Sun is nice for the beach and picnics. Rain feeds crops and greens yards. But really, what good is wind? One thing’s for sure: it does nothing for football. This season’s second match-up between last year’s grand finalists was, if not spoiled by the gale that blew for the duration, then reduced to a strangely disjointed affair at the end of which the marginally better team was grappling with back-to-back defeats.
Chasing a win that would have all but locked up a top-four place, Melbourne controlled the ball better than Manly, made twice the line breaks, four times the offloads and fewer tackles. But it was the visitors, largely on the strength of determined yet composed goal-line defence, who prevailed at one of the NRL’s most hostile venues to hop into fifth spot.
The 40km/h wind that blew from one set of goalposts to the other blunted skills and shortened tempers. But while the quality of play was mediocre, the closeness of the scores and the palpable desperation of both teams kept matters interesting until the end.
Legendary caller Rex Mossop would have called Sunday’s big blow a 14-point breeze. But neither team used it well. True, having run with the wind in the first half, the Sea Eagles went to the break leading12-4. But rare were the times they eschewed bashing it out from their own half for the smarter, less bruising option of a whopping Matt Orford punt. Indeed, they spent most of the first stanza camped in their own territory. Their first try, to David Williams, was a lucky consequence of some Glenn Stewart soccer and ricochets. It wasn’t until until the 34th minute that Orford managed a 40/20, from which the promising Keiran Foran scored in the next set.
Having played flat in attack in the first half, Melbourne took control of the match early in the second. It took them 11 minutes to run in two tries and take the lead. And with the wind at their backs, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk taking charge and Manly misfiring, the Storm looked like very good things.
But Manly put themselves back in front through a Jamie Lyon cross-field grubber that somehow Lyon himself ended up scoring from, then held off a fast-finishing Storm to claim the two points. Most likely irritated, wind-blown and unconvinced of either side’s premiership credentials, the Olympic Park throng headed directly for the exits.
The Game Swung When… Lyon’s try from his own grubber in the 63rd minute – when the Storm’s two-try contributor Joseph Tomane was beaten by a cruel bounce – put Manly back in front at a time when many would have already written them off for the afternoon.
But the match’s decisive moment occurred with less than two minutes left, when Billy Slater was suddenly in the clear with just the opposing fullback in front of him, space to burn and support looming on his outside. That fullback was Ben Farrar, who was wearing the no.1 for Manly for the first time. Both he and Slater had the chance to win the match for their teams in this moment. Perhaps feeling any pass to his support players had been blocked by a figure that looked from a distance like Steve Matai, Slater attempted to round Farrar on the inside, to burn him off as he’s done dozens of fullbacks over the years. But Farrar held his ground and his nerve, cutting down his counterpart and forcing Slater to fling a pass to no-one and surrender possession and the match.
Who Was Hot… No-one had their best game of the year, but a few stood out on an afternoon to forget. Joseph Tomane displayed the speed of a natural-born finisher in his two tries. Both fullbacks were terrific under the high ball in atrocious conditions. And no-one did the yard-eating more entertainingly nor more effectively than Manly’s Big George Rose, who made 81 metres from just seven runs.
Who Was Not… The Storm’s Brett Finch was below his best. It was his defensive misread that caused Foran’s try. And he was a little too quiet in the kind of scrap that would normally suit him, running just five times for 23 metres and making three errors.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… Back in the ’70s, when goal-kickers toe-bashed and thus had to make greater allowances for the wind, you would often see them start the ball way out to the right or left of the posts and let the wind do its thing. Cameron Smith’s 52nd-minute sideline conversion of Tomane’s second try was a sensational flashback to a forgotten technique. With team-mate Will Chambers’ finger balancing the ball on the tee, Smith launched his strike way out in front of the posts in the manner of an Aussie Rules player who’s decided the angle to goal is too acute. Then the gale got hold of it and blew it at right angles over the black dot. The kick of the year.
Bad Boys… Some frustration and clumsy tackles, but nothing serious. And no-one on report.
Refs Watch… Tony Archer and Phil Haines were among the few people on the park who didn’t appear unsettled by the wind.
NRL Best & Fairest… 3 points – Anthony Watmough (Sea Eagles): Though less dominant than he has been, still made 129 metres from 16 runs and welcomed any rough stuff; 2 points – Billy Slater (Storm): Caught and returned kicks with confidence and flair, despite the gale, making 117 metres.; 1 point – Matt Ballin (Sea Eagles): Epitomised Manly’s defensive commitment with 49 tackles.
Sea Eagles 20 (D Williams, K Foran, J Lyon tries; M Orford 4 goals) def Storm 16 (J Tomane 2, W Chambers tries; C Smith 2 goals) at Olympic Park. Crowd: 12,601.