Grand Final | Melbourne Storm v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Sunday, 7.15pm AEDT (9.15pm NZT)
Here we are. The 201st game of a gruelling season 2016 sees just two combatants still standing. In the red corner, Craig Bellamy’s ruthless star-studded Storm, whose senior players seemed ageless in guiding the men from Melbourne to yet another minor premiership and season decider.
In the blue corner, Shane Flanagan’s rebuilt squad of grafters. Just two years out from an injury- and ASADA-ruined wooden spoon season 2014, the near-unrecognisable unit has scrapped and fought their way to just the third grand final (in a unified competition) in the club’s 49-year history in search of their first ever premiership.
The ledger is squared at one apiece this year and though the Storm won the more recent clash – a minor premiership playoff in Round 26 – the Sharks created more attacking opportunities in that game which will give them confidence. Plus this one isn’t in Melbourne.
The Storm have experience on their side though. Cooper Cronk enters his sixth grand final, skipper Cameron Smith his fifth. Together they have more October experience than the entire Sharks 17, who have eight grand finals between them.
That counts for little once they run out though. Young Sharks centre Jack Bird is fearless, big prop Andrew Fifita relentless. Their forwards have as much fight as any pack in the comp.
Bellamy has thrown something of a curve ball at the selection table, naming five additional players (Felise Kaufusi, Matt White, Ryan Morgan, Slade Griffin, Young Tonumaipea) to come into the side that just scraped past the Raiders last week but don’t expect any major overhauls of what we’ve come to expect from the Storm all year in an otherwise unchanged side.
Flanagan has the luxury of naming fit-again prop Sam Tagataese in his 17 but it would be a gamble to ask him to play his first match in two months due to a fractured shoulder blade in the biggest game of the year. If he does play it will be a blow for impressive youngster Kurt Capewell, who has impressed in the absence of the Samoa international. At this stage Capewell is 18th man while another returning from injury, Joseph Paulo, is 19th.
Watch out Storm: Cronulla are a tricky side to play against. They have the second-most tackle breaks in the competition after the Raiders, led by bullocking prop Fifita (117) narrowly ahead of fullback Ben Barba (104). Jack Bird (80) and Val Holmes (62) have also been hard to bring down. They’re not afraid to chance their arm on second-phase play – their 333 offloads are behind only Penrith.
Again the prolific Fifita (69) is the one doing the damage but Gallen (31), Barba, Lewis and Graham (all 26) are all happy to promote the ball.
The Sharks also show no fear of the top sides having beaten all the heavyweights this year with a good overall record against Melbourne (one win from two meetings), Brisbane (one from one), North Queensland (two from three), Canberra (two from three), Penrith (two from two) and Canterbury (one from one) in 2016.
Watch out Sharks: Asked what makes the Storm so dangerous this week, Sharks skipper Paul Gallen had a simple answer.
"Complete. They just complete and they’re ruthless and relentless in what they do. You hear people say you know what’s coming with them. Well it’s easy to know what’s coming but it’s hard to stop. They just ask questions for 80 minutes. They’re just a relentless side in all areas of the park from their edges to their middle."
Coaches often bang on about completion rates but often it’s what you do with the ball that’s more important. However it will have more than a little bearing on this result, partly because the teams are so closely matched – and partly because the Storm complete so much better than Cronulla, they are likely to have more chances with the ball.
Melbourne are the only team to complete at over 80 per cent in 2016, going at a stunning 81.7 per cent for the year. So it seems Gallen’s analysis is correct. Meanwhile the Sharks, despite their success, were a lowly 14th. They completed just 74.6 per cent this year. And you can’t attack if you don’t have the ball.
A curious stat to back up Gallen’s analysis: it’s no surprise he praises Melbourne’s relentlessness. He has missed recent club wins against the Storm; Gallen personally is on a nine-match losing run against the men from south of the border, having not sung the team song after a Storm game since 2008.
Key match-up: Cameron Smith v Paul Gallen. They play completely different positions but the clash between the two captains is clearly the headline match-up in this one. Gallen has spoken repeatedly and effusively about his respect and admiration for the Queensland and Kangaroos skipper, who he regards as the best player he’s ever played with or against. The pair have reportedly patched up any differences arising from NSW’s supposed snub of Smith’s post-Origin victory speech and if you’re ever privy to events such as captains’ calls or season launches you’ll see Smith and Gallen often deep in friendly discussion. But that all goes out the window on the field.
Smith is notorious for his ability to channel diplomatic skills more suited to United Nations negotiations when dealing with match officials while Gallen is more likely to let his emotions get the best of him. Both are inspirational leaders though, with Ennis this week heaping praise on Gallen’s lead-by-example style.
"Gal brings that security, sort of like your dad when you're a kid… He's one tough hombre," was Ennis’s assessment.
"He's inspirational in the way he plays and inspirational in the way he carries himself."
There’s no question Smith has had the edge results-wise at club and Origin level against Gallen but that will just make Gallen’s Sharks more desperate to claw one back in the most high-stakes meeting ever between the pair.
The history: Played 31; Storm 21, Sharks 10. A two-to-one historical advantage for the Storm will count for little on Sunday. Cronulla’s win earlier this year was their first against Melbourne since early 2012. The Storm have won 13 of the past 15 meetings. The Storm have a winning 12-4 record at ANZ while the Sharks have just two wins from their past 11 visits and seven wins from 23 visits overall. Melbourne and Cronulla have never met at ANZ.
What are the odds: One-third more money has been placed on the Sharks in the head-to-head market, and Cronulla 1-12 has more bets on it than Melbourne 1-12 and 13-plus combined. Suliasi Vunivalu just shades Valentine Holmes in Sportsbet's first try-scorer market, while 50 per cent more has been wagered on the unders in the over/under points market. Cameron Smith is the best-backed to win the Clive Churchill Medal ahead of Paul Gallen and James Maloney.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant referee: Ben Cummins. Sideline officials: Brett Suttor and Jeff Younis. Review officials: Luke Patten & Ashley Klein. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: SKY Sport has live coverage from 1.00pm through to the NRL grand final starting at 9.15pm. The schedule is:
1.00pm-3.00pm | Sunday Footy Show
3.30pm-5.30pm | NYC grand final | Penrith v Sydney Roosters
5.30pm-8.30pm | State League grand final | Illawarra v Burleigh
8.30pm-12.00am | NRL grand final | Melbourne v Cronulla
The way we see it: How do you split these two teams? The start will be critical. The Storm will have to weather an early beating from Cronulla but if they get to half-time in front they’ll be near impossible to run down. However if Cronulla can blow an early try or two past Melbourne’s clinical defence it will boost their confidence and force the Storm to try their hand a bit more, with Melbourne less comfortable chasing big targets than grinding out from in front. It’s anyone’s game but we’ll take Cronulla to break a 49-year drought with a two-point win.
- This article first appeared on www.nrl.com