Round 10: Melbourne Storm v. North Queensland Cowboys (Suncorp Stadium, 14/05/16)

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Saturday’s showdown between Melbourne and North Queensland at Suncorp Stadium was one of the bona fide thrillers of the 2016 season, as well as a critical turning-point for the Storm. Up until this point, it’s felt hard to truly rely on Melbourne to bring home a spot in the finals berth, while Cameron Smith’s form has been distressingly inconsistent in the wake of Billy Slater’s departure in Week 2. Nevertheless, Melbourne – and Smith – managed to beat the odds and dominate last year’s premiers in front of a sold-out Suncorp.

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The victory was all the more dramatic in that this was technically a home game for the Storm, who were hosting the Cowboys as part of a Suncorp double-header. Even if the Broncos hadn’t been playing shortly after it would have felt as if we were squarely in Cows territory, but the fact that both of last year’s finalists were playing back-to-back made it seem as if Melbourne might be shut out from the very beginning. Sure, Suncorp also has an Origin connection that makes it a natural home ground for several of the Maroons, but it nevertheless felt as if Melbourne and Manly might simply be there to texture the spectacle of seeing the two reigning finalists play back to back at the same venue.

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As a result, the game felt like a struggle for Suncorp itself, with the Storm trying again and again to claim it as their home ground for the duration of the match, just as Smith brought all his Origin intensity and dexterity to bear upon showing the Broncos that he was even more comfortable in the heart of Brisbane than they were. The result was the closest match this season – the kind of night where every single try and conversion feels like a turning point. Both teams scored two tries, two conversions and a penalty goal, with only Cameron Smith’s field goal in the dying minutes tipping the balance in Melbourne’s favour.

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Over the last couple of months, there’s been so much drama around field goals that it was great to see a player simply doing it right. On the one hand, the growing discomfort with golden point has tended to revolve around the viability of using field goals to win games, with the two best examples of golden point victories this season depending on tries (Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Euan Aitken). At the same time, this season has seemed to be plagued by failed field goal attempts during golden point, most pathetically in the Tigers’ loss to the Storm at Leichhardt Oval – and I say that as a Tigers supporter – but perhaps most dramatically during the golden point stalemate between the Raiders and the Knights at Hunter Stadium, with both teams trying and failing to bring home a one-pointer to break the unbearable suspense.

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On top of that, one of the Bunnies’ most comic moments this season has been Greg Inglis’ field goal brain snap against the Dragons in Round 3, a Terry Lamb flashback that’s likely to hit the news cycle again as South Sydney prepare to take on St. George-Illawarra for a second go on Thursday night. In a season that has been so characterised by thwarted or frustrated field goal dramas, then, Smith’s kick was a reminder why the one-pointer is still an important part of the game. Over the course of his career, Smith has been nothing if not judicious and this was only the second field goal he has ever attempted, a wobbly yet determined kick that occurred at just the right moment to demotivate the Cowboys and shock Suncorp into realising that they had temporarily become a Storm venue.

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Along with the Sharks’ incredible win over the Knights the following day, it suddenly seemed like a real possibility that the premiership might be won by a team south of the border this year. Still, it was never a sure thing for the Storm. While they might have made a valiant show in the opening twenty-five minutes with tries from Tohu Harris (24) and Kevin Proctor (27), they didn’t score another point until Smith’s penalty four minutes after half-time, while the Cows managed tries from Gavin Cooper and Michael Morgan at the 4th and 54th minutes, and a Thurston penalty at the 20th.

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In other words, Smith scored every point for the Storm after the twenty-seventh mark, or the final five points of the game, depending on how you look at it, converting Proctor’s try only to contribute his own penalty and field goal in the second half. For the first time since Slater left, Smith felt back on track, while it was the young guns who were a bit diminished by comparison. While Sulisali Vunivalu has had some amazing appearances this year Saturday wasn’t one of them, as he gifted a Thurston bomb to Gavin Cooper in the first five minutes, allowing the Cows to bring in their first four-pointer of the evening. With Jason Tamaulolo managing to prevent both Vunivalu and Cameron Munster from scoring, it suddenly felt as if Melbourne’s young guns had more to learn from Smith than might have seemed over the last couple of weeks, reinstating the balance between veterans and young guns that has seemed so sorely lacking in the Storm of late.

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On the other side of the ball, the Cowboys were just that little bit less seamless than usual. While consistency is always the name of the game in North Queensland, they didn’t quite hold it together over the course of this particular game, despite rivalling the Storm’s opening pair of tries with an impressive 70% of possession over the first twenty minutes or so. After a penalty goal at the 20th minute they were leading 8-0, and yet it never felt like a done deal for the Cows, who seem to be slightly unsettled after the recent media discussions of James Tamou’s departure for New South Wales. Part of what has made the Cowboys Grand Final team so amazing is that they have continued to play as the same team for much longer than is normal, so it is only natural that the loss of one of their toughest players – or even the prospective loss – would destabilise them a little in this way.

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In the second half, the North Queensland sets were especially disorganised, which made me wonder whether the pressure of producing a field goal was bringing back memories of the Grand Final for Thurston, since this is the first time this year that he’s really had to bring a one-pointer home to seal the deal. At the same time, the Cows must have been frazzled by their performance towards the close of the first half, with even Lachlan Coote – usually one of the most reliable players on the field – making the error that led to Proctor’s try in the 27th minute and the Storm’s a 12-8 lead. Still, Morgan reminded us why he’s one of the best finishers in the game, putting down what turned out to be the coda to the Cowboys’ effort thanks to a brilliant dummy-half move from Jake Granville.

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With the Storm now sitting at number three on the ladder – above the Cowboys – this week’s match against the Eels is going to be critical in building momentum and capitalising on Saturday’s showdown at Suncorp. While I’d normally say the Storm have it – especially after Parra’s loss to the Bunnies last week – I wouldn’t rule out a gutsy effort from the Eels, since they’re now playing with one of the best cards in the deck: utter desperation. For North Queensland, it is going to be important to use the match with the Broncos to save face, especially since Brisbane smashed the Sea Eagles as the Cowboys might have hoped to smash the Storm. Losing to the Broncos at 1300SMILES is just not an option, at least not at this point in the season, and it’s going to be great to see Townsville rally around Thurston to make up for last weekend’s thriller in Brisbane.

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