The Storm had won by a single point over the Warriors at AAMI Park in Round 7, while the Sharks had lost by 23 points to the Broncos at Suncorp when they hosted Melbourne in Cronulla on Friday night. The Sharkies had also only won one of their last four matches against the purple army, and the Storm were hoping to get 7/8 wins for the sixth time in club history, meaning that their traditional rivalry felt even more urgent than usual. No surprise, then, that this was a close game – three tries and one penalty kick apiece, with only a missed conversion from Cameron Smith making a difference, in a mirror image of the Bulldogs’ loss to Melbourne in Round 4.
Jesse Bromwich took the first hit-up to celebrate his 201th game, and then the fourth, before Josh Dugan made an early mark by cleaning up Cameron Munster’s opening kick. Aaron Gray followed with the first error of the game, in his first NRL appearance since Round 2 last year, giving Melbourne the scrum feed and their first sustained attacking opportunity of the night. They played around on the left edge for a couple of tackles, before heading right on the fourth, where Chad Townsend made a great individual tackle on Felise Kaufusi, and Andrew Fifita came up with the football.
The first big chance for Melbourne had turned into a stellar defensive display for Cronulla, but Josh Ado-Carr was determined to fight back at the start of the next Storm set, making some massive metres up the left sideline before he was brought to ground a metre in from the edge. He avoided being dragged into touch, but was pinged for planting a foot on the sideline when getting up to the play the ball, despite the fact that this contact is permitted according to current NRL guidelines, making him the first casualty of a fairly slippery field after a rainy day in Sydney.
The Sharkies now had a chance to translate their excellent defensive display into attack, especially once Felise Kaufusi was pinged for crowding. They did get the first four points, but not before a series of spectacular – and bizarre – individual efforts from both sides shifted the momentum a couple of times. Munster started off with the trysaver of the night on Fifita, before Brailey accidentally passed the footy to Ado-Carr. The Cronulla defence quickly ushered the Foxx into touch, but Munster curved around and enacted a strip on his own man, grappling the Steeden out of his winger’s hands and returning to the field of play to avoid giving Cronulla a dropout.
Munster had now made two superb plays, but Fifita got the last laugh when he lost the footy a second later. Fifi now scooped it up, and started a rapid left sweep, as Cronulla consolidated amidst the chaos of the last few plays to send Sione Katoa across in the corner. Kyle Flanagan added the extras to put the home team six ahead – the first time in three weeks that they’d scored in the first half. Meanwhile, Melbourne hadn’t scored during the first quarter over their last four games, so it was paramount that they bounce back now, and quash Cronulla’s spirit on the restart.Embed from Getty Images
While Melbourne didn’t destroy the Sharkies there and then, they got their first four points a couple of sets later, when a superb trio of passes from Smith, Munster and Hughes shifted the footy to Ado-Carr twenty metres out from the line. This was just what Melbourne needed – a seamless team effort combined with a strong individual run from their winger, in a testament both to the synergy of their spine and the capacity of their big playmakers to step up and compensate for the early Cronulla surge. As it turned out, Smith’s missed conversion was what lost the game, but the try was galvanising now, as Bromwich once again took the first hit-up on the restart.
Brodie Croft also started to step into the spotlight at this point, making a few good efforts with the boot, before a second kick from Munster secured the Storm the first dropout of the game when Flanagan was forced to pop the footy into touch. In one of the more bizarre moments in the match, Cronulla didn’t beat the dropout clock, gifting Smith a penalty kick right in front of the posts that levelled the scoreline as the first quarter of the game wound down. There was some contention about the decision from the Sharks players, and from Paul Gallen in particular, since they hadn’t seemed to realise the footy was waiting for them in a ball bucket behind the posts.
Yet this just made up for Ado-Carr being penalised for touching the sideline while playing the ball earlier on, adding fuel to the fire of this traditional rivalry, since both teams had now suffered a particularly frustrating call from the referees, even if the Storm probably had more of a case to complain about it than the Sharkies. From this point the game felt even more personal, and the stakes seemed even higher, perhaps explaining why Josh Dugan made the first fumble of the night a few minutes later, under a fairly standard kick from Brodie Croft that ushered in a sustained period of Melbourne dominance – their most sustained period of the whole match.
From the very first tackle, it was clear that the purple army were determined to make more of this burst of field position than they had during the opening minutes of the game. For a moment, a dropped ball from Kenny Bromwich to the left of the posts seemed to let the Sharks off the hook, but it was eclipsed by an offside penalty to Flanagan. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Jesse Bromwich now put in a mammoth one-man effort after linking up with his brother in the same part of the field, muscling his way through the defence right where Flanagan had been pinged, before reaching out his right hand to get the footy down under Dugan and Nikora.
