Cronulla had only won against two teams currently sitting in the top eight – the Eels in Round 2 and the Dragons in Round 3 – when they hosted the Storm at Shark Park on Thursday night. By the end of the game, they had not only cemented their place at fourth on the ladder, but were neck and neck with the purple army for wins (11) and competition points (24), off a performance that was every bit as gutsy as their sludgefest against the Bulldogs last week, in what may be the critical consolidation point in their journey towards finals footy.
Of course, Melbourne were without Cameron Munster and Harry Grant, but the Sharkies also lost Nicho Hynes to Covid, while the lineup was just one part of the picture here. Time and again, the Storm wilted in defence, as if still demoralised from conceding 36 to the Sea Eagles last week. They didn’t score until the last five minutes, and even then had a false start when Ryan Papenhuyzen was called back due to a Jesse Bromwich obstruction, so consolation wasn’t even on the horizon by the time Alec MacDonald put down his debut try.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona took the first charge, Chris Lewis the second, and Jesse Bromwich hurled himself into a massive Cronulla pack, while NAS played the footy too fast on the last, sending it straight through Brandon Smith’s legs as well, forcing Lewis to extemporise a kick. Matt Moylan put boot to ball halfway down the park, Ryan Papenhuyzen took it comfortably, and NAS continued to make a big impact, standing in the tackle for about five seconds at the forty, and laying a platform for Justin Olam to make his first foray up the right edge.
Melbourne now got their first kick from the halves, as Jahrome Hughes sent it behind the ten, Will Kennedy caught it, and gave us the first glimpse of the Sharkies’ enterprise tonight, with a short ball for Sione Katoa, who in turn sent it out for Connor Tracey to dummy his way past Marion Seve to mark the start of a rousing return with Siosifa Talakai at Origin camp. Jesse Ramien and Briton Nikora matched that speed up the left a play later, getting Braydon Trindall well inside the forty by the time he took his next kick to trap Papenhuyzen on the line.
Dale Finucane now spearheaded a massive pack to ensure that Olam couldn’t break the ten, let alone the twenty, in stark contrast to Tracey’s sharp dash, while play briefly paused for Grant Anderson to get some attention after copping the shoulder of Ronaldo Mulitalo, as Tyran Wishart left the bench. Again, NAS hit a staunch pack, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Hughes having to take the kick in his own thirty, as the Sharks started their next set on their own thirty, breaking halfway on the second for their best position so far.
Some good defence from the Storm, however, meant that Moylan took his kick around the same spot as last time, on the brink of the thirty, although there was no doubt that the Sharks were steadily building momentum, and just needed an opportunity to translate it into points. Hughes’ next bomb was a spiralling torpedo, splitting the backline on the bounce, and leading to a Ramien spill, only for Olam to find himself offside downtown, supercharging Cronulla with the first dramatic turnaround of the night.
Moylan was on the twenty midway through, but the subsequent right sweep was bookended by a pair of messy plays – Trindall slipping to the ground as he got it underway, Katoa flicking it back inside to nobody when it became clear he wasn’t going to have space on the wing. Jesse Bromwich scooped it up, and Hughes kicked for position, but Trindall made up for his slip by a pair of terrific plays – a crafty run halfway through the set, and a bomb that defied Dean Ieremia in his first stint under the high ball this evening.
Nevertheless, the Storm, like the Sharks before them, got a let off when Royce Hunt was called offside, although this ended up leading to a second dramatic turnaround in Cronulla’s favour, as Brandon Smith got pinged for a forward pass two into the count. This was the chance the hosts needed – a dramatic shift in possession off an unforced error – and they capitalised by correcting and condensing that earlier right sweep. Now there was no slip from Trindall, as he took the footy from Moylan, and set up Ramien to continue his rhythm further out.
There was also no issue for Katoa, since the right edge was unmarked, but Ramien decided to go it alone anyway, dummying briefly to break through and slam down the first four. Trindall’s kick was too similar to the right sweep, careening away from the nearest post, but the Sharkies still had four unanswered points, no small feat against Melbourne, and got another offside late in the restart, this time from Kenny Bromwich. Andrew Fifita was on the red zone a play later, and Blayke Brailey was over the chalk a tackle after that.
