Melbourne Storm v Cronulla Sharks | Sunday, October 2, 7.15pm (AEDT), ANZ Stadium, Sydney
Cronulla plays the biggest game in the club’s 50-year history when they take on the Melbourne Storm in Sunday’s NRL Grand Final in Sydney.
The Sharks are aiming to lift the Proven-Summons Trophy for the first time and break the longest premiership-winning drought in the NRL.
Shane Flanagan’s men finished 3rd in the regular season and have followed an identical path to the Storm during the finals series with two wins apiece.
The Storm remain unchanged from their Preliminary Final win over the Raiders but Storm coach Craig Bellamy has named nine players on the bench which will be trimmed down to four.
The Sharks have added Sam Tagataese (shoulder) and Joseph Paulo (knee) to the squad which lassoed the Cowboys in their prelim final in Sydney.
Grand Finals history
Melbourne are playing in their 7th Grand Final with their last victory a 14-4 triumph over the Bulldogs in 2012.
They’ve won two premierships (1999, 2012) and were stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships due to salary cap infractions.
On the other side of the ledger, the trophy cabinet is bare at Cronulla with the Sharkies yet to taste premiership glory in their three Grand Final appearances to date.
Their last appearance in the season’s end decider was their 1997 Super League defeat to the Broncos.
The Storm return just five players; Will Chambers, Cooper Cronk, Jesse Bromwich (pictured below), Kevin Proctor and Cameron Smith from their 2012 Premiership team.
The Sharkies meanwhile, aren’t devoid of Grand Finals experience and can draw on their premiership winning experience of Luke Lewis (Penrith, 2003), Chris Heighington (Wests Tigers, 2005), Matt Prior (Dragons, 2010) and James Maloney (Roosters, 2013).
There might have been a 20-point margin in the Storm’s favour in their most recent clash in the final round of the regular season, but Sunday’s match promises to be vastly different.
Both sides boast a sizeable pack and a defensive structure which turns many games into an arm wrestle.
Points could be at a premium with the Sharks having the 4th best defence in the NRL while the Storm boast the NRL’s leading defence.
Inspirational Sharks captain Paul Gallen, playing his maiden Grand Final, looms as the Shire club’s key player.
In a losing side in their round 26 defeat to the Storm, the Blues skipper was a colossus leading the team in both tackles (41) and run metres (195).
Blues forward Andrew Fifita is the Sharks’ talisman up forward and the 126kg prop can change the momentum of the game with his charging incisive runs in the middle while his clever off-loads creates second phase play and puts the Sharkies outside men in open space.
For the Storm, experienced playmakers Cameron Smith (pictured above) and joint Dally M Medal winner Cooper Cronk will dictate their team’s fortunes.
Their composure under pressure and steadying influence at critical moments give the Storm a decided advantage in such a high stakes encounter.
Prolific try-scoring winger Suliasi Vunivalu (pictured below) is the Storm’s go-to man on the wing and the Sharks’ outside men will have their hands full containing the Melbourne flyer.
With the likes of Smith, Cronk and Bromwich in their side, the Storm start deserving favourites and the bookmakers have acted accordingly.
Their league leading defence which concedes under 13 points a game are the foundations to a capturing a premiership in any era.
The Sharkies however, have the game-breakers to unsettle the Storm’s seemingly impenetrable defence.
The likes of Valentine Holmes, Ben Barba, Jack Bird and Sosaia Feki are capable of anything and their high energy charges from the back inspires the rest of the team and takes pressure off their forwards.
As always, it will be up to the Sharks forwards led by Blues enforcer Andrew Fifita to lay a solid platform for the Sharks speedy men out wide.
It would be a fairytale ending should the Sharks salute a premiership in their 50th year and there’s no reason to believe the Shire faithful won’t be doing the ‘flipper flop’ at full-time.
History is also on the Sharkies’ side with all five teams finishing third in the regular season lifting the trophy on Grand Final day.
Unibet Odds: Melbourne 1.80 Cronulla 2.05
Last time they met: Rd.26, 2016 – Melbourne 26 def Cronulla 6, AAMI Park, Melbourne
Line tip: Cronulla +1.5
Clive Churchill Medal
Unibet Odds: Cooper Cronk 5.50, Cameron Smith 5.50, James Maloney 9.00, Jesse Bromwich 13.00, Michael Ennis 13.00, Paul Gallen 13.00, Ben Barba 15.00, Andrew Fifita 15.00, Wade Graham 15.00, Luke Lewis 21.00, Cameron Munster 21.00, Chad Townsend 21.00
Tip: Paul Gallen
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