last piece of Melbourne position might have been the final note, especially when Papenhuyzen chased down a loose pass to ensure that Manly got even less time for their closing set before the break. Yet with Josh King losing the footy a few plays later, off Grant’s worst ball so far, the Sea Eagles had one last scrum feed, and a minute of possession, and made the most of it, with another beautiful left sweep that turned into a full stop on the first stanza, and a promise of more greatness to come.

Again, Foran played a critical role, staring Hughes straight in the face, before shifting it out for Andrew Davey to assist Saab. Again, the timing wasn’t perfect, and again that made it all the more spectacular when Saab made a couple of touches, twisted around to face his own goal line 78 metres away, and finally regathered to put down his second four-pointer of the game. Daly might have missed another kick, but this was still a resounding mini-finale for Manly, who were now triple Melbourne at 18-6 as they headed to the sheds.

The Storm had the first set back, and were met with a staunch Manly defence that looked good to prevent them breaking halfway before Nikorima put down an Alec MacDonald pass late in the count. Conversely, the Sea Eagles were at the red by play two, where Foran set up a tricky right sweep, dancing around the defensive line before DCE drew on his rhythm by almost breaking through with some deft footwork of his own. Melbourne survived, however, and won a challenge to reverse a Grant knock-on midway through the next count.

Manly now prevented them making it out of their own end for the second time since the break, and would likely have done it a third time if not for a pair of deft dummy half runs from Grant, who seemed galvanised by having that error reversed. On the first, he crossed the halfway line; on the second, he ended with a chip kick to force the the Sea Eagles to work it back from their own line. Ever confident with the boot, DCE kicked from within the forty, and while the depth didn’t match the angle, it was enough to restore the balance of position.

Things accelerated quickly from here, as Anderson lost the footy at the tail end of a tough Davey tackle, and Garrick put in a sneaky chip-and-chase to force Grant to bump it dead, producing the first dropout of the evening, almost fifty minutes into the game. For the third time, Manly made good on their left edge, with a putdown so easy it was almost anticlimactic, barely eliciting a cheer from the Brooky home crowd. This time there was no mistiming, and no proportionate gymnastics – just good clinical footy, and a sharp professional sweep.

Taupau started with a dummy half ball, Dylan Walker got the width, Foran compressed the sweep, and Garrick provided the assist to Harper, who shrugged off MacDonald so easily that he didn’t have to bother feeding it out to Saab, instead backing himself to reach the line, and ground the ball, as Hughes and Seve tumbled on top. Daly wasn’t having the same success with the conversions as he was with his kicks in regular play, so the scoreline remained 22-6 as the Sea Eagles settled into yet another restart, and Koula delivered another terrific run.

This time it was up the middle, all the way past the Melbourne forty, laying the platform for Manly to spend the back half of the set inside the Storm’s red zone. They only needed one of those plays, however, as Olakau’atu, who had been something of a slumbering giant since his opening charges, pivoted off the right boot from fifteen metres out, barely registered Nikorima, disposed of MacDonald, palmed off Paps and busted through Meaney at the death, bringing his men to an imposing 28-6 after Daly finally added the extras right in front.

Between Koula’s superb footwork, Daly’s decision not to kick a beat later, and this final charge, the Sea Eagles had reached peak footy flow. There was no reason why they shouldn’t score again on the restart, so it was a sublime hitback when Melbourne scored off the kickoff, thanks to the best individual play of the night from Brandon Smith, who joined NAS and Jesse Bromwich for a massive hit on Taupau on tackle one, and then stripped the Steeden the moment the two big men pulled back, setting his sights on the crossbar – and making it.

Two weeks ago, Manly led by fourteen, but the Cowboys still scored three tries, so even 90% of possession since the break wasn’t a guarantee when the Cheese could put down the footy like that. The hosts survived the Melbourne restart without incident, as Meaney shifted from the wing into the halves, and Dean Ieremia slotted into the backline off the bench, before Koula bookended the game by scoring a double off Manly’s next burst in position, which came a set later, after an offside from MacDonald, with a try as simple as his last was inspired.

By this stage in the game, however, and with that Brandon Smith try behind them, simplicity was the ultimate asset for Manly – especially DCE’s sublime brand of simplicity, which he brought to the assist. Taking a short ball from Croker, he shaped for Olakau’atu, subliminally recognised that his man was covered, so instead opted for the cut-out to Koula, who read the pass just as brilliantly, getting entirely outside Olam and barely registering Ieremia as he put the ball down. DCE added the kick, and his team seemed all but unassailable on 34-12.

Certainly, Sipley wasn’t taking any prisoners with a sharp run to begin the restart, while the Sea Eagles welcomed in the final quarter with another penalty, this time an illegal strip from Grant. Walker charged them into the ten on play two, Seve and Anderson held up Davey just before he could cross over on the left edge, Ieremia got a touch of the footy on the next play, and Manly had a scrum feed from the twenty, as well as a full set in the red zone. Surely, they had to consolidate further with another torrent of points now.

For the next period, everything went Manly’s way – Josh Schuster came off the bench at the best possible time, and DCE continued to deliver the right boot magic, sending his next one off the right padding to utterly defy Brandon Smith, who managed to collect it, and glimpse the field of play, only for the biggest Brooky pack so far to drag him back under the crossbar. DCE’s vision was just as sharp at the end of the dropout, when he flexed a deep grubber to the right, and got the same result, as Paps had no chance but to bump it over the chalk.

