NRL 2021 finals week one: Melbourne Storm demolish Manly Sea Eagles – as it happened

By Jonathan Howcroft
Christian Welch of the Storm celebrates after scoring a try during the NRL qualifying final against Manly at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Christian Welch of the Storm celebrates after scoring a try during the NRL qualifying final against Manly at Sunshine Coast Stadium. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images


For all the hype around the Sea Eagles, and Tom Trbojevic in particular, tonight’s semi-final was never a contest. Melbourne scored early and often and killed the game after 15 minutes.

The Storm were never required to leave second gear, but they still crossed for six tries, found a 40-20, and a two-point drop goal. It was clinical and ruthless from start to finish with the pack dominating, ball-players in control, and finishers ready when it mattered. Ryan Papenhuyzen ended the night with 24 points, the most ever from a Storm player in a final. He is unquestionably back.

Melbourne’s respect of the ball - and the rules - was in contrast to Manly’s disregard for both. Far too often possession was gifted to opponents who need no second invitation to accept such presents. Trbojevic was the focus of the running game, perhaps too much, and Melbourne lined him up well - Hughes in particular - closing down space, denying him any opportunities to gather momentum. Daly Cherry-Evans was game, but he was left with far too much to accomplish on his own.

Craig Bellamy has once again guided his side to a preliminary final, and they will be hot favourites whoever they face in that one. His list is already in good order, Cameron Munster got through 80 minutes unscathed, Josh Addo-Carr should be back for the prelim, and the only concern from tonight - a failed HIA for Brandon Smith - did not look the kind that would rule him out for an extended period.

I’m back tomorrow evening to see how the other semi-final shakes down between the Panthers and Bunnies. Feel free to stop by and join me for that.

Melbourne Storm
Melbourne Storm enjoy being good at rugby league. Photograph: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

Full-time: Melbourne 40-12 Manly

Papenhuyzen ends the game with a two-point field goal from outside 40m. Taking the p155.

That was a clinic. Manly with all the form and the flying Turbo Tom Trbojevic no match for such a well drilled Melbourne Storm. The minor premiers continue their relentless march.

TRY! Melbourne 38-12 Manly (Olam, 77)

Icing on the cake. Grant, in control of the move, finds Asofa-Solomona on the burst 10m out. The giant forward wrestles his arms free and Olam is on hand for the offload and easy finish.

Papenhuyzen pads his stats even further with a handy conversion.


76 mins: On TV, Billy Slater is explaining (not very clearly) his status as a potential coach of Queensland. Reading between the lines, he’s been approached in some capacity, but he has too many other commitments to take the job full-time immediately, but he’s tempted to make it work. Cam Smith and Johnathan Thurston both name-checked. That’s a story with a lot more legs.

Meanwhile, Munster drills a 40-20.

75 mins: Manly have a scrum 20m out from Melbourne’s line. They get no luck on the right edge, Walker earns metres through the middle, the right edge is blunt again - here’s Trbojevic on the burst! And Melbourne wrap him up in sight of the line.

74 mins: A rare linebreak from Manly, down the left, it wasn’t Trbojevic, but not for the first time it was Turbo drawing attention to create space on his outside. Welch was heroic chasing back in defence - he’s been superb, as per usual.

73 mins: From halfway Melbourne invite both Bromwich’s to add to their stats, then Welch. Munster almost wriggles free but he accepts contact. 5m out, on the last, Grant fires a bullet to the left wing, but the defence is up smartly and Manly force the turnover.

71 mins: The second little spotfire of the night following a series of loose plays in broken field. The result is a Melbourne penalty.

70 mins: No cheap penalties from Melbourne, no missed tackles, Manly again take a full set to reach halfway.

68 mins: Melbourne going through hands left to tight then right to left, eating up the clock, gaining yards at will. Hughes accepts contact to turn the ball over on the last 5m from Manly’s line. This is superb game management.

67 mins: Manly take five tackles to reach halfway then kick harmlessly. This one is over.

65 mins: DCE goes short with the drop-out but Lumelume leaps high to claim a strong mark. Melbourne then resume their siege. Kaufusi is held up 1m short. The ball goes from right wing to left before Lumelume accepts contact. The flow back to the right looks dangerous but Papenhuyzen leaves the Steeden behind and the Sea Eagles finally get a turn.