All it took was some clear vision from Moylan, who realised Papenhuyzen was out of place, and pivoted off the left boot to clear up space for his hooker to fly over beside the left post. The Sharks had gone back to back, on both sides of the park, while Trindall had an easier angle for the conversion this time, and booted it straight through for ten unanswered points. Worse, Papenhuyzen had let in the try by second-guessing himself, and trying to plug a hole that he himself opened up, so the Storm had to restore their pride on the restart.
They began with a couple of massive packs to ensure Cronulla didn’t clear the ten until tackle three, and the twenty until tackle four, staying just on the safe side of penalties, and forcing Trindall to boot it just inside the thirty. The Sharks hit back though, as Kennedy summoned a corral of players to drag Paps back the forty to thirty, and with 2-15 tackles in the opposition half, the Storm couldn’t have asked for a better time to receive the next offside penalty of the night, which came from Andrew Fifita, as Anderson rejoined the fray.
Melbourne now had their first close-range set of the game, and then their first set in the ten, when Hunt infringed the ruck. Surely, this had to produce points for the purple army, as Jesse Bromwich came down a metre short on the left, Wade Graham delivered a bootlace tackle to prevent NAS breaking through on the right, Brandon Smith tried to dart out of dummy half, and Hughes grubbered towards the corner, where Mulitalo managed to just bring it back into the field of play, but not without getting a (somewhat spurious) call of knock-on.
This was the first great tipping-point of the game, on the threshold between first and second quarters. On the one hand, Melbourne had gone from a deficit of tackles in the opposition twenty (let alone opposition half) to the fastest accumulation of close-range position so far, especially when a Katoa offside and a swinging arm from Ramien onto Ieremia out of dummy half conceded yet another bout of position. Cronulla had now fielded ten tackles in their red zone, and were staring down another six from a Storm outfit desperate for pride.
On the other hand, the sheer fact of repelling so much position must have strengthened the Sharkies’ resolve, even when Graham was too slow pulling off Jesse Bromwich a few plays later. In fact, the real risk now was getting a man sent off for too many mistakes, so they tightened up their discipline over the next set, surviving a Lewis pop-back to Seve, and a Hughes chip to the right, which ended with a second messy Papenhuyzen play – a chaotic tap-back that Ieremia coughed up to gift the ball to Cronulla once again.
Melbourne had well and truly made up for the deficit in position, but it had only produced a masterclass of Sharks defence – possibly their best of the year – as Fifita left the park for a well-earned break, and Aiden Tolman came off the bench in his place. Cronulla might not have done much with their next set, but they didn’t need to, since restoring the set-for-set rhythm was enough of an achievement after the barrage of purple attack at their own end. On the other side of the Steeden, the Storm needed a big play to revive that close-range rhythm.
Hughes hadn’t come up with especially convincing kick options on the Cronulla line, so he tried to compensate now with his most towering bomb so far, but Mulitalo handled it brilliantly, sticking a boot back over the line to get his men an extra tackle, before Josh King got done for a slow peel on Katoa. Nikora came close to breaking up the middle a play later, off a flat pass from Finucane, while Tolman sent it just as flat to McInnes, a pair of brinksmanship efforts that paid off when Tui Kamikamica infringed the ruck for six more.
They spread it right immediately, where Ramien smashed over for what looked like a certain double, only for the replay to confirm that Ieremia had done enough to bump the footy free at the death. For the first time since their sustained stint on the Cronulla line, Melbourne had taken control of the game, and Olam bolstered it with an absolute barnstormer to start their next set, which brought them to the Sharkies’ ten by tackle four, when Hughes kicked early, but again found his option lacking, as Trindall curved around to take it at the crossbar.
That just made it all the more dramatic, however, when Ramien made it a pair of putdowns a tackle later, in the first unforced Cronulla error of the night. Now was the time for the visitors to lean back into that splendid sequence on the Sharks’ line, so by surviving again, the hosts could reprise the catharsis of that original defensive achievement – and survive they did, as Tracey smashed in to shut down Seve on the right, and Trindall made it two great collects, scooping up a King kick as Paps sliced past him, before Kamikamica was called offside.