Papenhuyzen sent the next dropout too long, and Manly fans might well have wondered, after the end of the match, what would have happened if their team had taken on an exhausting Storm defence one more time, since DCE’s penalty kick turned out to be their last points of the match, with a full fifteen minutes left on the clock. They were eighth on the live ladder, sandwiched between Souths and St. George with 16 points and a differential of 20, but the visitors would do their best to rock that position as the game started to unwind.

For the moment, Manly had the restart, and stayed strong, as Keppie laid down some impressive post-contacts up the middle on tackle two, and Harper drew on his example a play later, before Daly tumbled it end over end and Anderson took it on the full. A wave of maroon and white defenders surged in to prevent Seve making it far over the twenty, but something shifted subliminally over the next few tackles, as the Storm accelerated, Papenhuyzen grubbered up the right, Grant toed it a second time, and tried to chase it down.

In the end, he’d struck it too hard, but this was a critical moment for Melbourne, in terms of both collaboration and individual initiative, in rebuilding their stamina for the last ten minutes, even if it did cost them seven tackles of defence in the short term. Manly made terrific position on their next set too, thanks in part to an enterprising Foran run midway through, along with some more second phase from DCE to Schuster that then set him up for a deft kick to the right that Koula tapped back for Tuipulotu.

However, in a sequel to that brief glimpse of greatness on their last right side raid, Melbourne survived here, thanks to a good take from Ieremia, while the Storm got their first penalty, a more momentous pivot, off a slow peel from Trbojevic early in the next count. Hughes broke through the line, Croker got done for a hand in the ruck, and again, it ended with a disappointing moment for Papenhuyzen, who flicked the footy over the sideline – and again, this wasn’t enough, in and of itself, to stem Melbourne’s slow but steady comeback.

No doubt, Manly were still building position, but their acceleration was starting to dissociate, as Harper capped off a promising left spread with a forward pass to Saab midway through the next count. The Storm had the scrum, ten metres out from their own line, and NAS’ charge on play two spoke to their determination to bring it all together now, even if their combinations were suffering in the absence of Munster. Hughes booted it high and hard, the Sea Eagles survived, Schuster broke the twenty and, once more, Manly seemed safe.

All the Storm could rely on now was a big individual effort, and it came from Brandon Smith, the man who’d scored one of the most spectacular individual tries of the year. Taking the footy the moment it left DCE’s hands, and splitting the difference between a strip and intercept in the process, Cheese set up Grant to win an offside from DCE, who came in hard to try and strip the Steeden in turn, before the Sea Eagles lost their challenge trying to contest a Sipley knock-on that came after yet another attempted strip, this time on King.

Smith had stripped perfectly, DCE and Sipley had failed to strip, and everything finally converged off the subsequent scrum, as Paps took the first carry, and simply fed it back inside for NAS to palm Garrick to ground and break through Croker like tissue paper to put down a try that was every bit as cathartic and brutal as the Storm needed it to be at this late stage in the game. Papenhuyzen wasted no time adding the extras as the crowd applauded Trbojevic, clearly frustrated at this last try, as he came off the bench five minutes too early.

Even now, Melbourne were twenty points behind with a little over four on the clock. They didn’t have to wait long to get back down Manly’s end, however, as Schuster was called offside as DCE put boot to ball, making this the Sea Eagles’ second agonising moment at the tail end of a kickoff tonight. Jesse Bromwich almost lost the footy in the face of a combined wraparound tackle from Sipley and Taupau, but he stayed strong, and took a tackle from the same men in the same part of the park a play later, with Davey and Foran jumping in now.

This small moment of consolidation supercharged the rest of the set, as Grant took a trademark run off the ruck, setting his eyes on the defence just to see what came of it – and what came was space for an extra wide ball for Hughes, who passed it on for Paps to swivel his way through a limp defence on the other side of the crossbar. Keppie got done, in the interim, for a coathanger on Brandon Smith’s decoy run, while Papenhuyzen added the extras just as rapidly and clinically to narrow it to 36-22 with two and a half minutes on the clock.

For the third time, the Sea Eagles had heartbreak with the kickoff, as DCE booted it out on the full, and shades of the Cowboys’ last-minute comeback returned to haunt the Brooky faithful. To win, they had to score quickly, and they did, on their very first play, on their very first sweep – Hughes to Paps, who held it up just long enough to ensure that Olam had enough room to cross over himself without having to waste a pass out to the wing. Paps set up the kick a little too quickly this time, shanking it left to keep Manly ahead at 36-26.

With three tries in three minutes, and over a minute left on the clock, there was a small chance that the Storm might just pull off one of the great comebacks in modern rugby league. That they came close was itself a marvel, and a tribute to Paps, who started the set with a daring harbour bridge ball across the park to Jesse Bromwich, and ended it by taking a short ball from Meaney, tucking it under his arm, and leaning into his signature run, gallopping so fast that he fell more than landed over the line to bring us to a converted try game.

Papenhuyzen had moved fast enough to guarantee his men a single play, and five seconds of game time, once he sacrificed the conversion for footy greatness. They had to travel a hundred metres in that time, a feat that proved too much even for the superhuman Storm, but in spirit they felt like they’d won tonight, setting us up for a scintillating opening match against the Sharks next week, and really taking the edge off the competition points for Manly, who will be looking for more consistent football when they return from the bye.  

About Billy Stevenson (739 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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