FINALS WEEK 1: Melbourne Storm v. Canberra Raiders (AAMI Park, 10/9/22, 20-28)

For only the fourth time, Team 8 has won in the first week of finals, at Fortress AAMI no less, as the 2022 Raiders joined the hallowed company of the 2008 Warriors, Jarryd Hayne’s 2009 Eels, and the Cowboys of 2017, Jonathan Thurston’s final year at Townsville. They’ve now beaten Melbourne five straight at home, while the Storm haven’t been knocked out in Week 1 of finals since losing to the Dogs in 2014. Even the return of Jahrome Hughes, and a hat trick from Xavier Coates in his first ever finals appearance wasn’t enough to mollify this result.

Cameron Munster took the kickoff, Jack Wighton collected it, and Josh Papalii had the first carry, before Joe Tapine, Elliott Whitehead and Adam Eliott lent their heft to this opening set. Tapine took a second carry on the fifth, and Jamal Fogarty was on the brink of halfway when he soared his first bomb, under pressure. Melbourne had summoned good defence, and were just as strong in attack, hitting Canberra territory on tackle four, and elasticing the game immediately with some eyes-up footy from Jahrome Hughes to mark his return to AAMI.

Showing and going down the right wing, he kicked at speed for Marion Seve, who got a second boot to it, a rapid enough acceleration to force a knock-on from Xavier Savage. Hughes continued this momentum with another run up the right, bringing in a green pack to hold him up on the line, and the Storm got six again, off a Jordan Rapana error. The hosts didn’t do much with the set, so the Raiders were pretty unlucky when Matthew Timoko cleaned up a messy ball out on the left edge, only to allow himself to be dragged into touch a beat later.

Brandon Smith raised the next set a notch with a charge into the left padding midway through, Hughes took another crack on the right, and the purple army got another restart, off a ruck error from Elliott. This was huge pressure on Canberra, and continued with a fresh set from the ten, as Hughes tried to tunnel his way through Whitehead in front of the left post. Nelson Asofa-Solomona lunged his whole weight on the right edge, and then launched out a chaotic offload that defied Harry Grant as Sebastian Kris came in to force the first Melbourne error.

After seven minutes of footy, the Raiders only had 22% of possession, so the big men worked hard against a staunch Storm defence now, as Nick Cotric made the best post-contacts so far, and Tapine twisted 360-degrees in a Tui Kamikamica ankle tap to offload for Wighton, who broke through the line, put in a big left foot step, and made it third phase play with an arcing harbour bridge ball to Savage. The young fullback reined it in and shifted it immediately out to Timoko, who got some joy after his error with a sublime display on the sideline now.

Faced with Munster, who’d had a pretty quiet opening, he sent out a massive right hand fend to bump the Storm’s best player over the sideline, before disposing of two more Melbourne defenders on his way to the chalk. After seven minutes defending their line, and without a single tackle in opposition territory, the Raiders had four on the board – and while it remained four after Fogarty missed the kick, he did better with the next bomb, capping off a stellar restart by floating it so mercurially that Munster only just survived a nightmare of a bounce.

Hughes tried to match it with his next boot, but Savage had no problem leaping up to take it clean, while Wighton looked dangerous again as he lunged at NAS midway through the count, making it doubly deflating when Kris lost it on the left edge on the penultimate play. This was Melbourne’s first real chance since they’d camped out on the Canberra line, and for a moment it looked like they’d delivered, as Kenny Bromwich followed Hughes with a chip on the fly that Nick Meaney took in both hands, only to fumble into a desperate CHN tackle.

A minute later, Papalii and Elliott made the Raiders’ first tackles in Melbourne territory, and while Munster didn’t have much trouble fielding the next kick, the green machine did well to keep the purple army in their own end, with Tapine bold enough to attempt an individual strip on Justin Olam. Hughes didn’t have much option but to boot it long and low, and lead the chase himself, but while NAS followed up with a brutal hit to bring Savage to ground, the visitors had found their flow now, hitting Melbourne’s end for the second successive set.

Munster was even more confident with the next take, despite three Raiders up in his face, while a strong dummy half run from David Nofoaluma gave him even more room to elasticise the play up the middle of the park. For the first time, the cult five-eighth was taking control of the game, so this felt like it might be a consolidation point once his men got six again off a CHN ruck error. Smith was three metres out on the fourth, Grant was half a metre out on the fifth, and this time Kenny got the kick right, leaving Savage no option but to bump it dead.