64 mins: Storm get a full set in Manly’s half. Papenhuyzen runs gracefully, Jennings straightens up, Grant tries to burrow to the line from point-blank range, Munster dummies endlessly, and Saab is forced to concede a drop-out.

63 mins: Yet another penalty at the play-the-ball against Manly and Melbourne are allowed to waltz out of defence yet again. This has been a shocking match for unforced errors from the Sea Eagles, a proper coach killer of a night.

Penalty! Melbourne 32-12 Manly (Papnhuyzen, 61)

Melbourne move more than three converted tries clear.

60 mins: Melbourne expand down the right, Jennings and Reimis Smith combine well, then Munster straightens up to take Storm over the 10m line. Grant, at dummy-half, fires a bullet to Hughes, and it’s all too quick for Manly who are lured into another high-tackle, Trbojevic this time. Papenhuyzen has an easy two-pointer.

58 mins: Manly gain yards quickly through DCE and a couple of offloads on the right edge. The ball then moves quickly to the left with Trbojevic. Melbourne don’t know whether to stick or twist and Turbo holds his line until there’s space outside him, but the pass is hot and Storm can rush Garrick into touch. Soon after Melbourne resume the grind they’re awarded a penalty for a ruck infringement.

Nicho Hynes comes off the bench.

56 mins: Melbourne attack 30m out. Welch, Finucane, then the game’s stopped for Walker to leave the field for an HIA. Jesse Bromwich, Welch, Grant all have a dart... then Munster kicks horribly long and gifts the turnover.

55 mins: Lumelume is having a rough few minutes. Manly gain no distance from their restart drive but DCE’s bomb makes the Melbourne winger look foolish - but he just about clings on and avoids the knock-on. Storm put their noses to the grindstone, and on the last tackle earn a penalty for Hughes being tipped in the tackle. That sparks a bit of a spot-fire - nothing like the Battle of Brookvale - but Schuster’s put on report nonetheless. Hughes should be ok.

TRY! Melbourne 30-12 Manly (Saab, 52)

Melbourne attack with purpose and Kaufusi almost breaks through and offloads. The grubber to the corner is then dangerous but overhit.

Manly are desperate, form the restart on 20m Garrick punts the ball miles downfield. What is he doing!? Oh my. Chasing the ball back towards his line, Lumelume either panics and loses his footing, or just slips over, and the gazelle-like Saab is on in a flash to pick up the pieces and cross for the softest try you could ever imagine. An 80m play in one kick-chase! Could that open the door for the Sea Eagles?

Garrick dabs over the extras.


50 mins: This time the Storm opt for the short contested drop-out, and it comes off Schuster’s hands into touch. Melbourne nailing everything right now.

48 mins: Hughes makes a mess of the restart and Melbourne are forced to drop-out and invite Manly to attack. Storm’s defensive line is fast and committed, up to snuff out any space for any runners. It’s all on DCE to come up with magic, and he does his best on the last tackle to kick to the left corner and force another drop-out.

TRY! Melbourne 30-6 Manly (Papenhuyzen, 45)

DCE kicks on three and it’s a beauty, deep to Melbourne’s right corner. Coincidentally, Andrew Johns on TV was imploring for exactly that strategy.


Melbourne score.

For four tackles the Storm are penned in deep in their own half. The ball goes left and Olam is too strong for Harper and forces a mini-break. Grant turns that into something much more exciting. Then Papenhuyzen takes over, and boy does he. The No 1 is back in form with a bang, swaying and feinting one way to the other with rubber legs, wrong-footing two Manly defenders and flopping under the posts. Magnificent. Just magnificent.

For the second time in five minutes, either side of half-time, Papenhuyzen converts his own try.


44 mins: Melbourne go back to the grind and kick, Munster dabbing the ball into touch 15m from Manly’s line.

42 mins: Solid opening set from Melbourne, and after they kick they scrag Trbojevic and ragdoll him into touch! But the Storm are penalised for taking the man after the tackle.Not sure Melbourne will be overly fussed with the penalty considering the show of force. Especially as almost immediately afterwards DCE tries a billionaire’s flick on a minimum wage.

41 mins: The second half is underway...

Can Manly pull off a comeback? They will have to post the highest score of any side against the Storm this season. Melbourne have only conceded 20+ three times. Two of those (20) in victories, and one (22) in their recent defeat to the Eels.

Over in the AFL, the minor premiers are also bossing their final...

Melbourne only failed to complete one of 19 sets. They committed only one handling error, conceded no linebreaks, and gave away just three penalties. Professional rugby league in a nutshell.

