Even after a round of pretty dramatic footy games, the best was saved for last, with the 2016 grand final rematch between Melbourne and Cronulla serving up a scoreline more suited to a Victory game than a Storm game. Going in, the weather was just right for a grudge match – a rainy, gloomy afternoon at AAMI Park, making for one of those moody, half-lit games that always seem that little more dreary in the first couple of weeks after the end of daylight saving. From the outset, both teams were nettled by the rain, which intensified as a severe storm warning (no pun intended) was issued across the city that saw errors multiplying and turnovers escalating as the players skidded and scraped their way across the sodden grass.
What an astonishing conclusion, then, for Melbourne to be held tryless at Fortress AAMI, beaten for the first time this year and the second time in a row by the Sharks, who sealed the deal for their 2016 grand final victory and made it clear that the ascendancy of Cronulla is no fluke. Sure, Melbourne were without Jesse Bromwich, but the Sharks were also devoid of Ben Barba at fullback, yet nevertheless managed to win for the first time in Melbourne since they stormed home at the old Olympic Park venue in 2008. That the Storm couldn’t put down a single four-pointer made the victory even more emphatic, with Cameron Smith’s lone penalty goal at the seventeenth minute turning out to be the only points that Melbourne would rack up on the board all afternoon.
No doubt, there were some handling errors on the Cronulla side as well, who actually outdid the Storm in penalties and only marginally beat them in terms of total sets (41-40) and completed sets (30-27), while breaking even with offloads (9) and trailing considerably in tackles (377-309). Still, this was an emphatic victory from the Sharks, not only because they nearly kept the Storm scoreless at home, but because Melbourne nearly always come up with something special before the half time siren or the full time siren, a stunning coda that emphasises their supremacy within the NRL despite whatever scoreline was handed down on the day.
On Sunday afternoon, however, Melbourne simply weren’t given an opportunity to rewrite the last minutes of the game in their own image. If anything, Cronulla had all the field position in the dying minutes of the game, culminating with Smith stuffing up the last goal-line dropout and gifting the Sharks a penalty on top of the dropout, allowing Maloney to take the two with stately slowness and put the final stamp on last year’s grand final. It was the fitting culmination to a gritty, grinding win by the Sharks, especially since Smith’s concession speech had allowed him to have the last word during the grand final itself, with some pundits almost suggesting its putative tastefulness outdid the actual Cronulla victory.
On top of that, however, the first and only Cronulla try – the only try of the afternoon – was Storm-like in its dexterity and elegancy, as well as marking an emphatic return to the NRL for James Segeyaro, who put down his first four points for the Sharks in the most momentous of ways. At the end of a particularly dramatic Sharks set at the 72nd minute, the Steeden slipped through Billy Slater’s hands only for the Storm fullback to regroup and ground it a millisecond later, though not without Segeyaro inserting himself in the interim, with a hand that appeared to come out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.
In a game in which both sides were struggling to keep up with the slippery conditions, it was a moment of utter dexterity, cementing Segeyaro as one of the key playmakers of the Cronulla side, along with Wade Graham, Jack Bird and – of course – James Maloney, who did a brilliant job of targeting Cooper Cronk in particular, while organising and controlling the defence so as to prevent Josh Ado-Carr ever getting an opportunity to make one of his signature runs. Not only did they hold the Storm at bay for set after messy set, but – more importantly – they managed to unsettle them more than any other team in recent memory.
That’s not to say that the Storm didn’t have their moments, since it takes more than an off game to unsettle their fortress-like defence. Still, they were much weaker and more error-prone attack than usual, opening the game with three errors in three repeat sets of six, each of which occurred early in the tackle count. Similarly, while both teams were messy at times, that messiness seemed to come as more of a shock to the Storm – especially at AAMI Park – who are much more used to seamlessness in attack and defence, and perhaps more complacent about it on Sunday afternoon as well, until it was too late to really fight back.
With Cooper Cronk announcing his decision to move to Sydney in 2018 and Billy Slater still relatively fresh, it was hard not to see the game as being about Melbourne’s Big Three as much as the team as a whole. While the trio’s power has to wane at some point, I’ve always assumed that it would occur when one of them has moved on or retired. To see them struggling as a trio was quite disorienting, since while Smith and Cronk managed some good moves, they didn’t display the synergy that was virtually guaranteed to win them games in the past.
If anything, the key moment for the Big Three saw Smith and Cronk stepping in for Slater, who copped a high tackle from Maloney after a perfectly placed 40/20 kick from Cronk at the fifteenth-minute maximized the slippery conditions to provide the Storm with their first really compelling field position of the game. With Slater down for the count the Storm were awarded the penalty, and Smith delivered, but here – as in Segeyaro’s try – Slater was a conduit more than an integral part of the team, and struggled to maintain the same presence that we’ve come to expect from him.
And for all that the Storm might have been without Bromwich, it’s worth remembering that they did have Slater, which surely gave them an advantage that more than outweighed the loss of their star forward, especially when paired with Cronulla’s loss of their star fullback from 2016. All in all, then, a terrific rematch of last year’s grand final – easily as good as the first Cowboys-Broncos clash last year – and hopefully the start of a new rivalry, if only because the Sharks hit so hard and dug so deep to demonstrate a vulnerable side to the Storm we so very rarely see.