All in all, this was a good outcome for Canberra, since with Cotric shooting back in field, Nofa had been unmarked on the wing, if Kenny had only turned his head. With 14-0 tackles in the opposition twenty, the Storm had to deliver here, as the final quarter wound down, and they did the fans proud almost immediately, as Coates came away with a try in his first finals footy fixture on tackle two. No surprise that Munster was the man here, receiving a great dummy half ball from Grant, then straightening the play to dislocate Wighton and Hudson Young.

Kamikamica charged straight into a CHN-manned Canberra wall to lay a foundation for the restart, and NAS made almost the same impact on tackle four, when he barged into Wighton and Young to hit the Raiders’ end of the park. With Hughes caught out of position on the fourth, Grant chipped a terrific one out to the left, where Cotric waited as long as he could, but eventually had to bump it into touch with Olam surging up behind him. All of a sudden, Munster, and now Grant, were dictating the terms of the game, and coming into their own.

Hughes wasn’t doing too badly either, making up for missing the last kick by chipping a beauty to the right wing midway through the dropout, where Coates caught it on a dime to make it a double in five minutes. Full credit to Grant and Munster for the buildup as well – Harry with the dart towards the posts and the rapid shift back outside, and Cam with the second phase that got his five-eighth in place, five out from the line, for one of the more daring short-range boots we’ve seen in 2022. Again, Meaney missed it, but the Storm were still four ahead.

Apart from that kick, this was close to footy perfection, encapsulated in the elegance with which Coates had reached up for the Steeden and ground it all in one dexterous motion, like Hughes’ boot was still operating vicariously through him. Melbourne were in full footy flow as well, as NAS poured through a swathe of defenders to hit halfway again, parting them like he was a rock in a stream, and almost managing the second phase to Marion Seve, before Canberra got a chance to reabsorb all this momentum with an offside penalty for Grant.

Wighton didn’t make much headway with the kick, and Jamal Fogarty was cleaned up the moment he received an offload from Tapine, but Eliott restored the rhythm with a straight hard charge up the middle, while Tapine continued to organise the middle third by scooping up a loose rolling flick back from Zac Woolford. By the time Wighton got to the kick he was at the thirty, where he shot it nearly vertically into the air, but without any joy, as the Storm started working it back from their own ten as Felise Kaufusi gave Jesse Bromwich a break.

Smith now gave Fogarty an object lesson in how to capitalise on second phase, reining in the offload from Grant, making twenty up the right, and shaping for an offload of his own, only to find there weren’t any support players in position. Nevertheless, his combo was Grant was enough to galvanise the set, and yet once again Canberra got off the hook with a penalty after the kick, this time for the young hooker himself, who was pretty unlucky to get done for aerial contact while he was contesting the footy. This time around, the Raiders had to deliver.

Wighton energised the middle of the set with a short side pass to Rapana, before Elliott drove it up the middle to link with Emre Guler, laying a platform for Wighton to boot his most treacherous bomb back in field – bad enough to utterly defy Munster, giving Canberra a precious set right on the Melbourne line, with ten minutes on the clock. The first few tackles were steadiers, efforts to exhaust the purple defence, and became the mere prelude to a more elastic set that started with them getting six again off a Nofa error out on the left.

Add a Seve mistake on the other side of the park, and the Raiders had their best accumulation of position all night. They had to ignore the troubling spectacle of Elliott limping off the field as they packed the scrum, and got a terrific distraction on play one anyway. Receiving the footy from Woolford, Fogarty drifted right, showed it a few times, put in a massive fend to dispose of Meaney, and tricked Olam into taking himself out of the defensive line, before smashing chest-to-chest with Nofa and slamming the Steeden down with the same passion.

By the time Olam came back in, and NAS launched himself on top, the try was done, close enough to the posts for Fogarty to cap it off with the first conversion of the night. Canberra continued to build on the restart, brought in a staunch wall to drive back Nofa and Olam on the first two plays of the following set, and received their biggest boon on the third, when Kaufusi got done for an obstruction, twenty-five out from his line. This was crunch time, so no surprise that they capitalised as efficiently and clinically as they had off the last scrum.

All it took was some good dummy half vision from Woolford, and a good short ball from Tapine, who was topping the VB Hard Earned Index at 49, for Whitehead to glimpse a space beside the left padding, and duck and twist his way through Meaney to reach it. This wasn’t fancy football, just grim determination, but it was just what was needed against Melbourne at home, bringing the Raiders to double the hosts at 8-16, before they got one more dropout, with a minute on the clock, but couldn’t expand the lead as the Storm circled the wagons.