Reprising and condensing that defensive masterclass put Cronulla back in peak footy flow, as Finucane started the set with a daring offload on the ground to Tolman, Ramien found a massive hole on the left that Papenhuyzen only just plugged up, and Brailey finished with one of the best kicks of his career, chipping for himself, but getting the next best thing when Ieremia was forced to clean it up on the dead ball line. The crowd was at their most animated soon after, as Moylan reached up both hands to bump it, AFL-style, back inside to Trindall.
For a moment, this looked like it might start the clutch sweep of the night, so it was confounding when the stand-in halfback put it down, especially given his visionary ball handling at the back end of Melbourne’s kicks. Tolman was the next man to be called offside, but the Storm reached their nadir of the first stanza when Hughes failed to boot it out on the full, as one of the great sprays of Craig Bellamy’s coaching career loomed on the horizon, six minutes out from the sheds. Meanwhile, King got an offside, and the rest was history.
With this kind of turnover, the Sharks could score off sheer momentum, so Moylan wasted no time, after Nikora had delivered a mad charge up the right edge, in kicking on the second. For a brief beat, he sized up the left corner, calculated the risk, and correctly ascertained that Mulitalo would be able to overtake Anderson to the line. Even then, it was extraordinary to see what Ronaldo achieved here, slinking in front of the Melbourne winger and scooping up the Steeden in both arms, before lifting both legs into the air to avoid hitting touch.
This was the closest footy comes to flying, putting Cronulla at 16-0 once Trindall added a terrific sideline conversion, and making them seem like they were playing a couple of centimetres off the turf as the last minutes wound down to half time. Surely, they had to parlay this sublime flow into another try before the break – and so they did, as Tracey followed an immediately iconic fishing-styled try celebration with Mulitalo by taking the first hit-up on the next set, and breaking up the left to trap Papenhuyzen at marker.
With the Melbourne fullback tied up, the Sharkies shifted it rapidly to the other side of the park, where Brailey lobbed an arcing harbour bridge ball for Trindall to shift it out through Ramien to Katoa, who followed Moylan with an early kick. All of Cronulla’s scintillating vision came together now, as Ramien chased it down, scooped it up in both hands with Meaney on his back, and plunged over to make it a double after all. Trindall might have missed the kick into the breeze, but the Sharks were still at an incredible twenty unanswered points.
The Storm must have copped the spray of their life in the sheds, and you could see the impact when they returned, in the effort they made to keep Cronulla down their own end, forcing Trindall to boot his first one just outside their thirty. By contrast, Alec MacDonald muscled his way over halfway on tackle four, with the kind of straight hard play the Storm needed now, although Melbourne got their next blow when Lewis collided with Mulitalo beneath the next high ball, and stayed on the turf, clutching his right knee as the trainer came in to help.
Amazingly, he was back at marker a minute later, although the pause galvanised Lewis into a barnstorming run at the forty, as Teig Wilton and Braden Hamlin-Uele left the bench to inject some fresh blood into the home side. Trindall kicked his next one on the cusp of the red zone, and Mulitalo got his second take back, although Hughes was in place to shut him down before he could offload to Moylan. Again, MacDonald added speed, this time with an offload for Paps, pre-empting the critical role he was play in the Storm’s only try.
In doing so he laid the platform for Seve to show and go down the right edge, reaching the thirty before Melbourne abruptly pivoted back to the other side, where Brandon Smith extemporised a kick that Katoa was always going to take on the full. Nevertheless, the Storm had summoned some elasticity on this set, while they looked good to keep Cronulla in their own end – and Trindall knew it, sending through the kick early in the count, as Papenhuyzen delivered his hardest return of the night to flick it out for Ieremia to just break the twenty.
He was left on the ground in backplay, clutching his right index finger in pain, although this proved to be just as transitory as Lewis’ knee issue a few minutes before. It was as if the sheer surprise of the Cronulla assault was sending ripple injuries through the Melbourne pack, as Meaney followed Smith with a boot to the left edge, and got a slightly better angle, but not good enough to deft the Sharkies’ backline. The hosts might not have had much position so far, but then again they’d put twenty on the board without a whole lot of position either.
It felt like they just needed a shot at the Melbourne line to make another dent, and, conversely, that the visitors would do anything in their power to prevent them breaking their red zone. Trindall made it over halfway on the next set with a sharp charge up the right wing, and while any further options were abruptly shut down, that extra bit of position produced their best defensive stint since the break, forcing the Storm to take their kick from the thirty, and getting Kennedy into purple territory two tackles into the next set.
