ROUND 1: Parramatta Eels v. Melbourne Storm (CommBank Stadium, 2/3/23, 12-16)

Melbourne had never beaten the Eels at CommBank, but they also hadn’t lost a Round 1 match since 2001, when they met in the heart of blue and gold territory for the first game of the 2023 season. They may have been without Ryan Papenhuyzen, and behind or equal for most of the match, but in the end they prevailed, as Harry Grant capped off a heroic second half by clambering over beside the left post, three minutes into golden point, to put his men ahead for the first time all night, in the face of a fractured and frustrated Parra outfit.

The Melbourne captain took the first run of the 2023 NRL season, Nelson Asofa-Solomona dragged four defenders over the twenty-metre line a tackle later, and Jahrome Hughes booted his first one just inside the forty. Maika Sivo was back at his own thirty on the return, Reagan Campbell-Gillard mirrored big NAS with a charge up the middle, and Mitchell Moses took his kick just outside the Storm forty. Xavier Coates made metres up the left, and while Cam Munster followed with an offload on the sideline, Josh Hodgson was there to take it.

It was a good start for the ex-Raider in Parra colours, getting his men the first significant position of the night. They swept left on the fourth, where Moses only just reined in a wide ball, and Dylan Brown put it down a beat later, but the whistle went the home team’s way when Eliesa Katoa was pinged for early contact on the Parramatta halfback. Mitch chose to take the two, and so the Eels became the first team on the board in 2023, before muscling their way to halfway, off some good fourth tackle work from Matt Doorey, for Moses’ next kick.

Harry Grant tried to deliver his own fourth tackle magic on the next set, with an attempted 40/20, but he didn’t have the angle, while Parra nabbed more momentum when they got the ball back, thanks to a tackle bust from Isaac Lumelume – through Grant, King and Welch – and a second penalty from Katoa, this time for holding down in a desperate effort to halt the wiry winger’s progress. Parra now had some decent position, making good on their aborted left sweep with a beautiful passage to the wing, where they won six again for their troubles.  

For a moment, it looked like Lumelume might bring it all together back on the other edge, but despite the strong run and assist from Will Penisini, he couldn’t quite dodge Coates, who did a terrific job to bang him into touch at the last second. Still, Parramatta had come dangerously close to scoring the first try, so the Storm needed to hit back now, and they did so with an abrupt left sweep of their own, culminating with a Coates kick at speed that was weighted just a little heavily, gifting the blue and gold army an extra tackle to regain their composure.

Moses copped a bone-rattling hit from NAS at the end of the next set, and so Brown took over kicking duties, but without applying much pressure, while the Storm got their first penalty of the night a beat later, thanks to some holding down from Junior Paulo. Both sides were sitting on a linebreak apiece – Sivo in the buildup to Lumelume’s almost try, and Coates before he put boot to ball, – so when NAS made a play-the-ball error under pressure from RCG on top and Doorey down below, it felt like it might well be a tipping-point for the next part of the night.

Hodgson now showed some vision, dummying as if to pass, before booting it into the left corner, where Meaney had no choice but to pop it dead, ushering in the first dropout of the game. Munster went short, the Eels knocked it on, and just like that another Parramatta chance closed up – and yet while Welch bolstered it with a deft offload, Grant put it down behind him. Both sides were starting to show signs of fatigue, while the game was reaching a new level of volatility. The next penalty might well turn out to be the key rhythm-shifter.

The Eels hung around the right edge for the first few plays, where Doorey took his fourth hit-up for the night, before a J’maine Hopgood offload shifted the play back out in the same direction. Finally, with all that energy accumulated on the right, Moses popped the harbour bridge ball out to Brown, who would have crossed untouched for the first try of the season if the pass hadn’t been correctly called forward. Young Tonumaipea built on some sterling defence on that last set with a rigorous run and linebreak, winning a slow peel from Gutho.

On the cusp of the second quarter, this was a significant positional moment for Melbourne, and while they got a taste of the Welch-Grant cough-up when Max King bobbled it forward, he recovered it just as quickly, and with that consolidation came the most dangerous purple attack so far, culminating with Hodgson spearheading a massive pack to hold up Welch beneath the crossbars. Even so, the Eels had to work it off their own line, and while Hughes dumped Waqa Blake on his back, Hopgood regathered with another impressive run.

In the end, they didn’t lose too much position here, especially since Hopgood put a full stop on the following set by slamming Grant to ground, forcing Munster to send through his first spiral bomb to maintain the to-and-fro momentum. Finally, the game had found its groove, as Moses booted it long and low from deep within his own end, in an echo of his 20/40 against the Knights during the Pre-Season Challenge, the Storm got another boost with a Hopgood ruck error, and then swept left only for Penisini to clinically clean up Tonumaipea.

