The first game of the last round of the regular season was already finals footy in spirit – Melbourne at fourth, Parra at fifth. The winner was guaranteed a spot in the top four, the loser could be out in the first week of finals. Parra had to be the team that had beaten Penrith twice in 2022, and downed Melbourne in golden point, while the Storm hadn’t finished outside the top four since 2015, and were without Jahrome Hughes on the park, bringing Cooper Johns into the halfback jersey for the biggest game of his burgeoning career to date.
Tui Kamikamica had the first carry of the night, Nelson Asofa-Solomona plunged into the defence on the second, and the Bromwich brothers followed in their wake, making a muscular start to the game. The Eels had to work it back from their own end when they received the footy, and were at halfway by the time Mitch Moses took his first kick, as Shaun Lane spearheaded a three-man pack to prevent Cam Munster making it too far over his own ten. Three plays later, Brandon Smith elasticised the attack with a dummy half run up the right.
Unfortunately for the away crowd, the Eels bunched in pretty quick, bumping Xavier Coates over the sideline to get themselves a full set in the opposition end once Reagan Campbell-Gillard dragged it over halfway on tackle one. Lane took a charge up the left, and Isaiah Papali’i up the right, before Junior Paulo steadied with a run up the middle. This had consolidation written all over it, so it was a big letoff for Parra when Moses and Dylan Brown failed to link up on the left, especially when Nick Meaney took the kick and flicked the first offload to Johns.
Melbourne had regathered seamlessly from the Eels’ first burst of position, and while Munster did well to toe it on the run, Waqa Blake was just as clutchy to take it clean with a couple of Storm defenders up in his face. RCG reset the blue and gold with a rollicking charge to hit the ten, and Marata Niukore leaned into his slipstream to hit Melbourne territory, laying a platform for Moses to boot through the most towering bomb so far. Again, the Storm had to work it back from their own ten, and again the big men did their job to deliver metres.
This wasn’t fancy football from the purple army – just hard, fast running up the middle, with Jesse Bromwich providing a particularly strong charge to stand in the contact for five seconds. Harry Grant was already at double figures in the tackle count by midway through the following set, while the Storm had another go at that right edge bust next time they had ball in hand. Coates was determined to stay clear of touch this time, setting the stage for a shift back in field that saw Munster attack the middle with renewed momentum, before they headed left.
By the time Meaney slotted through a crossfield bomb, he was on the cusp of the ten, so it was a big play when Maika Sivo concluded the best Melbourne set of the night with a mirror image of Blake’s clutchy collect out on the other wing. Having just tightened the screws, the Storm had to force an error now, but instead Kamikamica conceded the first penalty of the night, for a slow peel. For the second time, the Eels had a full set in the opposition half, but the set deteriorated pretty quickly, starting with an aborted effort to sweep it to the right.
From there, a slow play-the-ball decelerated things in the middle third, before Dylan Brown tried to recover the momentum with stellar post-contacts up the left, only to lose the footy as he charged into a committed Melbourne pack. Worse, Brown flopped on Kamikamica a beat later, bringing this last period of Parra possession full circle, by providing Melbourne with the penalty they’d been raring for after their last bout on the blue and gold line – and that made it all the more frustrating when Kenny flicked the footy forward on the very next play.
Such a rapid turnaround injected a new volatility into the game, especially after the to-and-fro motion of the opening ten minutes. Brown was the man to capitalise on it, expelling the spectre of his last two errors, and his earlier aborted linkup with Moses, with a spectacular individual effort. He started with a massive left boot step, and followed with some of his most mercurial footwork of the season, totally eluding Kaufusi before NAS slipped on his way to collect him, Kamikamica tumbled on top, and Brown came to ground beneath them both.
It was like an optical illusion, then, when the wiry five-eighth emerged from these two big boppers, keeping his ball-playing arm off the ground to smash through Munster for six once Moses slotted it through the posts. Munster’s night got worse with a kickoff error, so the Eels had a restart from close range, where not even a bone-shattering tackle from Justin Olam on Moses could quench their spirit now. Four plays in, Melbourne still hadn’t presented a convincing defensive wall, so Niukore followed in Brown’s path beside the left padding.
He claimed the try, but the replay showed that NAS and Munster had smashed in for a two-man effort that was every bit as precarious as NAS and Kamikamica’s earlier hit on Brown, but just a little more focused – or perhaps a little more desperate. In any case, it was enough to keep the footy off the turf, a critical rallying-point for Melbourne, who got more breathing-space with their first scrum when Blake knocked on the high ball on what was technically the first touch of a new set, given the Storm had got a hand to it and knocked it on just before.