Still, Team 8 were leading Team 5 as they headed to the sheds, while Craig Bellamy was sufficiently spooked to mix up Munster and Meaney. Tapine continued a brutal first half by jumping into the first defensive tackle back, and Smith spread it early for Hughes, but Guler absorbed the brunt of it, before Whitehead contained a mad Meaney charge up the left. The set ended with a whimper, as Munster sent the kick sideways, and Seve came up with a second effort that Rapana contained without much trouble, as the Raiders got rolling again.

Both sides now went set for set, until the Storm broke this second stanza opening with the best long range effort of the game so far. If Munster and Seve had ended their first set poorly, then that made it all the more spectacular when they linked up twice here. In the first part of this attacking masterclass, a pair of perfectly pitched wide passes from Munster and Hughes put Seve into space up the right, where he planted an enormous fend to dispose of Kris, showed the footy a couple of times, and then sent it back inside for more of Cam’s vision.

For a brief beat, Munster looked set to go it alone, but he played it safe, sending the Steeden back inside to Coates, who was barking for it in support as he ran a hard line up the middle. It was the correct decision, as the young gun tucked the Steeden under his right arm, reached out his left to ward off Fogarty, came to ground beneath Kris half a metre out, but still managed to slide far enough to extricate his arm and plant the Steeden down with a roar of triumph to mark the near-impossible – a hat trick in his first ever appearance in finals footy.

Munster was always going to convert from close range, and with a second effort from Wighton a minute later, Melbourne had all the momentum. In fact, they were dangerously close to a torrent of points, the same flow that Penrith had leaned into during the back half of last night’s game against Parra, especially when Hughes slid into a Tapine tackle for inadvertent but indisputable high contact. He took a while to return to his feet, while Tapine’s brilliant form sunk to a frustrating ebb with a penalty as Tom Starling gave him a break.

The Storm seemed primed for another close-range try, so it was either a sign of respect that Munster lined up the tee, or else a conservative option to compensate for Hughes walking down the tunnel for an HIA. Whatever the reason, he missed the kick now, a critical moment in a two-point game, handing a little bit of rhythm back to Canberra, who got another gee up when NAS plunged into the defence for what might have been his hardest contact if he hadn’t coughed up the footy. With six again a moment after that, the Raiders had a real shot here.

In fact, this was their first real chance since the sheds, as Wighton hit the ten on tackle four, but could only absorb the contact, since Melbourne were determined not to take any quarter. It felt right that Coates ended the set with a clean-up on the left, bringing the game full circle with the aftermath of his third try, but even so the purple army struggled to work it out of their own end, only hitting the thirty on tackle five with a barnstorming NAS charge. Still, they got their own lucky moment now, as an awkward charge down bumped them down field.

They were inside the ten by the last, as Munster drifted to the left, dropped it on the boot, but didn’t quite nail the angle, giving Savage just enough time to bring it back over the try line and hold onto the turf for dear life. Now it was Canberra’s turn to be trapped on their own chalk, as Wighton booted it as hard as possible from inside his thirty, while the Storm started their next set from their own thirty. Starling conceded six again early in the count, Olam dragged Papalii deep into the red zone, and Jesse had them at the ten by halfway through.

With that kind of buildup, it felt almost inevitable when NAS poured over beside the left post to put Melbourne ahead for the first time since the break. In a kind of mirror image of Whitehead’s putdown before the siren, Grant surged out of dummy half, blood streaming from his mouth and flicked it back for his no. 10 to carve through beside the left padding. Wighton and Young converged on him, but they were powerless to prevent his passage. All night NAS had been restless for a play of pure physicality, and he achieved that vision here.

As he reached out his arms to bask in the ambience of AAMI at peak vitality and volatility, he seemed to have eclipsed even the toughest of Canberra’s big men along with Whitehead’s try, bringing members of the home crowd to their feet as he charged into the defense for his most plosive hit so far on tackle one of the restart. Like Cleary the night before, he was coasting on pure footy flow, making it feel like Melbourne could do anything as the third quarter wound down, even though they were only sitting on a precarious four point lead.

Papalii was leading the Raiders in 2022 offloads, but he still hadn’t got any second phase away when the Raiders resumed their attack. The purple army were too charged up to concede any real ground now, while Munster followed NAS with a massive first tackle option, putting in a big step to almost break the line then and there. Even better, Hughes had passed his HIA, and would be back on the park in a few minutes, just in time to put the last nails in the coffin, as Cotric looked set to be the next player off when he copped NAS’ full force on the ground.

