Finals footy came early on Friday night, as a fourth-placed Melbourne outfit and sixth-placed Sydney outfit battled it out for one of the most brutal and visionary games of the season. The Roosters were on a roll, sitting at six straight wins, their injuries and suspensions finally behind them, and with Lindsay Collins and Sio Siua Taukeiaho back on the bench, they had arguably the best frontrow rotation in the game with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Matt Lodge starting in the forward pack, where they made an immediate impact on the Storm’s resolve.
On top of that the Chooks were coming off a historic win over the Tigers last week, and yet with Parra’s monster win over Brisbane on Thursday night, they didn’t stand a chance of making the top four. The most they could hope for, at this late stage in the season, was to lock in a home elimination final, but even then they weren’t even guaranteed a place in the eight. Tonight’s game had to be a statement of intent, a pretty imposing task for a Storm home fixture with no rival AFL games to prevent the Melbourne crowds from flooding AAMI.
On the other side of the Steeden, the purple army needed a great home game to send off Brandon Smith, Felise Kaufusi and Jesse and Kenny Bromwich. Add that to that a 50th milestone for Harry Grant, a 100th milestone for Josh King, and James Tedesco and Joey Manu equal for most tackle busts of the season – 136 apiece, light years ahead of Josh Ado-Carr at 94 – and this promised to be a match for the ages. No surprise, then, that the Storm players looked unusually apprehensive and emotional as they trotted out to the AAMI cauldron.
Lodge took the opening carry, Daniel Tupou took a forward-like charge into the defence on tackle two, and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves wasted no time getting amongst it on the third, before Sam Walker cleaned up a loose ball from Lodge, and Walker booted it just outside the forty. Two plays into the next set, David Nofoaluma showed his unfamiliarity with the Melbourne machine, failing to rein in a tricky pass to give the Chooks their first set inside the red zone. An illegal Grant strip later, Walker slotted through a penalty kick right in front.
That made it sixteen consecutive goals for the young halfback, as a sold-out AAMI crowd booed Lodge as he took another first carry on the restart. Again, too, JWH steadied the set on play three, before Manu got some metres up the middle, and Walker kicked again, this time just inside his forty. He sent it high and long, Cam Munster collected it, and the Storm had their second set of the night, five minutes in, but didn’t look likely to hit Sydney territory, thanks in part to an enormous Radley-Lodge hit on Nofa – until they got their first penalty.
It came from big Jared, who took the next contact a little too far. No sooner had the purple army hit the ten, off their first penalty, than Grant leaped out of dummy half to toe it on the third. Justin Olam read the play beautifully, accelerating and lowering his frame to almost put the footy down, and with anyone else at his back, this would have been four points, but Teddy never gave up on the play, forcing the error at the death, in such a clutchy contest that the Bunker had to scrutinise the sequence a number of times before declaring it was no try.
The Roosters couldn’t know it yet, but this saved try would win them the game. For the moment, it was just the statement of intent they needed, especially once Radley compounded it with his first big run of the night, building some space on the left edge that his men leaned into further on the next play. Receiving the footy from Sam Verrills, Luke Keary dummied to confound Jahrome Hughes, and then flicked it out for Sam Hutchison to deliver arguably his best play in the centres with a mercurial catch-and-pass to Tupou on the wing.
The Giraffe now did what he does best, hitting the Steeden at speed and skittling Munster to overtake Joseph Suaalii to resume his status as top-scoring Rooster of the 2022 season. Walker added a scintillating sideline kick, and just like that the Chooks had saved a near-certain Olam try and put six on the board in the space of two sets. Like clockwork, Lodge and Tupou took the opening carries, JWH dominated the middle part of the restart, Manu continued his metre tally up the middle, and Walker kicked it from just inside his forty.
A muted hush had descended on AAMI, so the Storm couldn’t have asked for a better time to receive their next penalty, but JWH’s offside barely registered when Hughes failed to find touch with the kick, opening up another Sydney stint in the opposition half. They started by pressing into that vulnerable spot up the left, where Teddy took a crack at the line, and then parlayed it into a swing to the right padding, where Radley coughed up the footy right on the chalk, only for Teddy to send it upstairs to prove it came off high contact from Munster.
Even the Roosters’ mistakes were working against them now, since if Radley hadn’t lost the ball they wouldn’t have been able to make one of their best challenges of the season. Yet with Lodge losing the footy into a Nick Meaney tackle in the middle of the park, Tupou heading off after a combined Coates-Seve hit on the left, and the Storm receiving their third straight penalty, thanks to some holding down from Verrills, there was a subliminal shift in momentum – and the crowd knew it, roaring louder with each charge to the Sydney line.
