A pair of three-try spurts engineered by their quicker players propelled the Melbourne Storm into another NRL preliminary final, beating the Parramatta Eels 36-24 in the teams’ qualifying final at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
Fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen scored two tries as the catalyst in the win for Melbourne, who ran out their three-try salvos within respective 13-minute intervals in breaking open a close match – and thereby earning a week’s rest before being set to play in its 14th preliminary final in its 22-year NRL history.
While the Storm have earned the week off before playing another match at Suncorp Stadium, Parramatta will play the winner of the Sunday elimination final between South Sydney and Newcastle, in a semi-final to be played next Saturday night at the Sydney Cricket Ground.
As the Storm enjoyed a substantial edge in possession and translated that into a 10-3 edge in line breaks and a 36-17 advantage in tackle breaks, Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy praised his team’s abilities in converting chances.
“It was great to get the result, the way we got it was a credit to the strength of our game,” Bellamy said.
“Parramatta was a great defensive team throughout the year, so to finish off the chances the way we did was a tremendous feat for us.
“With all due respect, we created a number of opportunities, and we could have scored a lot more. But we finished off our chances better in the second half, and that was the difference,” added Bellamy.
After falling behind 12-0 early, the likes of wingers Josh Addo-Carr and Sinulasi Vinuvalu and other speed demons such as Justin Olam turned the match on its ear – but Bellamy felt that Papenhuyzen’s efforts as a try-scorer and playmaker alike was something which the Eels could not contain.
“Papenhuyzen was our best player, by a mile. He was at the centre of everything, and so influential in everything we did,” Bellamy said.
The Eels got off to a dream start when Nathan Brown pinned the ball down in the opening minute, when Jahrome Hughes failed to deal with Mitchell Moses’ looping fifth-tackle kick that caromed off the padding of the goalpost from Hughes’ half-hearted touch – and with Moses’ conversion, Parramatta were off to a 6-0 flyer.
Parramatta doubled their lead with 18 minutes to go before the break – after multiple Melbourne close calls which were lacking the final touches – on a full-flowing enterprise that saw captain Clint Gutherson start and finish the four-man counter-attacking move. After Michael Jennings and Blake Ferguson exposed the open gaps on the Storm’s righthand side, Gutherson applied the final few metres afoot before touching down in the corner.
With the Eels down one winger with Maika Sivo off early with a knee injury, the Storm had tried to run at Jennings as Sivo’s replacement but without much success. However, the Storm finally pegged a try back with just over ten minutes to go before intermission, going with quick, looping passes from one side to the other with Vinuvalu finishing off the move to touch the ball over the line on the right unabated.
Two minutes later, with the Storm in full flow with the likes of Vinuvalu, Addo-Carr, and Olam using their speed and power to break down the Eels’ resistance, Papenhuyzen levelled matters on another breakaway move after Kenny Bromwich was the beneficiary of the speedsters’ incisive work.
And as the Storm were looking unlucky to be run off the park in the opening stages of the first half, they made a few on-field adjustments to play to their strengths of letting the speedy wingers do the work for justified rewards by Vinuvalu and Papenhuyzen for the remainder of the half.
And in an entertaining first half by both teams, the 12-12 score line turned out to be a fair indication on how even both teams matched up.
The theme of the Storm’s team speed taking over the match continued as the second half started, as Melbourne scored their third try within a 13-minute span either side of halftime to take a 18-12 lead. A clever Kenny Bromwich spin move out of a tackle saw him free up Papenhuyzen into open space, and Papenhuyzen then found Addo-Carr in an even bigger gap of open space to score easily.
However, the Eels levelled seven minutes later, when Ferguson tapped down in the righthand corner from Moses’ clever dribbling kick out of a scrum – this was a signal that their challenge would not waver very easily.
But the Storm would not only match the Eels for resiliency, they would exceed it, as their tough running would not be stopped. Jesse Bromwich and Branko Lee scored back-to-back tries in a matter of minutes to break the deadlock, for a 30-18 lead, each benefitting from a quick quality of ball movement with the playmaking of Cam Smith and Papenhuyzen influential in each scoring play which Parramatta could not stop.
And then with 18 minutes to play, Papenhuyzen’s acceleration earned him his second try on the night to extend the lead to 36-18 – a lead gained with three tries in another 13-minute spell that gave the Storm that look of invincibility. Cameron Munster picked up a loose ball from a pack, broke free into open space and unselfishly fed Papenhuyzen for the final metres.
After the Eels inexplicably were given the ball back from a controversial Kenny Bromwich offside call, Shaun Lane gave Parramatta a glimmer of hope to make it over the try line and cut the arrears back to 36-24 with 12 minutes to play.
But despite a couple of efforts to attack at the Storm’s defending to apply scoreboard pressure, Melbourne remained equal to the task to put the clamps on the Eels and earn a preliminary final place in the process.
And the week off – in what Bellamy said has been “a strange year” – may do Munster especially a bit of good after aggravating an MCL injury which caused him to miss a few games earlier in the season.
Bellamy was quick to downplay Munster’s prognosis, remaining hopeful that the star five-eighth will play in the preliminary final.
“It could be a little tweak, it cannot be any worse than it was earlier in the season. We’ll know better later this week, but we don’t think it’s that serious,” said Bellamy.