A Tolman hit-and-spin and a couple of tough post-contacts from Hamlin-Uele finally brought Cronulla to the brink of the red zone, and while none of the Storm got to Moylan’s crossfield chip, none of the Sharkies did either, leaving the Steeden to trickle over the sideline. Still, Melbourne had to work it off their own line, as a possible Lewis fumble went unnoticed early in the count, and for the second time in a row Hughes hoisted it into the air from his thirty, as Mulitalo took it clean, and only just missed out on an aerial tackle penalty from Seve.
Sensing he needed to amp up the rhythm again, Trindall booted it halfway through the next set, on the back of a big charge from Wilton, and while he didn’t quite nail the 40/20, it still sat up right in the corner, forcing Ieremia to work it back from the chalk in the face of a Cronulla wall. Sometimes attempting the 40/20 is flex enough, and so it was here, as Melbourne suddenly lost focus, exhausted by the pressure of remaining error-free in the face of a Sharks outfit that had delivered set after staunch set in the last ten minutes.
In other words, it was Cronulla’s consistency, as much as their footy brilliance, that made the difference now – the consistency needed to hold off the Storm for a sustained period of time after scoring so comprehensively against them in the first half. Anderson left the field after hyperextending his elbow beneath a pummelling Wilton tackle; then, Olam was offside at the very moment Ramien lost the ball. The Sharkies were always going to tap and go, almost putting Kennedy across on the left edge with one of the fastest sweeps of the evening.
Meaney prevented them shifting all the way out to the other edge, so it came down to a Moylan chip that Mulitalo caught on the full, dumped out the back, and lost to the visitors, who had done well to survive this first close-range onslaught since the sheds. Meaney wasted no time dummying and looking for space up the right, but from there the set moved mainly up the middle, through a rollicking charge from NAS and a more questioning dart from Paps before Mulitalo took the kick in the corner without much of a chase.
Even so, he was trapped in the corner for the first time since the break, but Melbourne instantly lost that position when Kamikamica swung an arm into Tracey on the following play. Cronulla didn’t do anything special on the next set, but again, consistency was the key, getting Trindall in place for a chip from the twenty that demanded all of Papenhuyzen’s footy instinct to take it on the full and remain shy of the sideline. Brandon Smith was now raring for position, starting with a big charge, dummying, and getting the offload out to Hughes.
That kind of initiative from the Cheese can often produce a ripple effect later in the set, but it didn’t really work here – not through any fault of Hughes, who followed his second phase play with a soaring boot, but beneath the high ball, where Seve shifted his focus from the Steeden to Mulitalo as they collided in the air. In one of the worst Captain’s Challenges we’ve yet seen, the Storm sent it upstairs, and not only lost their right to contest any further plays, but made it painfully clear just how desperate they were as the final quarter loomed.
They got a rare let-off in this second stanza when Hamlin-Uele overran a Moylan ball, and an even rarer penalty when big Braden took out some of his frustration by planting his shoulder into Olam’s face. For the second time, Smith tried to supercharge the set, now further upfield, and from dummy half, although the surge of adrenalin tempted him into dissent with the ref, and a couple of choice words for the fans hanging over the tunnel, as Bellamy watched on open-mouthed from the coaches’ box.
The Sharkies might not have scored since the break, but they’d kept Melbourne out for twenty minutes of football, and were now playing against a twelve-man team, in what felt like a fresh chapter in their attacking game. They were on the Storm’s line a moment later, where they ended with a reprise of the rapid left sweep that almost put Kennedy over earlier in this half. This time Tracey was cleaned up, receiving a deft cut-out from Brailey, twisting through an Ieremia ankle tap, and preparing to offload to Mulitalo, who was stuck back in the line.
This should have been one of the great passes of the night, so McInnes hit back in defence, slamming in with Hamlin-Uele for one of the biggest bone-rattlers of the game on Lewis. Braden was on report for the second time in five minutes, even though it seemed like his shoulder had only made contact with Lewis’ chest, but this didn’t decelerate the Sharks any, as Wilton, Mulitalo and Tracey combined for a shuddering pack effort on Ieremia, and Tracey and Wilton made it a double with a big hit on NAS, as McInnes came in to help out.