Nevertheless, he remained on the park, as Munster continued to channel Nelson’s spirit on the opening run, before trying to orchestrate a monster bounce on the last, but not quite striking it right, meaning CHN was able to bring the green machine to the Melbourne forty on tackle two. Instead, Munster was the next casualty of the high ball, coughing up a Wighton kick right on the line, in a dramatic enough turnaround that the Storm felt compelled to sent it upstairs, where the Bunker deemed that Kris had eyes on the footy as he started the play.

It all came down to the final second, when Ashley Klein deemed that both his gaze and hands had remained locked on the Steeden – the right call, even if it made for an uncomfortable contrast with the supposed aerial contact in the first stanza. Since Munster had knocked it back, and Grant had launched himself onto it in goal, this became a dropout, which CHN augmented with a beautiful low offload to Starling, setting up Papalii to finally get his initial second phase of the game as well, as the Raiders built to peak flow out on the right edge.

Tapine was the pivot here, drawing in a swathe of defenders, and then collecting another offload from Papalii, a tackle later, before realising there was nothing doing on this wing. Accordingly, he sent it back inside, but the import of Papalii’s two second phase efforts had rejuvenated the set, imbuing the Raiders with a new energy that now crystallised around one of the game’s most spectacular tries. Wighton set it up with a grubber under pressure from Kaufusi, a mercurial bounce into the left goal where Munster and Young converged on it.

For the briefest moment, it looked like Munster might take this easily, but the footy ricocheted mercurially on its tip, catching him by surprise, and leaving him unprepared to twist around in time to follow it, as Young surged in, bent down, and gathered it into his chest. Munster landed on his back a metre out from the dead ball line, but it only secured the downward pressure that won Hudson the clutch try of the night, restoring Canberra’s two-point lead once Fogarty booted through the two from directly in front of the crossbar.  

Cotric might have stuck a hand in the ruck a minute later, but Olam came up with an even more egregious error soon after, a knock-on beneath the combined pressure of Cotric and Timoko on tackle one. Melbourne wasted their challenge in an attempt to reverse it, and the game reached peak volatility when Kamikamica executed an individual strip on Wighton. This was the late advantage that the Storm of old excelled at capitalising upon, so Savage put his whole body on the line under the next high ball, weathering a torrent of purple defenders.

In the next controversial penalty of the game, however, Nofa got pinged for dragging him over the sideline before the penalty was complete, before Papalii, still high on that pair of offloads, contributed his best single charge of the night – twenty metres straight up the middle, where he almost secured a restart to boot. Munster’s missed penalty goal was starting to loom large, as Wighton put in a mammoth shot on Seve, summoning a massive pack to draw him back to the ten, before NAS coughed it up into another pack a play later.

Seven minutes from the siren, Canberra had a scrum from the ten. Rapana hit the twenty, Whitehead charged another five, Papalii drove it deep into the ten, Smith did well to bring Horsburgh to ground, and the Raiders shaped for a left sweep. They had all the flow now, but nobody could have predicted the brilliance, the vision, the sheer rugby league magic of this last sequence, which started with a quick play-the-ball from Horsburgh, some deft dummy half vision from Starling, and a wide one from Wighton to clear up some space for Savage.

What happened next almost defied belief, as the already-cult fullback lobbed it off the head of Kris, who struck it at just the right angle to ricochet it deep into the corner, where Rapana took it on the bounce to score the most spectacular try of the night. Whether Savage or Kris had planned it this way, whether it was pure luck, or whether it was the intuitive synergy of Canberra reaching its peak, this was great football, bringing the Raiders to 26-20, and ushering in the most suspenseful seconds of the game as Fogarty lined up the tee a metre in field.

Amidst wave after wave of Melbourne boos, Jamal not only slotted it through, but delivered the best sideline angle of the night, curving the ball beautifully back beyond the right post. Canberra were all but home, especially once Wighton came in low and hard to charge Kaufusi over the sideline a set later. Felise managed to flick the footy back into Coates, who made a valiant effort to pop it back in field when he was met by pressure in turn, but not without planting a boot on the line, as the Raiders inched that little bit closer to football glory.

The Storm got their last chance with a loose carry from Papalii, which the Raiders sent upstairs in an effort to prove a Grant strip, but to no avail. With a midfield scrum, and ninety seconds on the clock, they might just win here with back-to-back tries if they forewent the first conversion, but as it turned out the game ended, poetically, with a Whitehead-Jesse Bromwich steal. For the Raiders themselves had stolen the finals berth that has belonged to the Storm for the last eight years, full of football pride as they prepare for Parra next week.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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