Between Cooper Cronk’s shoulder injury and Billy Slater’s shoulder charge, the stage was set for one of the most visceral grand finals in recent history when the Roosters took on the Storm at ANZ Stadium on Sunday night. The tepid nature of last year’s Cowboys-Storm standoff just made the contest seem all the more plosive, as a trio of enormous performances from Joseph Manu, Luke Keary and Latrell Mitchell, in particular, sounded the definitive death knell for the Melbourne dynasty of the last decade.
From the outset, the Roosters were dominant, with a deft pass from Keary almost sending Boyd Cordner through the line a couple of minutes in. With a penalty from Will Chambers for lying in the ruck, Mitchell clocked up the first two points of the night, although he was far from done with demonstrating to his nemesis just who was the king of the no. 3 jersey over the course of the next eighty minutes.
While Keary might have stepped up to take much of the pressure off Cronk, it was the no. 7’s first kick of the night that left to the first try, as the Roosters recovered the footy and then moved it out to the right edge, before heading into the middle, and then shifting it right once again. That made it all the more unexpected when Keary complemented his halves partner’s boot with a huge cut-out pass to the left side of the field, where Daniel Tupou beat Suliasi Vunivalu to get the ball to ground.
The fact that Tupou had scored the first Roosters try against the Sea Eagles during the 2013 grand final just made this putdown all the more momentous – a brilliant conclusion to a sequence bookended by the dexterity and intuition of the Sydney City halves combination. While Mitchell might not have managed the extras, the Chooks responded with their best defence of the year, as Slater found himself cleaned up right on the line, and Josh Ado-Carr was almost dragged back into the in goal area by Joseph Manu on the second tackle.
If there was any risk for the Roosters at this point, it was that their energy was at such a pitch that it could almost have tipped over into chaos, with Jake Friend receiving a penalty for lifting Vunivalu above the horizontal a moment later. Still, Melbourne gave them another opportunity, since where the first try had defied one of the Storm wingers, the next try – also for the Roosters – was facilitated by both wingers, resulting in the most dejected period for the visitors’ backline all year.
It started with Vunivalu reaching out an arm to pop the Steeden back into the field of play from a couple of metres over the edge – a gutsy gesture, to be sure, but one that was immediately consolidated into Sydney City field position by Mitchell, Latrell and then Keary, who capitalized immediately to get their team the competitive edge once again. At the other end of the park, a touch from Ado-Carr gave the visitors six again, while a huge hit-up from Jared Warea-Hargreaves made it clear they weren’t afraid to run up through the ruck and take on the Storm front on.
Something of that gesture informed Mitchell’s effort a tackle later, when he collected the ball as part of a leftwards-leaning sequence from Keary and Tedesco, but instead of sending it back to his outside chose to take it inside instead, fending off Chambers to slam onto the turf for the single most resounding four points of his career. Easily as physical as JWH’s effort, but combined with Mitchell’s liquid dexterity, it defied every Storm player except for Slater, who was nevertheless too late to get between Mitchell and the football, and came to ground on his back.
Both Roosters tries had come off six-again sets at the back of kicks that weren’t cleaned up properly by Slater, Vunivalu or Ado-Carr – a fairly damning fact that ensured that punches nearly broke out when Mitchell sent Chambers into touch twenty-four minutes in, before adding a small shove at the end of it for good measure. A couple of minutes later, Chambers gave away a penalty for a high tackle on Tupou just as the Storm had managed to trap Roosters close to their own line, gifting the hosts even more momentum, as Teddy almost broke through the defence three tackles later.
To his credit, Vunivalu cleaned up the footy effortlessly at the end of the set, while a flop from Ryan Matterson gave the Storm a chance of their own. Yet with Cameron Munster coughing up the ball, and then committing a professional foul after Friend had scooped it up and made his way down the field, Melbourne were up to six errors, down to twelve men on the field, and facing a fourteen point deficit once Mitchell slotted through his second penalty kick of the night.
All it took from there was yet another gesture of indecision from the Melbourne wing for the Roosters to put down more points, as Ado-Carr found himself hoping to shepherd the Steeden across the line at the end of a Sydney City set, only to be forced to pop it into touch at the last moment. A couple of tackles after the dropout Mitch Aubusson laid the platform much as JWH had earlier in the night, storming up through the Storm’s left-edge defence so mercilessly that he discarded Kenny Bromwich and forced Slater to slam in to prevent him reaching the line.
From there, a quick play-the-ball from Aubusson, and a superb catch-and-pass from Tedesco, saw Manu collect the football on the right edge, where he leapt into the air to make sure his hand could get the Steeden to ground before – or as – his body was slammed into touch by Joe Stimson. While Mitchell might have missed the conversion, the Chooks were still 18-0 heading into the sheds – a scoreline that nobody would have predicted, and a fitting testament to forty minutes of football perfection from the home team.