A cluster of offloads in the middle of the park accelerated into a Grant kick to the right corner, where Sivo banged it into touch, as the Eels, like Melbourne, went short, and got it back, thanks to some stellar handling from Brown. Moses went higher with the kick this time, and put some spin on it, but the Storm never let it bounce, although any momentum was dented when a three-man pack came in to halt Welch in the middle of the park. Accordingly, Munster booted it early, on the fourth, but weighted it too hard, defying Gutho on the right edge.

Conversely, Gutho was monstered by three Storm players a set later, but the aggro went too far a play after, as Alec MacDonald, who was fresh off the bench, came in for what was technically aerial contact, even though Mitch was barely off the ground. This time around, the Eels chose to tap and go, despite being right in front of the posts, as Gutho took a hospital pass on the right, ribs fully exposed to a brutal Munster hit, and Brown lost it on the left, in the most disappointing, and perhaps the most game-changing, of Parra’s near misses so far.

Things weren’t much better on the other side of the Steeden, however, since the sheer force of the contact appeared to have dislocated Munster’s finger, or perhaps fractured his hand, since he left the park immediately as Tyran Wishart came off the pine, eleven minutes out from half time. Moses’ next bomb was a settler, and Meaney took it clean, winning his men six again only to lose it into some big Wishart contact, as the game suddenly swept back Parra’s way, and another boost of position provided them with a full set within the ten.

Finally, it all came together with a try the referees couldn’t deny, off one of the first great Parra spine synergies of the season – beautiful service from Hodgson, who might have been flat right to left tonight, but had been brilliant left to right, out to Gutho, who dodged around Coates and created space for Penisini to take the footy on the wing for the first try of the NRL season. Moses swung it away to the left, so the Eels were still at only a converted try lead, but the sheer elegance of that last combination felt like it could generate more points soon.

Meanwhile, news had come down from the sheds that Munster had likely suffered a compound fracture, as Paulo continued a barnstorming night with a classic front-row run, dragging a couple of Melbourne defenders ten metres beyond contact. Parra’s defence was good on the next Storm set, but things got precarious on their own line, where Blake had to lunge his head into the oncoming purple wall to accommodate an absolute hospital ball from Dylan Brown. Things were rising to a head, and they peaked, for the moment, with a Captain’s Challenge a minute later.

It revolved around whether Hughes or Hopgood had knocked on as they tried to recover the footy at the back of a Parramatta trap-and-scrap, but the footage clearly showed that by the time J’maine touched the ball the Melbourne halfback had maintained possession, and only lost control after the fact. A Moses error later, the Storm found themselves with zero tackle inside the opposition end, and got six again once they crossed the twenty, before only the staunchest of Moses-Penisni combos prevented Trent Loeiro from crossing a play after that.

To Craig Bellamy’s frustration, however, this was the apex of this set, as a big Parra pack bunched Coates into touch. The desperate offload back in field didn’t have a chance of reaching Grant, who was too swarmed by Eels to do much with it anyway, and while Hodgson knocked on the footy first, and Hughes almost made his way straight from the scrum base to the right post off the best footwork of the night, an enormous Doorey hit meant that Loeiro, the man who had come so close to a try a mere minute before, coughed up the Steeden.

The Eels might have missed a fair few opportunities during the first stanza, but surviving this last Melbourne onslaught was a massive boost heading into halftime. Granted, Moses didn’t nail the two-point field goal, but the hosts still trotted off to the sheds in pretty good condition, while it was paramount that the Storm score within the first few sets of returning if they were going to stamp their signature on the back forty, and make history by winning their first game at Cauldron CommBank, in the midst of a raucous blue and yellow crowd.  

They got a fresh wind when Munster returned to the park, having had his finger locked back into place, and performed a fair few practice passes in the sheds to make sure he was good for business. Hopgood continued to shine with more contact on the third tackle back, and Moses did well to fire away a big one under some pretty serious albeit legal kick pressure. Munster wasted no time putting boot to ball either, spiraling a big one that Lumelume took clean, before the Eels got the third penalty from Katoa, for an offside.

The next one came just as fast, with a late clip from Loeiro on Moses, and the succession clearly agitated Melbourne, with multiple players coming into remonstrate with the ref. Hopgood now had another stellar sequence, dummying to the right, banging an extra seven metres into the line, and then offloading out back, and while the set came apart during the middle tackles, Jack Murchie steadied it on the fourth, before Moses shifted it out to the right to Gutho, who came close to glimpsing brilliance here, with a pass and then a kick.