For the second time tonight, however, Jesse made a mistake in his own half, this time a cold drop as he shaped for Meaney on his inside. With 10-1 tackles in the opposition twenty, Parra had to get back in the groove carved out by Brown and Niukore, who got them rolling with a hard charge on tackle two, before Brown did the same a play later, requiring a big effort from Kaufusi to hold him up. Moses opted for a laconic sweeping set piece later in the count, Will Penisini kept it alive with an offload on the wing, and the Eels seemed primed to consolidate.
They couldn’t have asked for a better time to get six again, off a Kamikamica ruck error, so it was agonising when Moses tried to compress the best bit of the last set with a cut-out for Penisini, who had clear space all the way to the line if he hadn’t fumbled the footy at the last. This was beautiful passing from Mitch, so Penisini’s error, combined with Niukore’s denied try had the potential to return all the rhythm to Melbourne if they could deliver a strong set now. Like clockwork, Smith came back into the fray, as Jesse headed off to the bench.
For the moment, however, the vision came from Munster, who booted it high and hard enough to split Gutho and Blake, both powerless in the face of a nightmare bounce that handed the Storm a much-needed dropout. Grant slid to ground to take a tricky kick from Moses – high as bomb, down the middle of the park – while Kenny did the work of two Bromwichs with a barnstorming charge up the left. Coates tried to parlay that rhythm on the right, but for the second time tonight Parramatta had space enough to bump him dead.
This time the defence came from Sivo, who delivered such a committed run that he only had to bump Coates slightly to send him over the sideline, since the threat of contact was more than enough here. NAS got away with some high contact on Ryan Matterson four plays later, but he wasn’t so fortunate when he banged into Moses after he’d slotted the kick on the right, slamming him to ground so hard and late that he required medical attention then and there, as the home crowd held their breath to see if his finger issue had returned.
He was back on his feet soon enough though, and Parramatta really had to tighten the screws now. They played the first half safe, and didn’t get much of a chance to improvise in the later tackles, thanks to a second huge Olam-Moses hit that decelerated any residual rhythm. Between NAS and Olam’s contact, Mitch had been the wars over the last minute, skittled by the biggest and squattest man in the Melbourne pack, so it was critical he compose himself over the next set. As it turned out, the Storm halfback would be the next in the line of fire.
It was friendly fire, from Kamikamica, who plunged in as third in the tackle, and careened off Johns’ jaw. Cooper remained on the park for a minute, but left at the end of Moses’ next bomb, although this setback only seemed to galvanise the Storm into their best left sweep of the night. Parra were trapped on their own line at the end of it, but promptly leaped up field when Chris Lewis got done for a flop, to continue adding to their 20-4 tackle tally in the opposition twenty. The Storm had glimpsed brilliance, but had to do more with it, and soon.
Conversely, they’d done well to keep Parramatta to only a 6-0 lead with 59% of possession, but it felt like only a matter of time before the Eels added more points. Sure enough, Brown toed through one of his best kicks – a low languorous affair from the thirty – to force Coates to clean it up in goal, before Munster sent it too short, Coates scooped it up nine metres out, and tried to land back over the ten metre line to avoid the penalty, but to no avail. Moses now added the first penalty kick of the night, bumping his men to eight unanswered points.
Matterson anchored the first play of the restart, Oregon Kaufusi followed in his wake, and RCG and Papali’i made it a quartet of big tackles, before Moses made good metres up the short side, and bombed it high. Munster did well to take it on the full, as Paulo loomed on the sideline for his second stint, but the Storm simply couldn’t build enough belief here, with a Smith dummy half dart and a crossfield effort from Munster coming to nothing. All Cam could do was boot it long and hard, but even then Blake was able to bring it back to the ten.
Gutho continued to target the right side, almost breaking through only for Meaney to down him with a terrific last-ditch tackle, before the Storm fullback used the residual energy of that hit to regalvanise the next set with a twenty-metre opening carry. With Munster hit high by RCG thirty out from the Parramatta line, this had to be the comeback moment for Melbourne, who opted to tap and go for a rare set inside the red zone. All it took was a single tackle for them to almost crash over, and all it took was a single tackle for Parra to show who was boss.
The Storm swept left on tackle one, timing it brilliantly, and ending with Olam, who in any other game would have broken through here. But this was already at the intensity of finals footy, and Parra had some prodigious moments of 2022 gameplay to pay tribute to here, which Penisni did by putting his body on the line to bundle Olam, at speed, over the side. Even then, the PNG international flicked it back in field, where Papali’i took it on the full in a sea of jerseys from both sides. It was one of Parramatta’s best defensive moments this season.