Three plays in, the Storm settled into their most expansive sweep so far, forcing Hutchison to scramble to hold up Kenny Bromwich on the left wing, before rolling it back to the other edge, where only a last-ditch JWH tackle prevented NAS crossing over for four. They might have ended with a whimper, as Munster was forced to boot it vertical with Chooks crowding in on all sides, but this had still been their most dangerous set since Olam’s near-putdown, so they had to cement it with a big play as soon as possible – and came close on the very next set
Conversely, the Roosters had to contain this surge immediately, so it was promising when Manu continued his groove up the middle, flicking the footy out for Collins to break the line. For a brief beat, Munster seemed to have provided the individual effort his men needed, wrestling the Steeden free for a one-on-one strip, only to lose it on the ground. We were at the most precarious point of the first forty so far, and it got even more volatile when Verrills seemed to knock on off the scrum, but Teddy sent it upstairs to prove that it wasn’t so.
Between his chase on Olam, and his conviction in making these two challenges, Tedesco was at peak leadership, while the doldrums between the scrum dissolve and the repeat set suddenly intensified into a fresh burst of volatility, as Radley put his hand to NAS’ throat, apparently in casual aggro, only for team mates from both outfits to crowd in from both sides and almost turn it into a full-on fracas. This had to be the consolidation set for Sydney now, and Suaalii knew it, burrowing into the ground on the left edge to win six again off Seve.
The Chooks swung to the right, where Nofoaluma made massive contact on Hutchison, and then back to the middle, before condensing all this coast-to-coast rhythm into one of their best team tries of the season. Lodge started with a late offload that continued the play to the left, where Crichton, who had been downed by a pack tackle early in the set, held his own now, flicking it back inside for Teddy, who in turn lobbed it on for Radley to get Keary in place for the kick – and it was one of his best of the season too, all vision, strength and synergy.
Seeing that Nofa had come into the line, and that Manu was totally unmarked on the right edge, Keary sent it crossfield on a string. Not only did the game’s best centre take it clean, but he had time to dance along the dead ball line to set up his halfback for an easy kick from right in front. This was consummate football, a perfect first quarter against the Storm at home, so the hosts had to make Lodge’s next offside count, as Hughes struck it doubly hard to make sure he found touch this time around. They had 83 tackles to 30, and it was time to step up.
Last time Grant had hit the ten it was as the vanguard of a Melbourne outfit that seemed destined to score off his kick, but all he could do now, on the penultimate play, was flick it out to Munster, who burrowed into the defence, hoping, like Suaalii before him, to win six again. He held onto the footy, in an effort to dramatise JWH’s contact, and again this brief pause led to an upsurge of adrenalin, as NAS and Radley came in for a few knocks, the game reached grand final intensity, JWH was indeed penalised, and Teddy received a formal warning.
JWH needed to rein in the aggression now, since he was perilously close to the attitude that saw him sent off for the contact on James Fisher-Harris. All it took was one tackle for the volatility to flare up again, as Jared worked out his rage with a huge NAS hit, and made terrific contact for what would have been a rallying-point for the Roosters if he hadn’t rubbed his palm across Nelson’s face on the ground. Adam Gee had to follow up on his warning, and so Jared trotted off to the bin, and Kenny Bromwich, who’d come in after, got off the hook.
The crowd was deafening as Melbourne plunged onto the Sydney chalk, but the noise didn’t help Smith, who put it down on play one, with a bit of assistance from Nat Butcher, but without realising it, since this should have been the easiest challenge of the night. Sydney did well on their first defensive set with twelve men, swarming the Storm until Coates hit back with a break up the right, reaching the ten before Teddy delivered his second trysaver of the game – and with Manu plucking the high ball from a sea of purple, the Roosters had survived.
Walker was the next Chook to step up, deliberately targeting Coates with an oblique lob off the side of the book, as if determined to personally contain the spectre of his break up the wing. He struck it well, forcing the knock-on in the air, and getting his men a scrum from the ten, where the big men took a couple of hard charges to rattle the Melbourne wall, which nevertheless stayed strong enough to force a Radley error on the last. It was agonising, then, when Jesse Bromwich marked his return from HIA by coughing it up a few plays later.
Again, the Roosters had a scrum on the Melbourne line, and again they got a full set in the ten, this time off a Meaney error. Yet the Storm now summoned one of the bursts of belief that have sustained them over so many seasons, while also building on an unusually messy finale from Keary, who threw the footy out the back without any structure in sight, meaning not even Manu could save it on the last. Coates now got on his bike to continue that mad dash down the left, Meaney saved a messy ball, and Walker gave away six late in the count.
This was tantamount to a momentum shift given Sydney’s resilience over the last few minutes, and sure enough they took advantage of the one-man deficit, five seconds out from JWH’s return from the bin, with their most elegant sweep of the night. Munster and Hughes set it up with a pair of deft dummies, Kaufusi and Seve compressed the passes, and Coates sliced past Keary, who decelerated at the death, aware that the extra man was going to overtake him now, before Meaney capped it off with the best sideline kick of the game.