This was signature Storm football – clean, crisp and clinical – especially once Smith added the extras to bring his team to a converted try lead. Despite a pair of penalties from the Bromwich boys a minute later, the purple army largely dominated the next period, thanks in part to the insertion of Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who subbed on for Christian Welch twenty-seven minutes in. The peak came with a pair of successive Cronulla dropouts around the half hour mark – both well within the clock – before an error from Munster and a Storm dropout set up the Sharkies for their next point.Embed from Getty Images
Flanagan provided the assist, in one of the most decisive plays of his NRL career so far. Channelling Lachlan Lewis’ ability to bend time around the ball, Flanno made a searching run across the Melbourne defence, before choosing just the right moment to kick the footy through the line, and past NAS, who was too late to prevent Nikora scooping it up and scoring another four-pointer. With Flanagan bookending the play with a second conversion, the game was all wrapped up at 12-12 as the teams headed for the sheds – a promising situation for Cronulla, given their home ground advantage and their excellent record with second half point scoring so far in 2019
Munster had gone for a field goal on the siren, and missed, which seemed to erode Melbourne’s belief a bit in the second stanza, as Ado-Carr and Kaufusi racked up errors before Tui Kamikamica was penalised for a borderline dangerous tackle. With Flanagan shanking the ball away from the posts, the score remained 12-12, but there was a mounting sense that Cronulla were recovering the rhythm, especially once Marion Seve leaked an escorts penalty while applying undue pressure on Josh Morris beneath Flanagan’s most dangerous bomb of the game. This time, Flanagan added the two points, and while it wasn’t one of his best kicks, it got the job done.
The Storm were getting desperate, and rolled Jack Williams ten metres back at the start of the next set, before Jayson Bukuya was driven back half as far, only for Bronson Xerri to find some open space on the right edge, searching for his second try in the NRL after a fairly quiet game so far. A slow peel from Will Chambers then got the Sharkies another bout of field position, before Bukuya made up for being dragged back by bringing the footy to five metres out on the third tackle. Braden Hamlin-Uele now upstaged Jesse Bromwich, mirroring his try by slamming through two defenders – Croft and Kaufusi – to put the footy down to the left of the posts.
In fact, Hamlin-Uele was probably defter than Bromwich in avoiding a double movement, while Flanagan responded with his most assured kick of the night, as the Sharks became the first team to skyrocket more than a converted try ahead. Dugan made his best run on the restart, almost breaking through the line a couple of times, before cleaning up a Vunivalu kick before Vunivalu himself could arrive at it, at the end of the next Storm set. Only a second effort from Seve prevented Townsend breaking through the line on the following Sharks set, compounded by some verbal dissent that reflected the sudden wave of desperation across the Storm ranks.
After all, this was the first time since 2005 that Cronulla had scored more than 18 points against Melbourne, meaning that the Sharkies were also desperate and hardened in a different kind of way, as evinced in the speed with which Townsend returned to play after copping the full brunt of Josh Morris’ spikes on his outstretched hand. While the Storm cleaned up a dangerous offload from Dugan to Flanagan at the end of the next set, Blayke Brailey still managed to secure the next dropout by driving the footy deep in goal, where Kaufusi failed to clean it up before it bounced off Bukuya’s shoulder a microsecond after it had launched into touch.Embed from Getty Images
Smith went long on the dropout, and Hughes cleaned it up at the end, but the Sharks were still dominant, putting in a series of staunch tackles that made Smith’s subsequent 40/20 attempt feel as it it was destined to fall short. As the seventy minute mark came and went, two linebreaks from Munster and Ado-Carr went nowhere, as it seemed less and less likely that the purple army would manage to score another try. It was a real twist, then, when Ryan Papenhuyzen broke through the line and scored five minutes out from the end, setting the stage for a closer finish than either team might have expected from the previous fifteen minutes.
Staunch as ever, however, the Sharks kept the Storm out for the last few minutes of the match, resulting in their gutsiest and hardest-won victory of the 2019 season, and arguably the first game where they’ve dug deepest for the win – especially since they were without Shaun Johnson as one of the key playmakers in their arsenal. They’ll be looking for a big game, then, when rock up to Suncorp to play the Titans for the first match of Magic Round, while on the other side of the Steeden, the Storm will be desperate to regain some pride when they host the Eels at Suncorp a couple of nights later.