ON a night when the recent past weighed heavily on Brisbane and Melbourne, Storm halfback Cooper Cronk reached back further to the State of Origin decider with another match-winning field goal at Suncorp Stadium.
Until his 74th minute drop-goal from 25 metres out, both sides had been following their round 23 scripts as they attempted to continue revivals after drifting in the mid-season doldrums. For Brisbane, that was opening up a big early lead – as they had the last Sunday against Canterbury – and being run down. This week , the Broncos – who’ve now lost five in a row – led 12-0 after 16 minutes.
They conceded a controversial try near halftime, with Melbourne winger Sisa Waqa grounding the ball with his torso, and the Storm surged back to hit the front in the 52nd minute and maintain their hold on second spot with just two games to play in the regular season.
The Storm too, provided a facsimile of last weekend, when they trailed Gold Coast 10-0 at halftime before winning 24-16. Their comeback and claiming of the lead had an air of inevitability about it, until Brisbane back rower Ben Te’o finally bucked the trend with a converted try that tied the contest with nine left.
The first try came in the seventh minutes, with the absence of any bandaging on Justin Hodges’ knee a dangerous sign for the Storm. The Australia centre effortlessly stepped inside three defenders coming across in cover to dot down, halfback Peter Wallace converting for 6-0.
Brisbane hammered the Melbourne line, with five-eighth Ben Hunt playing some of his best first grade football as he forced a line dropout in the 15th minute after a sublime flick pass from Hodges.
From the restart, Storm defender Gareth Widdop rushed up on Brisbane lock Teo who easily brushed him aside to run 10 metres to the tryline. Once more, Wallace goaled and the Broncos moved further ahead.
When Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough kicked out on the full, there was a brief interruption to the Broncos’ momentum. Melbourne didn’t make them pay immediately – but it happened eventually.
Ryan Hoffman – injured early – was denied a try on an obvious call from video referee Paul Simpkins in the 24th minute. The next time Simpkins would be called upon, it wasn’t so obvious.
First, Corey Norman’s flick pass almost handed Justin Hodges a try, with Melbourne marshalling some heroic defence to hold him out.
Then, in the final minute of the half, Storm winger Sisa Waqa crossed in the corner. As he grounded the ball, Waqa lost control of it. But the Steeden was still grounded by his torso and Simpkins ruled a touchdown on a benefit of the doubt.
Under previous rules, requiring control and downward pressure, it was not a try. But if contact is the only criteria, it was. The call divided fans at Suncorp.
Three minutes into the second session, Melbourne fullback Billy Slater sent centre Will Chambers roaring down the western touchline. Desperate Jack Reed ankle-tapped Chambers but on the next tackle, Cooper Cronk’s grubber kick hit the right upright and rebounded back into his arms for a try.
There was a group groan from the 41,467 crowd as Broncos winger Josh Hoffman fumbled a Cronk kick nine minutes later and Waqa dotted down for his second try – and the second approved by Simpkins.
It was during this tense period that a couple of unpleasant incidents occurred. Hodges seemed to call Justin O’Neill a “dog” as he lay on the ground, apparently in the hope of a penalty for a high tackle.
And Storm prop Bryan Norrie was placed on report for raising his forearm in the face of Sam Thaiday at 70 minutes. From that territorial leg-up, Te’o muscled his way over 60 seconds later and Wallace goaled to tie up the scores once more.
But Cronk had the composure – and the comparatively long memory – to save the day.
MELBOURNE 19 (S Waqa 2 C Cronk tries C Smith 3 goals Cronk field goal) BRISBANE 18 (B Te’o 2 J Hodges tries P Wallace 3 goals) at Suncorp Stadium. Referees: M Cecchin/ C James. Crowd:41,467.
Filed for: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD