After a torrential couple of days in Sydney, the Sharks and the Storm met on a sodden pitch for the second grand final rematch this year. In many ways, this seemed like a bit of a grudge match for Cameron Smith after the Round 6 loss to the Sharks and the Origin loss to the Blues, and from the very beginning the Storm gave it everything they had, packing the early scrums so viscerally that the referee had to bark out his instructions like it was a game of Union.
Over the first ten minutes that paid immediate dividends, as Melbourne clocked up two tries in a row and looked set to bring home one of their biggest landslides of the 2017 season. Both of them revolved around Smith, who achieved his fourth 40/20 kick of the year a couple of minutes in and then concluded the following set with a try assist right on the line. Dummying as if to send the ball back, he opted for a short pass to put Felise Kaufusi over, as if determined, from the very outset, not to be held tryless by Cronulla once again.
Three minutes later, a try assist from Smith at dummy half sent Tim Glasby over and, once again, the strategy depended partly on isolating Jayden Brailey right on the line. Targeting one of the least experienced Sharks’ players, it seemed as if the Storm were going to be playing mind games over the next seventy minutes, and you could see some of the Cronulla supporters in the crowd knuckling down for what might be a traumatic loss at home.
From there, however, things took an interesting turn, with the Storm unable to score again until five minutes out from the end, when a great pass from Billy Slater – again, right, on the defensive line – allowed Kaufusi to break through and put down four more points. While the commentators applauded the consistency and structure of the Storm attack, I saw it more as a lack of options, as Melbourne were forced to fall back upon the only move that had really worked for them in terms of putting points on the board.
In the interim, the Sharks managed to ground two tries, the first of which came from Luke Lewis at the half hour mark, when a long pass from James Maloney sent the ball skittering across the Cronulla line, bouncing pass Chad Townsend only for Lewis to dive at just the right moment and storm through the Storm in a stirring recapitulation of his performance in last year’s grand final. Given that the Sharks had failed to capitalise on some good field position and repeat sets, it was a necessary step in rebuilding some sense of momentum as the siren loomed.
Ten minutes into the second half, Cronulla scored again, as a series of terrific passes from Maloney, Wade Graham and Ricky Leutele artfully cut out Holmes at just the right moment to disorient the defence, allowing them to send the ball over to Sosaia Feki who planted it right in the corner. It was an even more emphatic gesture in that it came moments after Melbourne had been granted a penalty, only for Graham and Jack Bird to pinpoint Suliasi Vunivalu under the high ball and drag him over the edge to regain possession.
With Maloney failing to convert, the score remained at 12-10, although a penalty goal levelled it to 12-12 later in the second stanza. Still, even at this earlier point the difference in mindset between the two teams started to feel like a decisive factor, since while the Sharks are used to losing, the Storm are used to winning – even after last year’s grand final. As a result, Cronulla tend to be galvanised by starting behind (they’ve won five of seven games where they started off behind this season), whereas the Storm tend to be agitated and disoriented by the prospect of being behind, especially when they start with such an emphatic lead.
For that reason, Melbourne’s dominance in the opening twenty minutes couldn’t be more different from the mind games the Sharks were playing with them halfway through the second stanza. After Kenny Bromwich stuffed up the play-the-ball, a bit of banter from Maloney seemed designed to tempt him to a punch, while a couple of sets later, Ado-Carr failed to clean up a Cronulla chip and almost gifted Bird the easiest four-pointer of the season.
A couple of sets later again, Ado-Carr was gifted what appeared to be a redemption try, only to knock it on right on the line. In fact, this was called a try onfield – and looked like a brilliant try – but reversed when footage for the camera revealed just how blatant the knock-on had been, in a powerful counterpart to the way in which the Sharks managed to subtly shift the Storm’s perception of themselves over the course of the evening. By the time we arrived at the hour mark, it seemed as if Melbourne were giving away penalty after penalty after penalty. Without a point to their name since the eighth minute, Cameron Munster’s wide field goal attempt said it all, since this was exactly the kind of game that demanded Cooper Cronk’s marksmanship and grace under pressure for the Storm to build a winning edge.
It didn’t help, either, that the Melbourne wingers were having a pretty spotty night of itl. Twenty minutes into the first stanza, Vunivalu knocked the ball backwards to set up what looked like a golden Melbourne try, only for bunker footage to reveal that it was also knocked on in the process. Twenty minutes into the second stanza, Josh Ado-Carr did much the same thing. Fifteen minutes out from the end, Ado-Carr seemed about to score his own redemption try, finding open space and eluding Andrew Fifita only for Valentine Holmes to bring him down and prevent a four-pointer with a brilliant low tackle that halted the Storm momentum long before they coughed up the Steeden a couple of tackles later.
For all those reasons, I found it surprising that most news outlets described this as an emphatic victory. In many ways, the Storm holds a privileged position in the NRL consciousness and there’s understandably a lot of affection and attachment to its veteran players. Nevertheless, it felt like the Storm’s real achievement lay in tentatively holding on to the status that Cronulla have challenged so thoroughly over their last two encounters, rather than any particularly amazing or definitive display of victory on the night itself.
If anything, I thought that the game was a testament to the growing strength of the Cronulla side. Similarly, for all the catharsis of Kaufusi’s final try, it was James Maloney’s field goal that really felt like the definitive moment of the game, even if the Sharks momentarily choked in the last minute. It happened on a series of repeat sets, and was Maloney’s second attempt, after the first ricocheted off a Storm defender and was knocked twenty or so metres back.
To their credit, however, the Sharks managed to scramble for it and regain field position almost immediately, setting up Maloney for his second shot at a point, which came, somewhat unconventionally, off the back of an offload, leaving the Storm defence scrambling to make sense of what had just happened. For a mere ninety seconds, Cronulla were ahead, and yet those ninety seconds seemed to define the overall arc and spirit of the game. While Melbourne might have won, they certainly didn’t win as emphatically or as demonstratively as they might have hoped, and they will be looking to bring home a decisive victory over the Cowboys in the absence of their key Origin playmakers during Round 15.