In fact, the Roosters seemed to have reversed the narrative in the most powerful way, since they were playing more like the Storm than the Storm themselves, at least in terms of meticulous attention to detail. It was critical, then, that Melbourne return so as take control of their own signature in the second stanza, and yet while they might have amped up their defence – a well-timed tackle from Munster prevented what would have been a resounding try from Blake Ferguson – they were unable to get into the kind of tryscoring groove the Chooks had showcased over the first stanza.
Between the fiftieth and sixtieth minutes the Storm ramped up their attack more than any point during the game so far, but this just forced the Roosters to put in ten of the best defensive minutes of their season in response. This period started with Munster seeming to have scored, only for the try to be called back due to an obstruction from Asofa-Solomona on Cronk – a let-off that galvanised the Chooks into some of their most elegant moves over the following sets, including a Benji-style flick pass from Matterson to Keary.
Munster got a second go at the line, and was on the verge of heading over himself or sending the ball out to the left wing, when Manu tackled his arm and forced him to cough it up – one of the high points in a massive night for the young Sydney City centre, who had caught the footy effortlessly on the full at the end of the previous set as well. On the next set, Fergo and Teddy prevented Scott from crossing on the left edge, while a strip from Munster on Aubusson was immediately followed by Friend dragging Ado-Carr into touch, for one of the most dramatic and sudden turnarounds in the game.
The Fox got his own back, though, making the most of the Roosters’ only mistimed moment of the second stanza. It was a cut-out pass from Keary designed for Manu – a pass that would have resulted in either Manu or Fergo scoring if it had reached them, as intended, where they were unmarked on the right edge. Seizing his opportunity, Ado-Carr intercepted the pass and ran the length of the field, coming to ground to the left of the posts with his shirt in tatters, and raising the momentary question of an eight-point try after Manu’s knees made contact with his head.
In slow motion, though, it was clearly a regular six-pointer once Smith had booted through the extras, and while this may have been a spectacular moment for the Storm, there was also an air of desperation about it, given that they’d had to depend on a rare Roosters error to put down points at all. That desperation became more naked a set later, when a knock-on from Vunivalu under the high ball saw Slater scream at the ref for missing Mitchell’s efforts in the air – a fair point, but delivered in a manner that did Billy the Kid no favours at this particular moment in the match.
Things got worse for Slater when Keary sent through a field goal at the end of the next set, with Billy claiming that Radley had tripped him, but the replay showing that Radley hadn’t actually extended his leg to greet Slater, and that it had instead been Slater who careened into him. Meanwhile, Keary was awarded only the second field goal of his career – what a way to send it through – as the last ten minutes of the game approached and the Chooks dug deep to maintain their lead.
The last major chance for Melbourne came with a trio of penalties on their line – a strip from Radley, a slow peel from Aubusson, and then some crowding from Radley – culminating with a formal warning from the ref. The Storm chose to tap and go each time, and while Slater might have almost sent Chambers over on their right edge, a huge hit-up from Manu on Scott dislodged the footy on the opposite side of the field a tackle later, resulting in yet another bout of possession for the Sydney team.
Scott was fuming in the scrum, and his anger may have clouded his judgement, because the next error was his as well, as he lost the footy within the Roosters’ twenty under some deft pressure from Cronk. For a moment, Munster gathered all the frustration of his team, taking it out by kicking Manu in the back of the head while he was still lying on the ground – a move that saw the Melbourne five-eighth become the first player in NRL history to be sent to the bin twice during a grand final.
As Mitchell sent through the football to bring the score to 21-6, Cronk was led off the field for the last two minutes. The early exit felt right, since Cronk’s superhuman effort – the stuff of Roosters lore for years to come – deserved a special sendoff of its own, just as Cronk deserved a moment’s breathing-space before he rejoined the park with his team mates. The Roosters might have only scored three points this half, but they were every bit as important as the three tries they had scored in the first stanza, since in both cases they had utterly decimated the reigning premiers.
Indeed, so emphatic was the Sydney City win that this felt like one of the definitive moments in the devolution of both the Melbourne and Maroons dynasties of the last ten years. It’s hard to think of a more symbolic end to the game than a short kick off that was touched by Slater, but collected by Tedesco, while the back-to-back premierships for Cronk are the perfect testament to his courage in this match, and the way that the landscape has shifted in rugby league over the last twelve months.
The fact that Slater had a shoulder charge behind him also made the victory feel all the more meaningful and hard-won for the Roosters. All of a sudden, what could have been one of the worst grand final narratives of the decade had become one of the best – on a pair with the Roosters in 2013, the Bunnies in 2014, the Cowboys in 2015 and the Sharks in 2016 – meaning that it also cancelled out the tepid spectacle of the Storm’s win last year, cementing the 2010s as an era of historic and nail-biting grand final theatrics, and giving the Roosters one of their best ever premierships.