Clinical, efficient, ruthless, brilliant, the Storm are many things, and in that first half they barely put a foot wrong against the hottest team in rugby league. Manly, by contrast, could not stand up for falling down, and were as much to blame for their half-time deficit as their opponents. It’s a long way back from here for Des Hasler’s men.

A reminder that Brandon Smith is out of the game after failing an HIA.

Half-time: Melbourne 24-6 Manly

Papenhuyzen converts his own try, Melbourne’s fourth, and the minor premiers are utterly dominant at half-time.

TRY! Melbourne 22-6 Manly (Papenhuyzen, 39)

Hughes guides a drive to the left edge until Melbourne reach Manly’s 10m line. The Storm do little with a couple of tackles, then on the last Munster draws attention to the right, everyone waits for the kick, then he floats a beautiful pass to the dashing Papenhuyzen who hits top gear in about three strides and cuts through a wonky defensive line. Too easy.


38 mins: Papenhuyzen spills the drop-out in a contested marking contest and Manly gain unexpected ball. DCE tries to exploit the turnover by spreading the play early to the right, but Harper drops a soda and, not for the first time tonight, let Storm off the hook.

37 mins: Asofa-Solomona is on and into the action immediately. He wrecks some bodies, then Finucane throws his weight around, and from the broken field Grant dabs through a grubber to the left corner that Trobjevic is forced to scramble for a drop-out.

35 mins: A little more intensity in Manly’s defence now, forcing Munster to kick form his 30m line. Annnnnnd Trbojevic makes a mess of the play-the-ball, and the Storm are gifted possession on the halfway line. The Sea Eagles have been their own worst enemies tonight.

33 mins: Brandon Smith has failed his HIA and is out of the game. However, there does not appear to be a facial fracture.

TRY! Melbourne 18-6 Manly (Saab, 31)

Manly try the right edge, then the left, and they end up being forced to kick on the last... and it works! DCE goes high to the right where the tall, high-jumping Saab outleaps both Olam and Lumelume to gather and touch down. Very impressive from the young winger and a clear indication of his advantage over his opposing defenders.

Garrick curls over a beautiful conversion from the right touchline. Manly are finally in the game.


30 mins: Manly try the head down bum up approach for two tackles, drawing Melbourne into the middle, then the ball is flicked back to DCE who unleashes a fast, brilliant pass wide to his right for Harper to score! But it’s called back for a forward pass! I never saw one. There’s no decent replay to check either.

Regardless, Manly retain possession for an earlier infringement, and soon earn another penalty under the posts. Can they convert this pressure?

28 mins: Good tackle from Munster, reading Harper’s cutback after good work from DCE. The latter continues to try to inspire his charges through, dancing around as first receiver, then kicking high to Jennings and enjoying a penalty as the result of a Hughes escort. Nothing much in it, but Manly finally have an attacking platform.

26 mins: Another high tackle from Manly, totally unnecessary from Olakau’atu, gifting Melbourne territory and possession four tackles into their restart set. Munster gets to work, Finucane is involved, Papenhuyzen has a look. Storm sniffing from all angles. They run and run and run, even on the last, but then Kaufusi is wrapped up, unable to unlock the space on the right. A rare win for the Sea Eagles.

Penalty! Melbourne 18-0 Manly (Papenhuyzen, 24)

Melbourne attack beautifully from their own 20m to Manly’s equivalent with risk-free crisp football. On the last tackle Jake Trbojevic is knackered and chooses not to release Hughes at the ruck and Storm are gifted a penalty under the posts.

Craig Bellamy is handing out a finals lesson right now.

22 mins: Manly have offered absolutely nothing going forward yet, but what little they have has featured Trbojevic. His half-break down the left sets up some momentum, Walker has space on the right, but then on the last the kick is poor and marked in-goal by Papenhuyzen for Melbourne to reload at their leisure.

20 mins: What at first glance appeared quite innocuous, could be quite nasty for Smith. His eye socket has swollen quickly. Storm are continuing on their merry way without him, tackling hard, controlling possession without risk, and kicking smartly.

19 mins: Brandon Smith is groggy at the play-the-ball following an accidental clash of heads. He has to leave the field for an HIA. Manly now have the small matter of Harry Grant to contend with.

