They thought they’d done it again. Sam Walker thought he’d done it again. But this time, the fairytale didn’t have a happy ending for the Roosters.
With 90 seconds to play, Will Warbrick rose highest to clinch a late win for the Storm, grabbing an 18-13 win with a high catch that they would have been proud of over the road at the MCG.
It was crueller than cruel on the Roosters, who had fought so hard to turn a 10-0 to the Storm into 13-12 in their favour, but bow out in dramatic fashion.
Having played knockout footy for two months, Trent Robinson can be incredibly proud to depart now and in this fashion.
Melbourne now travel to Sydney to face the Panthers next week at Accor Stadium, and while they will be huge underdogs, they have proven tonight that the famous fight is still there.
“Heartbroken,” was how Robinson described his emotions. “I feel like we fought really hard to continue on. You believe that you’re going to keep going until right at the end.
“It’s a devastating way to finish, because we felt like we found our team the longer this season went.
“There’s belief in the way that we can defend for the most part and then find our tries. Those guys that have debuted this year and come through in the last year or two have given us energy.
“They’ve really stood up in critical times and that bodes well for the future, but the present ain’t pretty for us as the moment.”
Both sides were ravaged by injury: Jahrome Hughes and Xavier Coates were the headline outs for Melbourne, but they paled in comparison to a Roosters list that included four of their best back five, with Joey Manu, Joseph Suaaliii, Billy Smith and Daniel Tupou all gone.
The Storm then rejigged further, starting Harry Grant and Christian Welch from the bench and elevating Tyran Wishart to Hughes’ role at halfback and Bronson Garlick to the starting XIII.
For the opening quarter, it seemed to have worked a treat: Wishart opened the scoring and played a crucial role in the second try, though not as crucial as referee Ashley Klein, who missed a clear knock on from Grant moments before.
It was looking ominous, but this Roosters team have no quit. They edged forward, then found attacking confidence, then got their points. Brandon Smith, on return to AAMI Park, nicked one, and after the break, Lindsay Collins snuck through.
Walker then repeated his trick from last week in Cronulla, but this time, there was a coda from the Storm.
“I think we made real hard work of it,” said Craig Bellamy.
“It felt like the first 20-30 minutes we were on top, but after that we we’re chasing our tails for a fair bit of it.
“Some of our options were poor and their kicking game was much superior to ours, so that’s something we’ll have to look at for next week.
“I’m really proud of how we stuck in there. It wasn’t pretty, without a doubt, but we needed to come back with a display like that after last week (when the Storm were thrashed by Brisbane). We live to fight another day.”
Grant was the best on ground, and from the moment he came on, the Storm looked a better side.
Melbourne began with their star hooker on the bench and immediately looked a lot more impactful in attack when he came on – not least his multiple touches in the set that saw Marion Seve score, or, if we’re being fair, the knock on that Klein flat out missed in the build up.
His work out of dummy half was electric, and the Roosters never really got to grips with him. Grant did plenty stood in the line, too, assisting Wishart as an extra half.
The replacement halfback stole the show early on with a smart try and a series of good touches, but was Grant took over, was happy to take more of a backseat.
At the back, Nick Meaney was huge, coming down with dangerous kicks time and again. Walker and Luke Keary gave him a workout, but the fullback was well up to it.
In a game as tight as this one, having a key position player who makes next to no mistakes is a huge win, especially in terms of starting sets and keeping the ball in play.
When the Storm were on top, it was usually because the game didn’t stop and they won the grind. Meaney continually catching kicks, returning with interest and keeping that flow going was crucial.
On the last play of the game, as the Roosters tried the short kick off, there was only one man to come down with the ball.
Munster, normally the headline act, was fourth place again. His defence was excellent at times, notably a bell-ringer on Walker and a try saver on Radley, but in attack he underwhelmed again.
Perhaps the star five eighth focused on playing more like a halfback to accommodate Wishart’s lack of experience – certainly he did the bulk of the kicking, and largely, did it very well. His kick for Warbrick at the end showed just how good Munster can be.
But the feeling that the best weapon Melbourne have remains misfiring remains. Still, a misfiring Munster is a lot better than most people’s five eighth. Every other team left in this series would take him.
The general flow of the first half mimicked that of last week’s for the Roosters, especially with the ball. They were pretty clean in possession but utterly unthreatening, with the net results of gradually playing the game in their own half as Melbourne won the grind.
Yet when the Chooks decided to put on some attack, they did look a lot more capable of challenging.
There were a lot of moving parts that might explain this. For one, both sides are weaker out wide than they are in the middle, so playing more expansively saw the Roosters move the ball into the areas in which the Storm’s defence is weaker.
For two, the interchanges had a massive impact. When the Storm changed their middles and the Roosters brought on Terrell May, things swapped around entirely.
May was excellent, as he has been in recent weeks, and began producing second phase that enabled a more threatening Roosters attack. He won rucks, too, which encouraged the Chooks to play wider and get the footy to Corey Allen and Paul Momirovski in the centres.
In the second half, we saw the same pattern. For ten minutes, the Roosters played within themselves, then – off another May offload – kicked into gear again.
Victor Radley was close behind him, not just for his now restrained defence, but also his ball-playing. When the Roosters were best, it was when the offloads were flowing and Radley was passing close to the line.
Ultimately, however, they didn’t have the attack to get it over the line, which might have been expected in light of the backline injuries.
Their goal would have been to keep Melbourne to as low a score as possible, and did a pretty good job of it – not to mention that one of the tries, Seve’s, should never have happened.
Though they depart the finals, the Roosters end on a high note. Nobody outside their four walls expected them to be here and, in the process, they have uncovered a few traits to take forward into 2024.
May is a huge development and Radley is in career best form. Sandon Smith, who never would have got a game had Walker not been dropped, impressed again as a back-up hooker and half. Siua Wong is a superstar in waiting.
Coming into next year, with their stars back, they’ll start as one of the favourites again. Nobody would have said that on the Sunday afternoon at the start of July when they lost to Manly.