Still, the Storm got one last chance when Matto stuck a hand in the ruck two minutes out from the break. A try here would immediately reclaim all Parra’s glory as the Storm’s own, and narrow it to a two-point game, but they didn’t do any better on the right edge than on the left; the space to the sideline seemed to have shrunk whenever Coates had glimpsed space. With thirty seconds on the clock, and under some last-ditch pressure from Melbourne, Moses booted it deep in his own end, but the score remained 8-0 as they headed to the sheds.
Parramatta hadn’t lost a game when they’d led at half time all year, but the Storm also had some good news when Johns was cleared to play for the back half of the match. Moses made the best of the Eels’ first set with a soaring bomb that Nofoaluma took on the trot, before Trent Loeiro brought it to the forty, and Munster ended with a long low one down the left edge, where Gutho collected it with aplomb, and won his men the first penalty of the second stanza by tempting a messy flop from Nofa. Three plays later, RCG was inside the twenty.
Lane was on fire a tackle later, barging from seven out to hang half a metre over the chalk, where Johns started making up for lost time with a superb trysaver at the death. After so many frustrated efforts to go coast to coast, the Eels nailed it now, as Moses drifted into the line, drew in the defence, and shot a bullet ball out to Gutho, who flicked the footy on for Penisini to bust through a Nofa tackle and win the individual contest with Munster to slam down the next four. Moses was as sharp from the sideline, adding the two to make it 14-0.
Parra had now supplanted Melbourne at fourth on the ladder, but were kept in their own end for the entire restart, despite a late low offload from Gutho to Papali’i late in the count. Moses still did well to send it beyond the twenty, and while Coates made decent metres on the return, the Storm were largely frustrated on this set, from an aborted dummy half run for Grant, to a left sweep that ended with Olam unable to find space up the sideline. After Penisini’s burst of energy, we were on the verge of returning to the attrition of the first half.
For that reason, Lane seemed to keen to lean into the rhythm of that last set, taking another barnstorming run in the same part of the park, this time from twenty to ten, and getting Brown in place for a crossfield chip that Munster not only read brilliantly but parlayed into the most committed return of the year, palming off a wave of defenders in an effort to glimpse the line. Moses was the next Eel to attempt an enterprising play with a strip on Olam, and while he took the footy at the very cusp of legality, he lost it on the ground a beat later.
Jesse Bromwich was back on the park as the Storm settled into their first foray deep into Parramatta territory since the break, taking the fourth hit-up to arrive at the brink of the twenty, where he failed to get away the offload, but still laid the platform for a Munster boot from the right edge. Drawing on the energy of that superb return, Cam chased down his kick, wrapped himself around Gutho, and dragged the opposing fullback all the way over the dead ball line, meaning that the Eels needed to come up with a big play of their own in response.
Moses was the man to provide it, making up for the post-Olam error by channelling Olam’s ability to skittle players twice his size. Setting his sights on Kenny Bromwich, he came in low and hard enough to lift the big bopper clean off the turf, hanging onto him all the way to ground, where the contact was hard enough to send the no. 12 off for an HIA. This was arguably the best individual defence of the night, immediately eclipsing Munster’s return and dropout, and propelling Paulo into his best post-contacts too, four tackles into the next set.
Add to that strong charges from Peninsini at the start and end of the count, and Moses’ next bomb should have been a consolidator, but instead Blake knocked it on, the Storm got seven tackles, and Munster bounced back with an enterprising linkup with Coates out on the right edge. Jesse made up for Kenny’s absence with a brutal charge up the middle a play later, and NAS brought it full circle by slamming into Moses, making it clear this was one big man Mitch was never going to down, to carry his men into the red; the Storm’s best flow since the break.
In what was fast becoming the hardest fought passage of the game too, Parramatta got seven tackles of their own, NAS plunged into Moses for another bone-shattering hit, Kaufusi got done for an obstruction on the last, and the Eels had a full set within the ten. It was agonising when Niukore put down a Mahoney ball before his men had built any pressure, right where he’d crossed over in the first stanza, although this was partly an overread from Reed too, who would have done better to aim for a more consolidating and less flamboyant option here.
Charged up from those two hits on Moses, NAS felt like he was fresh on the field when he made five post-contacts through Papali’i and Niukore, although Marata hit back immediately by laying a platform for Paulo to hit the forty four into the following set. For a second,it looked like the Eels would build something from nothing on the left edge, especially when Sivo toed it on the sideline. Yet while Munster took it clean, NAS lost it a few plays later – a big enough rhythm-killer, potentially, for the Storm to send it upstairs in search of a Mahoney strip.
Melbourne lost the challenge, but it was a close thing, and could easily have gone the other way, although it didn’t much matter, at least for the moment, when Paulo put it down a couple of plays off the scrum, as word came down from the sheds that Kenny wouldn’t be returning tonight. Next time NAS had the footy, Papali’i and Matto were more confident cleaning him up, decelerating things so much on the left that the set came down to a Munster charge up the right, a slow ball from Marion Seve, and a Johns bomb from the same spot.
Olam was held to have knocked on, and didn’t have a challenge to fall back upon, despite insisting that Penisini had made the first error. The final quarter had arrived as the Eels got stuck into another gritty set that suddenly elasticised when Moses scooted out to the right, shot out the Steeden, received it again, and brought that momentum back into the middle of the park, where Gutho responded with the most visionary play of the game. Scooping up a rapid play-the-ball, he set his sights on the wing, and dared Coates to come in off his line.
Coates was more than willing to do it, apparently unable to believe that Gutho would lob the perfect harbour bridge ball out to Sivo, who took it on the chest, danced the sideline tightrope, and made it 20-0, with Moses’ kick, with a little under twenty minutes to go. Even better, the Eels won their next challenge to prove a Coates knock-on beneath the high ball, augmenting their restart with a scrum from the thirty as Moses tucked the footy under his arm, and set his sights on the right edge, determined to set up another scintillating sequence.
He came close to achieving his vision, as Paulo supercharged the next few tackles with a late offload to Mahoney, and Niukore ended with an equally spectacular offload out on the left to Brown, who would have assisted Sivo if he’d toed it a little shallower, or got a slightly more favourable bounce. As it was, the Storm leaped at this letoff, hitting the ten by tackle four of the next set, and building to a Grant kick that got just the oblique angle that Brown had been looking for – mercurial enough to force Gutho to bump it dead rather than risk the bounce.
Even with a 20-0 advantage, Moses went short with the dropout, and not only did the Storm recover it, but they got six again inside the ten. All they needed was a single play, however, as Grant mirrored his kick on the right with a superb run on the left, the fastest out of dummy half so far, and then the best deception play – show-and-go to the wing, stutter step to defy RCG in particular, and then a hard low lunge to thwart a last-ditch legs tackle from Papali’i. Meaney had a bad kick, but there was time for a comeback if the Storm scored again soon.
Munster spiralled his next one from halfway in an effort to build position as quickly as possible, but Brown got the rub of the green, collecting the bounce in both hands before launching into Kaufusi’s armpit for what was sensibly deemed legal contact. Moses sent his next one off the side of the boot, forty metres out, and it did the job, at least indirectly, defying Blake in the air, but ricocheting back for Papali’i to somehow toe it into touch for another dropout, which Munster sent far too short to grant the Eels a penalty in front.
Moses was able to wind down a minute as he set up the tee, before booting through the two to put Melbourne beyond any real hope of a comeback before the sheds. In a mirror image of that last contest beneath the high ball, Sivo now missed it, reaching out both hands before Tom Opacic secured it, with a Seve error in between that granted the blue and gold yet another scrum. Paulo was a man with a mission as he tumbled Smith to ground, Makahesi Makatoa made an instant impact off the bench, and Gutho booted it twenty out on the fifth.
It didn’t quite garner a dropout, but it trapped the Storm on their own line, which was good enough. Nofoaluma made a heroic effort to add space up the left on play four, but a clip from Peninsini meant he couldn’t make too much headway, while the Eels barely seemed fussed by working the next set back from their own ten, so fixed was their flow by this point. Penisini almost busted through the line a few plays later, Moses shifted it inside for Jake Arthur, fresh off the bench, to improvise a kick, and Munster booted it back towards the Parramatta line.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however, as Kaufusi came up with it for a fresh set, which became another set with a Meaney error. A moment later, Brown came close to a double, but was pinged for a double movement, a dramatic enough turnaround to provide the Storm with one final burst of energy, as Meaney, the man who had made the last error, received a Munster pass from the thirty, sailed into space, and slammed over under the crossbar without an Eel getting a hand to him, before converting his own try to bring the scoreline to 22-8.
Full credit to Munster for the best dummy of the night to break through for the assist – a big show to the left that defied both Moses and Papali’i, in what would have been a poetic end to a game where the Melbourne five-eighth had fought so valiantly to rally his men against an imperturbable Parramatta wall. Yet the Storm had one more try left in them, building on a offside from Brown, beneath a soaring Munster bomb, and a ruck error from Makatoa, to send Nofoaluma across on the left wing off a deft harbour bridge ball from Meaney.
Yet with Munster missing the kick, in the most agonising moment of the game, the Storm remained beyond a converted try deficit, meaning they didn’t have a shot at a comeback here, even though they might well have been contenders with even another five minutes of football tonight. For the first time in seven years, the purple army have ended outside the top four, while the Eels have cemented their position with the table-toppers, and will be pumped to continue this energy when they rock up for finals footy, peaking at just the right time.