Storm clinch another thriller over Manly
Who would have thought Melbourne v Manly would provide yet another gripping, heart stopping, hard-fought thriller?
One thing is certain in 2014: this Melbourne team loves to do it the hard way.
Trailing by nine points with as many minutes left on the clock, the Storm showed their trademark fight to score twice in the game's dying stages to record a 22-19 win over arch rivals Manly – possibly salvage the team's season in the process.
The winning try came from Kurt Mann – the 21-year-old centre on debut as a late replacement for Mahe Fonua – who latched onto a zipping Cooper Cronk cross-field kick to break through the Sea Eagles defence and score the winner just four minutes from time.
Billy Slater led the home side and continued his return to form with 181 run metres and two tries, to make it 14 tries against the Sea Eagles in 21 matches.
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It was a typically hard-fought battle between two bitter rivals with the opening staging akin to two heavyweight prizefighters exchanging early round jabs.
First blood should have been drawn by the Sea Eagles in the seventh minute after back-to-back Storm penalties gifted Steve Matai a 35-metre penalty kick on the slightest of angles.
Matai had been given the kicking duties in place of injured skipper Jamie Lyon and perhaps he felt the pressure, spraying the kick horribly to draw rapturous laughter from the home support.
Referee Shayne Hayne had the ire of those very supporters early in the first half with four penalties in the first 15 minutes going against the men in purple.
In truth it was a scrappy opening 20 minutes all round as the Sea Eagles committed four errors of their own.
The deadlock was broken on 25 minutes, and could it have come from any other source than the boot of Daly Cherry-Evans? Melbourne winger Young Tonumaipea failed to collect a Cherry-Evans chip kick and fortuitous bounce allowed Pita Hiku to out-reach Billy Slater for the game's opening try.
However the visitors would surrender their lead just seven minutes from the break.
A botched attempt at a 40-20 kick and back-to-back penalties handed Melbourne a set of six just metres from the Sea Eagles' line.
The hosts only needed one possession to make Manly pay as Ryan Hoffman broke the Sea Eagles line and offloaded to Slater for the home side's first.
A mistake in the play-the-ball from Storm winger Sisa Waqa handed Manly possession just 20 metres out from the line with a minute remaining in the first half, and Sea Eagles five-eighth Jack Littlejohn grabbed the opportunity to slot a drop goal to hand his side a 5-4 advantage as both teams headed for the sheds.
Melbourne needed a spark and Billy the Kid stepped up again to provide it after just four minutes of the restart.
Young five-eighth Ben Hampton cleverly switched play to centre field from the left and some fancy footwork saw Slater break the Manly line for the third time in the match to give the Storm a 10-5 lead.
Slater couldn't get away from the action but was in the spotlight for the wrong reasons just two minutes later when a stray left forearm collected Manly winger David Williams, forcing him to leave the field with referee Shane Hayne placing Slater on report for the incident.
To rub salt into the wound, his opposing number Brett Stewart hit the scoreboard on 48 minutes.
Stewart caught the Storm defence napping just metres from the line with a quick play from dummy half for his second try of the season.
Littlejohn's conversion attempt missed by some distance and Melbourne clung to a one-point lead.
They would lose it though on 55 minutes thanks to some Jorge Taufua brilliance.
With the Sea Eagles spreading the ball to the left, Tofua warded off a Waqa tackle and grounded the ball with a part summersault in mid-air.
Matai found his kicking boot for the first time in the night to slot the conversion from the sideline and all of a sudden it was Manly who held a five-point lead.
The sense of unease that was surrounding AAMI Park would turn to stunned silence just four minutes later.
Waqa fumbled a high ball, handing the Sea Eagles possession just 15 metres from the line.
Manly lock Jamie Buhrer would prove the unlikely avenue to score, strolling through the Storm line to extend the lead out to nine and send the vocal travelling supporters into hysteria.
It was 20 minutes from hell for Melbourne that got even worse when Ben Hampton was also placed on report for a lifting tackle in the 64th minute.
Trailing by nine points, the Storm needed some assistance from a higher power and they got it nine minutes from time.
Cooper Cronk played a grubber kick from dummy half on the try line, the ball cannoned into the legs of the Sea Eagles defence and back into the path of Cronk who collected for a fortuitous and much-needed try.
And of course the creative halfback would have a hand in the winner with a cross-field kick to Mann with four minutes left on the clock to snatch victory.
The Storm will go on a tough trip to face South Sydney next Friday night while the Sea Eagles will host the Knights in Monday night football.