It was a trio of defensive statements that resumed Cronulla’s flow after Tracey’s missed linkup with Mulitalo on the edge, and seeped straight back into their attack when Kennedy took the next one clean in the corner, and Trindall booted it as high as he ever has on the last. Melbourne had already lost their right winger in Anderson, and now they lost their right centre in Seve, as play paused for the independent doctor to set up him for an HIA, before the purple army worked it off their line yet again, and Lewis slotted into Seve’s role.
Kennedy took it for the second time in a row, and didn’t have the slightest glimpse of a chase, while Trindall bombed twice in a row, both times to the right edge. Nikora tapped it back the first time, before Ieremia won the contest with Ramien, who bundled him into touch, for what was deemed a second effort – probably a harsh call, but the right result, since Tolman had been offside when Trindall put ball to boot a second time. For the briefest of moments, the Storm shone, as Paps made their first break, and Hughes delivered one of his best kicks.
It was a unpredictable effort, hugging the ground with a dangerous bounce, but that just gave Brailey a chance to shine in cover defence, with one of the better returns of his career. NAS may have absolutely cleaned up Tracey at the start of the next set, and Hughes may have delivered a nice ankle tap on Wilton to prevent him making the most of an unpopulated Melbourne right edge, but the Sharkies were still high on the flow of Brailey’s take, and had learned from their last two left sweeps, sending it out to the right this time around.
In fact, it was Brailey who made the pivotal decision here, receiving the Steeden from dummy half, sticking out his left boot, sizing up the left edge, and abruptly shifting it out to the right, where Moylan further disrupted the Melbourne defence with the defining play of the sweep – stretching the footy out in his right hand, showing it for an age, and clearing space for a compressed trio of short balls from Trindall, Kennedy and Ramien (who did well to take it right on the turf) to allow Katoa to curve around from wing to crossbar untouched.
Trindall was always going to add the extras from this angle, while the Sharks seemed rejuvenated by making good on Smith’s absence from the park. Things intensified a notch when Nikora was pinged for a marginal hip drop on Kenny Bromwich, who left the park for MacDonald to join the fray for what would be the only purple try of the night a few minutes later. For the first time since Smith was binned (and with Cheese back on the park), the Storm were on Cronulla’s line, and Hughes made it a dropout with a great grubber on the last.
Running straight towards Moylan, he sliced the Steeden so fast past his opposing half that Kennedy only had time to reach out an arm and swing it into touch with the chase descending on him. The same thing happened on the other wing a minute later, as Paps chipped, and Katoa popped it dead from back in field. Melbourne were really feeling the loss of Munster’s vision with the boot, as well as Grant’s speed from dummy half, so they desperately needed the six again they received early in this second dropout, off a ruck error from Hunt.
One play later, Papenhuyzen dummied and sliced through the line to plant it down behind the left post, clutching his back immediately like he was carrying the whole weight of this substandard Melbourne effort on his shoulders. Yet an obstruction from Jesse Bromwich made it no try, while the Sharks rubbed salt in the wound by scoring on their very next set. It came off another sweep to the right, where Ramien got his first career hat trick as Olam came in too early and MacDonald too late, leaving only Ieremia to cop the big no. 3’s bulk.
Cronulla might have been fourth on the live ladder, but they were now neck and neck with Melbourne for wins (11) and competition points (24), while the Storm were staring down their first scoreless game since their 14-0 loss to the Eels in 2020. Smith’s rough night peaked with Fifita dumping him on his back midway through the next purple set, although this ended up providing the visitors the position they needed to finally get on the board, and so (slightly) mollify what would still be one of the great post-match sprays from Bellyache.
Meaney steadied the set with a good charge towards the crossbar, NAS came up short beside the left post, Hughes showed it a bit further out on the right, and finally Smith got some joy, setting up MacDonald to pivot off the left boot, leap over Nikora, break through Brailey, and ricochet off the left padding, for his first try in the NRL. It was a well-deserved moment for the young no. 16, but barely a consolation for the Storm, who will be desperate for an absolute barnstormer when they host Canberra at AAMI at the end of Round 18.