17 mins: Melbourne’s only mistake in the opening 17 minutes has been a missed conversion. They are a mean machine. Actually, make that two mistakes with Reimis Smith coming in late to the completed tackle on Trbojevic to concede a six-again - but it was on the first anyway following a kick reception.

TRY! Melbourne 16-0 Manly (Welch, 15)

Smith is all over this set, chipping away on Manly’s 10m line. He almost breaks, so does Jesse Bromwich, and then on tackle five Christian Welch glides through like a massive runaway bobsleigh to make it three tries in no time. This is bloody awesome, and the Storm still don’t look like they have the bit between their teeth.

Papenhuyzen atones for his recent miss with a simple stab over the black dot.


13 mins: Remember Des Hasler’s magic words: possession and discipline? Not going so well early on. And that’s made worse with Munster nailing a 1-1 strip on Manly’s 20m line. Then soon afterwards, after the No 6 is penalised for a knock-on he immediately issues a Captain’s Challenge that is upheld for Olakau’atu pushing Munster’s head at the ruck. Melbourne decline the two points.

11 mins: From a similar position to his first effort, Papenhuyzen fades his conversion attempt wide.

TRY! Melbourne 10-0 Manly (K Bromwich, 10)

A high shot on Hughes releases the pressure on Melbourne coming out of their own half. Olam then turns midfield possession into decent attacking territory down the left. Munster then takes over, marshalling a series of short bursts through the middle until the last tackle. Munster again elects to run, and he finds Kenny Bromwich on his left shoulder with a gap to burst into - and the 30-year-old is over! It isn’t given on-field for fear of a double-movement. What does the TMO think? TRY! Melbourne Storm absolutely flying and they’re not out of second gear yet.


8 mins: Solid ball control, muscular defence, and both sides happy just to work their way into this final with disciplined football either side of halfway. Trbojevic still carrying that air of menace, especially from first receiver, but Melbourne have yet to allow him room to lengthen his stride.

6 mins: Back to the early minutes completed sets. Both sides have begun solidly, and the chance was definitely there for Manly to attack, but it goes to show the margins for error against this Storm outfit.

TRY! Melbourne 6-0 Manly (Lumelume, 3)

Manly gain good ground on their set. On tackle four there’s a line break in the middle and the attack opens on the right wing. But with half a chance to break there’s a poor pass, a spilt ball, and Smith is on it in a flash to pick up the pieces, dash behind the line and feed his flying winger on his inside. Gift for Melbourne.

Papenhuyzen drills a superb conversion from near the left touchline.


2 mins: It’s a dangerous kick-off from Papenhuyzen and Manly require two tackles to pass their 10m line. Trbojevic has an early carry and he drags Hughes about 10m after contact. That allows decent field kicking position, and an awkward bounce almost does for Papenhuyzen at fullback, but he does well to avoid the knock-on.


The 2021 NRL Finals series is underway!

And here come the Storm, charging out behind Dale Finucane. They’re top to toe in that rich indigo purple.

Out come Manly, led by DCE. Their jerseys are predominately white, tipped with pinot noir sleeves, shorts and socks.

Des Hasler’s had a couple of words with the TV boys. They were “possession” and “discipline”, unfortunately not “haircut” and “imminent”.

Ryan Papenhuyzen will one to watch tonight. Craig Bellamy spoke about his star fullback’s disrupted season during the week. “He’s obviously lost a bit of confidence and had a fair few doubts,” Bellamy said. “The injury that he had was obviously pretty severe and he had six or seven weeks where he didn’t do much physically or fitness-wise. He’s had three starting games now so he should be getting back to his peak physically and I think we saw a little bit of that last week. Hopefully after what he’s been through he’s really confident in what he’s doing now and is ready to go on Friday night.”

Ryan Papenhuyzen
Ryan Papenhuyzen will be crucial for Melbourne Storm. Photograph: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

It’s warm, dry, and pretty still on the Sunshine Coast tonight. Glorious conditions under lights.

This final is taking place in Queensland, the 2021 home of rugby league.

Dubbo Don is coming in hard on the emails: “Déjà vu, Manly 40-0 Bellamy apologises,” is his message. If the Storm are held to nil I will eat all the hats.

But here’s that 40-0 GF hammering Don references, enhanced by some Roy Jones Jr rapping.