Melbourne were clearly galvanised by these six points, making about ten metres per carry on the restart, so it was a good time for the Chooks to get their next penalty midway through the next set with a Seve offside. Keary was close to a mini-slump with a near-bobble early in the count, and Walker wasn’t doing much better, opting to kick on the fourth, but misreading Kaufusi’s capacity to charge it down. The Roosters were raring for six more, to no avail, while Coates came up with the next kick pretty easily, and so the last two minutes were all Storm.
Not only did Hutchison knock on soon after, but NAS was back on the park. Hughes sent Nofa through the line off the subsequent scrum, and the Storm came tantalisingly close to narrowing the deficit to two on the cusp of the sheds. Instead, they got two, off a high shot fron Taukeiaho, as Meaney slotted it through the posts as the siren rang. All that separated these two heavy-hitters was a converted try, so it was anybody’s game when they returned, even if the Roosters’ courage suggested they might well come away the victors tonight.
Still, the Chooks had one loss this year when leading at halftime, and it was against Melbourne, so they looked equally apprehensive when they trotted back from the sheds. NAS set his stamp on the second stanza with an intimidating run, and led the charge to contain Suaalii when he collected Hughes’ first bomb back. Olam tried to wrestle the footy from Manu’s grasp a play later, so Teddy hit back with a dummy half run, only his third of the game, before Walker came up with a pretty uninspired effort that Munster took with no worries.
Amazingly, the worst pass of the night was cleared a beat later, when Grant dropped more than threw it across the middle of the park. The sheer luck of it seemed to gee up Melbourne, as Hughes broke through the line, and the Chooks hit back with some big plays, including a hard drive from Connor Watson to bring it over the forty, and some second phase from Taukeiaho to get them to the red zone with two tackles left. Keary’s chip to the left was well-weighted, but Coates was up to it, heaving himself above the visitors to take it in both hands.
Tupou’s absence was particularly painful here, but the Roosters didn’t have time to dwell on it, since Munster was bombing before the last, and Suaalii crashed into a second bone-rattling shot from NAS on the return. The pace was building now, and each team just needed one more opportunity, so Taukeiaho did well to rein in a loose carry to win his men their fifth restart of the night, off a ruck error from Tom Eisenhuth. Things got even clutchier three plays later, when Hughes dove on a bouncing ball, only to concede another six within the ten.
This was a bit of a redemption moment for Jared, who had forced the error, while Crichton came up with another critical pivot play on the left edge, recalling his role in the Roosters’ right side try by securing a messy pass from Keary and standing in the tackle long enough to flick it back inside, where wave after wave of Melbourne defence finally did the job, forcing a Watson knock-on right on the chalk. Munster was pumped now, bouncing off a cascade of defenders to build room for NAS to charge up the right, and Trent Loeiro to follow in his wake.
The time was ripe for Hughes to tower a thundering bomb into the right corner, where Suaalii delivered his most courageous take of the night, leaping a full metre above Coates, who inadvertently tumbled into him. The contact was unavoidable, but this was still a penalty any day of the week, while Suaalii was lucky to be back on his feet, given how brutally his shoulder had struck the ground. Radley parlayed that toughness into a right foot step, Taukeiaho made monstrous post-contacts, Keary dummied a few times, and again Crichton reined it in.
He came close to a fumble, but that glimpse of precarity just motivated the Chooks to smother Meaney when he got a good bounce beside the right post. JWH rammed into Olam a play later, but the Storm were still inside the forty by play four, so a Nat Butcher penalty for holding down was a precious commodity, especially once Jared was put on report for his contribution, taking a bit of the sting out of the Roosters’ last few minutes. Smith was at the ten halfway through, Grant was on the line a play later, and Hughes got the grubber exactly right.
After so much barnstorming movement up the middle, the delicacy of Hughes’ boot was almost like a deception play now, leaving Walker with no option but to clean it up in goal, before kicking it short to gift the purple army a full set in the twenty. He bounced back with a superb legs tackle on Kenny Bromwich to save a try on the left, while Verrills did the job with a hit on Munster, dishevelling the star half enough to prompt the worst play-the-ball of the game, bringing Melbourne’s only dropout to a bland end as the Chooks packed the scrum.
They got a bump up field when Kenny took out some of the frustration of that Walker shot with action on the ground, and twice tried to break through on the left edge. The first time they couldn’t get to the wing, the second time a harbour bridge pass from Walker almost put Suaalii through, only for the Storm to summon their most dramatic wall yet. This was the kind of game where things could change quickly, however, and an underwhelming last tackle option quickly gave way to holding down from Watson, as the Storm got rolling again.
Loeiro had been strong off the bench, but he was powerless to contend with a Smith pass that ricocheted straight off his chest, in what turned out to be the key error of the third quarter, which was rapidly coming to an end. Now the Roosters got the left side rhythm correct, invoking the coast-to-coast rhythm of their Manu’s try before Teddy ran deep into the line and flicked out a wide one for Crichton, who in turn shot it on for Suaalii to take on the burden of straightening all this sweeping play, since only the toughest, hardest run could deliver now.
Suaalii could easily have been off the park after his aerial contact with Coates, but now he set his eyes on the the Melbourne winger, in the best individual contest of the night – close enough that there was an initial question of no try, and good enough that the replay clearly showed him getting the tip of the Steeden to ground, recovering his position at equal top of the Roosters’ tryscoring ladder in 2022. Yet with Walker missing the kick, these would be the last points Sydney scored tonight, as they resorted to a defensively heroic final quarter.
The restart was terrific, and almost came together brilliantly at the end, when Walker made up for his missed conversion by generating enough hang time for Suaalii to get in place for an aerial collect – or almost enough, since Suaalii lost it, and while Manu did well to fend his way through the first line of defence, this was always going to be called knock-on. Joey followed Joseph’s fate at the end of the next set, leaping up for the high ball and coughing it up to grant Melbourne a full set in the ten with seventeen left on the clock.
Tui Kamikamica started by bringing the ball a metre over the try line, where only the staunchest of Sydney packs held him up, and while a Suaalii touch made it a second successive set in the ten, it all ended with a Meaney pass – at least for this set. For Melbourne’s double assault on the Roosters’ chalk was money in the bank at this late stage in the game, galvanising them into some of their most brutal defence to keep the Chooks in their own end on the next set, before Meaney made up for his error by crossing over for the final four.
Hughes laid the platform with his best footwork of the night, pivoting away from Crichton and Keary, before beating Watson to break through the line, and linking up with Munster, who made it all the way to the thirty. Munster tried to put Kamikamica over the chalk a play later, and while he came down a metre short, the mere memory of his metre stroll-over a few minutes earlier was enough for Grant to set up the most scintillating passage of play from the Storm all night, thanks to one of Kenny’s best ever offloads in his last AAMI home game.
Right on the line, with defenders converging from all sides, he risked a no-looker out the back, relying on the preternatural synergy of his team mates to ensure it would all come together. Sure enough, Meaney seized it, came to ground a Steeden-length out, but had more than enough momentum to carry him over, before curling a stunning sideline kick around the left post to make Melbourne closer to Sydney than at any point since the ninth minute. The Storm were on a purple high, so it was the worst time for NAS to concede a holding down penalty.
No single play could determine the game now, though, as Jesse followed Kenny with a big play of his own, wresting the footy from Collins for the Storm’s seventeenth steal of the season. Seve glimpsed space on the right a few plays later, and would have crossed if not for a heroic last-ditch effort from Teddy, as NAS bounced back from his penalty by coming in hard and low to force a second Collins error. No forward has looked quite as pumped up this year as NAS did now, roaring in triumph, and rallying the troops as the game hit peak volatility.
As if the tension wasn’t enough already, play now paused for Radley, who tried to match NAS by coming in low on Jesse Bromwich, but copped an awful angle when Jesse changed his direction at the last minute. An awful hush descended on AAMI as the Inflictor twitched on the ground, and was eventually taken off on the medicab, an agonisingly long wait that would only be allayed when word finally returned from the sheds that he was conscious and doing fine. It was great, then, to see NAS lead the Storm and crowd in round of applause for him.
The whole process had taken close to five minutes, so Melbourne had to lean back into NAS’ roar of triumph immediately, especially since a four-man pack met Nelson on the left edge as a statement of certainty early in the count. Collins might have had a rough couple of minutes, but he more than made up for it now, slotting into Teddy’s boots to chase down a Hughes grubber, and down it behind the posts a minute before Jahrome himself got hands to it. This was arguably the best save of the night, as the Chooks settled in to defend the dropout.
Manu saved the day late in the set, but conceded another six, and with a Hutchison ruck error, a marker error from Nat Butcher, a failed Sydney challenge to contest it – so different from their visionary double challenge of the first quarter – and a dangerous shot from Collins, everything seemed set for a trademark Melbourne comeback with four minutes on the clock. Yet the Roosters stayed strong, getting the ball back off their best goal line defence of the night, as the Storm ended with a poor run of their own, starting with Munster holding down.
From there, they lost the challenge, conceded the dropout, and never touched the footy again, thanks to a Coates error, bringing Sydney to one of the greatest wins of their season – possibly the greatest – and the perfect finale to their run of form over the last seven weeks. Friday night’s game against the Bunnies should be an absolute blockbuster, while the Storm will be looking to do serious damage when they rock up for their last season fixture against a Parramatta outfit flush from pouring a half century on Brisbane on Thursday evening.