Melbourne has dealt South Sydney’s NRL top-four prospects a telling blow with a gritty 22-16 comeback victory in a torrid encounter at the Olympic stadium in Homebush.
- The Storm sit three points behind ladder leader Penrith in second place courtesy of the win over the Rabbitohs
- The loss ended the Rabbitohs’ five-match winning streak
- The Sharks were forced to play with 12 men after Chad Townsend was sent off during the second half of their 38-10 loss to the Knights
Earlier on Friday night, Kalyn Ponga scored a hat-trick of tries in Newcastle’s 38-10 win over Cronulla, who had Chad Townsend sent off in what may prove to be a costly defeat.
In Homebush, the Storm bagged the only two tries of the second half in driving rain to snap South Sydney’s five-match winning streak in typically clinical fashion after the Rabbitohs had led 14-10 at the break.
Five players required head injury assessments (HIA) as two of the competition heavyweights clashed for the full 80 minutes.
But, as is so often the case, it was the Storm’s trump cards who came to the fore, with Cameron Smith combining with Ryan Papenhuyzen to set up the match-winning late try for playmaker Cameron Munster.
The bruising win kept Melbourne in the fight for another minor premiership, although Penrith remain frontrunners, sitting three points clear of the Storm with three regular rounds remaining.
There were concerns for the Storm, though, with prop Christian Welch placed on report for a crusher tackle on Souths forward Liam Knight.
Fellow representative forward Felise Kaufusi is also likely to come under scrutiny from the match review committee for a suspect first-half behind-the-play bump that left Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds needing a HIA.
With rumours that skipper Smith is set to call time on his decorated career, it was the champion hooker’s Test successor Damien Cook who made the first early statement, exploding out of dummy half and slicing straight through the Storm defence.
But despite the Rabbitohs dominating possession and territory, Melbourne came perilously close to scoring first, with winger Isaac Lumelume denied by the bunker after Storm centre Brenko Lee was deemed to have knocked on in the lead-up.
The let-off proved costly for Melbourne, with Lumelume making a meal of a grubber kick from Rabbitohs five-eighth Cody Walker into the in-goal two minutes later, allowing Campbell Graham to pounce.
Reynolds’ conversion, adding to his fifth-minute penalty goal, gave the Rabbitohs an 8-0 lead.
The Storm wasted little time cutting the deficit to two points, with Josh Addo-Carr burning Steven Marsters on the outside to put Papenhuyzen over in the 27th minute. Smith added the extras from the sideline.
Some direct running from Walker restored the Rabbitohs’ eight-point buffer three minutes before half-time, only for Papenhuyzen’s lightning speed to leave Marsters wanting again and setting up Justin Olam for the Storm’s second try in the shadows of the break.
The Olam try kept the Storm within striking distance and that proved enough for Craig Bellamy’s second-placed outfit to collect another all-important two competition points.
Knights score spiteful win
Three weeks out from the NRL finals, Cronulla’s season is in danger of imploding, with Townsend marched from the field for a horror shot on Ponga in Newcastle.
Townsend launched his shoulder at the Knights fullback, who was taking a tap midway through the second half.
The wild hit sparked a melee and forced the Sharks to play a man down when they were trailing by 18 points at the time..
Adding further insult, Friday night’s loss could also cost the eighth-placed Sharks their captain Wade Graham, Toby Rudolf and Braden Hamlin Uele.
All three were placed on report for two separate lifting tackles.
Graham and Rudolf were lucky to stay on the field when they upended Knights half Mason Lino midway through the first half.
The loss to the sixth-placed Knights was another blight on the Sharks’ record in 2020 as they are yet to beat a current top-eight team.
Increasing the urgency is the fact the Warriors are snapping at their heels just four points adrift with a match in hand, making the Sharks’ spot in the top eight up for grabs with three rounds of the regular season to play.
The Warriors can get within two points of Cronulla if they beat Parramatta on Sunday before they face the Sharks next weekend.
Missing star halfback Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan against the Knights, the Sharks lacked direction but a litany of errors spoiled their chances when they found possession.
Fullback Will Kennedy struggled with three errors for the night, including a knock-on that led to a try for Starford To’a 17 minutes into the contest.
It was the second try of the evening for the 20-year-old winger, while Ponga crossed for two of his three tries during the first half.
Ponga was electric in attack, slipping through soft defence for his first NRL hat-trick. Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Josh King also scored tries for the Knights.
Save for tries to Ronaldo Mulitalo and Connor Tracey, the Sharks were undisciplined and disorganised.
It was a huge bounce back for the Knights after last week’s 30-point loss to the Warriors and the win all but cements their place in the finals.