Most of the build-up from Melbourne’s perspective has focussed on Cameron Munster. He does line up in his 150th NRL appearance, and a short time ago he spoke to Darren Lockyer about his knee. “Feeling ok, hopefully be alright tonight... Fingers crossed there’s enough padding,” Munster said. The problem isn’t the injury itself, but the risk of the stitches splitting open and worsening the infection that required a a couple of nights in hospital.

“I need to listen a bit more,” Munster said, when asked why he didn’t take antibiotics the night after the Eels match when he suffered the cut to his knee. Before joking that Lockyer would know all about how difficult it is to make the Storm No 6 listen to advice after skippering him previously at Origin level.

Nick Tedeschi has cast his eye over the finals campaign, one that promises to be the most entertaining in years.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles

Manly also only have the one omission from their preferred lineup with hooker Lachlan Croker’s back injury ruling him out. Des Hasler will hope his veteran halves combination fires on the big stage, while Reuben Garrick is nearing record-breaking territory for his point-scoring bonanza of a year.

But it’s hard to ignore Trbojevic as the beginning and end of Manly’s hopes. He has scored an absurd 25 tries and delivered 27 try assists in just 15 matches following his hamstrung start to the year. Somehow, even that doesn’t do justice to his overall impact, including Origin and beyond. Cooper Cronk even suggested the only way to deny the flying fullback is to operate a lopsided defensive line to guarantee he can be double-teamed.

Also, just a reminder that Hasler is the only current coach with a winning record against Craig Bellamy (17-15).

1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Jason Saab 3. Brad Parker 4. Morgan Harper 5. Reuben Garrick 6. Kieran Foran 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Josh Aloiai 15. Karl Lawton 10. Martin Taupau 11. Haumole Olakau’atu 12. Josh Schuster 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Dylan Walker 16. Sean Keppie 17. Taniela Paseka 20. Curtis Sironen

Tom Trbojevic
Can anyone stop Turbo Tommy? Photograph: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Melbourne Storm

The good news for Melbourne is Cameron Munster has won his race to be fit, the bad news is Josh Addo-Carr hasn’t. Munster and George Jennings are both carrying knocks into tonight’s game but have been deemed fit enough to start.

Munster, “cut his knee in our match against the Eels and we had to admit him to hospital [last] Monday morning,” football manager Frank Ponissi said. “He got his knee surgically cleaned and stitched and then he wasn’t able to train all week because he needed to keep it dry. He has been named and we’ll give him until the last minute to prove his fitness.”

Otherwise Craig Bellamy has few other concerns now that Ryan Papenhuyzen is back in the groove, and half the side took last week off to ensure they’re cherry ripe for the finals. There’s power up forward, creativity throughout the spine, and brilliance on the outside; oh, and a bench featuring Harry Grant, Nicho Hynes, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona. This Storm line-up is seriously impressive.

1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. George Jennings 3. Reimis Smith 4. Justin Olam 5. Isaac Lumelume 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Brandon Smith 10. Christian Welch 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Harry Grant 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 17. Nicholas Hynes

Cameron Munster
Melbourne’s halfback general Cameron Munster has been passed fit for tonight’s match in what will be his 150th NRL appearance. Photograph: Jono Searle/AAP


Hello everybody and welcome to live coverage of Melbourne Storm v Manly Sea Eagles in the first NRL qualifying final. Kick-off at Sunshine Coast Stadium is 7.50pm.

This is going to be ace, isn’t it? How could it not be? The near-unbeatable Melbourne Storm with their match winning pedigree and roster of game-breakers, against the flying Sea Eagles who have soared home since the bye, catalysed by the magnificent Tom Trbojevic, the most dangerous rugby league footballer in the world.

They’re two sides with plenty of recent history, and no shortage of animosity. Both clubs are serial winners, as are the coaches, a pair of the finest in the modern game. Everywhere you look there’s something to whet the appetite.

Despite Manly’s incredible recent form, Melbourne will still head into the first final as favourites. They lost only three matches all year, boast a near fully-fit squad, and have options to cope with whatever the match situation might throw at them. They also won this match-up barely a month ago, their fourth head-to-head victory in a row. Remember, this is the season they were supposed to fall apart after Cameron Smith retired!

But nobody would dare rule out the Sea Eagles with the momentum they’re bringing to the Sunshine Coast. They are the first side since the Dragons in 2005 to finish in the top four despite losing their opening five games.

Bring it on.

I’ll be back with more shortly, but if you would like to join in, you can reach me by email or Twitter (@JPHowcroft).

These two sides have plenty of recent history, much of it spiteful.

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