The pass was to the right and back again, the kick was beside the right post, but the Eels couldn’t quite retain control of the escalating momentum, and so it all came apart with some high contact from Dylan Brown to bump the visitors back down the park. Grant now took only his second run of the night, surprising Murchie into not being square at marker, so it was now the Storm’s go to get two penalties on the trot, and make a bid at the opposition chalk. They made the most of it too, with a try that was as crisp as Gutho-Penisini had been elastic.

It came off some beautiful ruck work from Grant, a worthy sequel to his run that set it all up – a split-second shft out to King, who twisted through a Brown hit, so he was facing his own line by the time he popped it on for Meaney to roar his way through the last line of defence and slam the Steeden down. The whole thing seemed to happen in one synergistic play, almost like a single player were executing it all. Finally, the Melbourne hive mind was kicking into action, as Meaney capped it off by booting the first conversion of the season.

Grant was also coming into his own, delivering another silky dummy half run early in the restart, before Coates drew from the same playbook with the chase, coming in hard to force Lumelume into one of his most precarious, and finally one of his most accomplished, collects of the night. As a result, the Eels didn’t make much headway on this set, with Moses kicking within his own forty, while the Storm were only building further, as Munster channeled the slipstream of Grant’s runs, and then turned around for some second phase to Grant himself.

The Parramatta defence was starting to look very fractured now, especially up the middle, so it was an important boost when Paulo caused some havoc of his own with a tough passage midway through the next set, especially since Moses and Brown had pulled back from the playmaking over the last few minutes. Lumelume continued to steady the ship with another strong take in the face of a huge chase, beneath a towering bomb from Hughes, who had kicked under pressure himself. With each set, the game was intensifying to a new level now.

Grant built on a NAS-Moses David-Goliath effort with a searching run across the middle of the park, setting up an enormous sweep to the right that could have paid real dividends if not for a Katoa error that gave Parra a rare chance to regather all this rhythm as their own. As if sensing he had to seize the moment, and opt for some chaos football, Moses booted it early, hard, long and low along the left edge, but Meaney continued a very confident night at fullback by taking it without a beat, setting up his men to hit halfway, halfway into the set.

Munster ended with a brilliant chip at speed to the left edge, where Coates overleaped Lumelume, got both hands to the footy, and by all accounts should have ground it in the same arcing motion, but found himself defied by one final fumble. NAS took out some of the collective frustration by giving Bryce Cartwright the same treatment he’d handed out to Moses, before some Paulo second phase made it 14-8 offloads Parramatta’s way. Again, the Eels kicked low down the left – Gutho this time – and again Meaney was there to take it.

The blue and gold needed to hit back with a big individual effort now, and Sivo provided it, unceremoniously dragging Hughes into touch to win his men a full set inside the Melbourne forty. Hopgood was staunch on tackle one, offloading to RCG to make a few more metres, before Brown tried to create space for Carty on the left, and Hodgson showed Grant he could organise from dummy half as well. Drifting across the park, he showed it subliminally before popping a short one out to fellow Canberra team mate Paulo for an ever harder run than King.

Not a single Melbourne player could stop Paulo at full speed, at close range, so Coates and Munster just felt like so much padding as he rolled through them to plant down the next four points. It had all come off that big Sivo effort, and restored the six point lead once Moses slotted through his first one from the side of the park. Full credit to Hodgson too, including the left dummy to Hopgood that had contoured his drift to the right, while Coates’ night was getting worse, a result of the shoulder injury that was clearly starting to discomfort him now.

Moses can be one of the streakier kickers in the NRL, and his long-range game had a new zest and vitality for a short period, starting with a boot that saw Wishart seriously struggle to maintain possession in the face of a monster Parra pack. The Storm didn’t take long to hit back, however, as Lumelume succumbed to an enormous NAS shot at the ten, and lost the footy in the process, ricocheting it into King, whose contact meant that big Nelson’s mad dash to the chalk couldn’t count as a try, in the most spectacular let-off the Eels would receive tonight.

This was a pretty un-Melbourne like moment, but the purple army reset a mere play later, off the subsequent scrum, thanks to some truly brilliant decoy work from Munster. During Parra’s first sweep to the left, all the way back in the first quarter, Blake had laid on a brilliant play in which he shaped infield and curled all the way back into the sweep, but Munster outshone it here, turning right around as if to set up NAS for another charge, and then mocking Parra with the false security of NAS’ last disappointment by sweeping it left instead.

Tonumaipea took hold of it, and even then had to really dig into the line, and put his whole body on the line, to get through Lumelume, before slamming the Steeden down with a roar, in the most triumphant try of the night. Meaney’s sideline kick was also the best so far, a lilting right-to-left trajectory that curved through the posts with the languor that typifies Melbourne at their best. They seemed more relaxed now, even as they were amping up their game, settling into their footy groove as the Eels struggled to play catch up.

Parra got their next blow when the refs missed some more late contact on Moses, and Jirah Momoisea got done for high contact early in the next set, providing Melbourne with another bump into Parramatta territory as Bronson Garlick prepared to come off the bench for his NRL debut. Katoa had been streaming with blood from heavy contact on Sivo a few tackles before, and now Tounaimapea was in the wars, just as bloody, but also taking a beat to rise to his feet from cramp, coming for the park for an HIA as the Storm got ready to steady.

It didn’t take long, since they won the next dropout of the game, and while the Eels went short, this was the first time that the defenders didn’t get the ball back. Traditionally, you would have expected the purple army to score here, but with Meaney dropping the footy for the first time tonight, the Eels got another shot, and you could almost feel Craig Bellamy’s rage rising in the sheds. Things weren’t great for Parra though, since Lumelume had left with Tonumaipea, and Penisini followed in his wake, after copping hard contact on the edge.

With first-choice right winger and right centre off the park, with ten minutes on the clock, and with twelve-all, the Eels had a tough job on their hands. Getting Paulo back off the bench was a boon, but even so this was feeling like an uphill battle, especially when right side took another blow when Blake appeared to be injured, and Paulo got some attention from the trainer in backplay, prompting Gutho to rub at his eye in search of a delay that didn’t actually give Moses much depth with the kick, but still paid dividends off some Wishart-Meaney confusion.

The young no. 14 was initially reaching for it, but pulled back at the last minute, only to realise that his fullback wasn’t there to collect it. Everything was peaking, the crowd was going wild, and Sivo attempted to enterprise with a kick on the first down the left edge, but booted it too hard, gifting the Storm seven tackles, of which only one eventuated, when Loeioa lost the footy on the ground under some enormous Parramatta energy. Moses looked steely as he packed the scrum, as Carty took the first hit, RCG the second, and Hopgood the third.

Moses was barking for it now, putting boot to ball on the fourth, when he seemed to have time and space to slot it through, only for NAS to sprint over like he was the wiriest player on the park, and ricochet it back towards him, before Katoa made up for all his penalties by taking it clean to give the purple army a charge back up the turf. For a moment, Munster seemed to be considering taking the field goal himself, but hesitated a millisecond too long, and so delivered the worst possible option – a limp dribble that got Parra in first gear immediately.

Hopgood laid the platform for the field goal, bringing it to the thirty metre line, only for Brown to inexplicably drive it up the left, where the play came apart, giving Melbourne what might well be their last major chance with a little under ninety seconds left on the clock. The first three runs were good, and the penalty after that was even better, so the Eels had to challenge here, sending the play upstairs in an attempt to prove that Hodgson hadn’t interfered in the ruck, but with no joy, since the footage clearly showed that the ex-Raider was at fault.

For a game that had had its fair share of dead zones, the tension was almost unbearable now, as Hughes made minimal metres with the kick, Munster shanked the field goal attempt away to the left, and the Eels got one final penalty in regulation time, as Moses booted it all the way beyond the halfway line, only for the Storm to regain possession again, shifting it from player to player until the blue and gold finally reset their faltering line, and ushered in the first extra time of the 2023 NRL season.

Moses had ten field goals to his name, Gutho one, and Munster three, so the Eels looked promising for the win here if they could only get into position in time, and defy the Melbourne defence. Parra had the first carry, and while Paulo and Doorey really fought for metres, with Doorey absorbing some enormous energy from NAS, they couldn’t get Mitch in place, forcing him to resort to a low one up the right, as Meaney once again proved himself equal to his near-clone. With Munster making fifteen after contact on the fourth, the Storm looked good.

Yet despite some good service from Grant, Meaney dragged it across to the left, while the Eels were inside Melbourne territory by tackle two, only for Moses to backtrack ten metres to clear up a wayward ball, before his halves partner lost it on the very next play. The Storm didn’t get the field goal on the next set, but they didn’t have to, since Grant capped off his visionary second half by crawling over beside the left post, for the first ever purple win at CommBank, and the first and last time that the Storm took the lead in this terrific match – a stellar start to what will surely be another top four season.

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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