Up, up Cronulla
The porch lights have all been turned off in the Shire – if they hadn’t already exploded from the surge of energy that erupted after the fulltime whistle of an epic NRL grand final. Cronulla’s 50-season wait for a maiden premiership came to an emotional, euphoric end in suitably dramatic style, with the Sharks surviving a late raid by the courageous Melbourne Storm to salute 14-12.
The Sharks were relentless from the kick-off, dominating the vaunted Storm physically with and without the ball for the first 50 minutes of the match. The fairytale was on the ropes when Melbourne struck twice to eradicate Cronulla’s modest 8-0 halftime advantage, but the Sharks had one last championship effort in them, maintaining their suffocating pressure to work their way into position before Andrew Fifita’s unforgettable match-winner.
The final 10 minutes was heart-in-the-mouth stuff, but the Sharks hung on for a much-deserved triumph. The celebrations were as poignant as it gets, but the image of former captain Andrew Ettingshausen embracing current skipper Paul Gallen – both legends of the long-suffering club in tears – is set to be the enduring memory of a magical night.
Gutsy Storm fall just short
Melbourne lost few admirers for their efforts under fire, coming within an ace of an extraordinary comeback win. The Storm produced a titanic defensive performance to limit the halftime damage to just 8-0; they were on their heels virtually from the opening whistle, but somehow turned the tables to grab a shock lead with 15 minutes left. It was short-lived, though, and their frantic rally in the dying stages came desperately close to stealing the match from the nervy Sharks’ grasp.
The Storm can only rue what might have been. Churchill Medal favourite Cooper Cronk has never been as ineffectual in a big game, while he could have scored the winning try if Will Chambers had been able to get a pass away to his unmarked teammate in the latter stages. No doubt they’ll be back as formidable as ever next year, though, and they should start 2017 as premiership favourites.
Age shall not weary them
Elder statesmen Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis played a colossal role in the Sharks’ watershed success, and created individual history along the way. Gallen, at 35, became the oldest grand final-winning skipper since St George’s Billy Wilson (36) in 1961. The 33-year-old Lewis became the oldest winner of the Clive Churchill Medal, breaking the record set by Johnathan Thurston (32) last year.
Meanwhile, retiring hooker Michael Ennis added his name to a list that includes Harry Bath, Norm Provan, Peter Provan, Ken Irvine, Ray Price, Mick Cronin, Steve Mortimer, John Ferguson, Royce Simmons, Mal Meninga, Glenn Lazarus, Kevin Walters, Brett Mullins, Shane Webcke and Steve Menzies in bowing out with a grand final victory.
There’s a nice symmetry in the 32-year-old Ennis’ dream farewell, with fellow rake Simmons the only other player on that list who retired after their sole win in a decider – the others had all tasted premiership glory previously.
Fifita deserved Churchill honour
The Clive Churchill Medal regularly drums up a bit of conjecture – there’s no way Thurston should have got it ahead of Anthony Milford last year, while Daly Cherry-Evans’ win on a losing side in 2013 still baffles – as so it was again last night. Lewis took out the prestigious gong after a huge performance, but the vast majority of fair-minded judges agreed Andrew Fifita was the best on ground by a decent margin.
The dynamic prop made 190 metres from a game-high 24 runs, tallied 39 tackles with no misses, recorded 12 tackle busts and scored the match-winning try – a remarkable solo effort destined to be ensconced in grand final folklore. It wouldn’t be drawing to long a bow to suggest the recent controversy surrounding Fifita’s deplorable comments and support of a convicted killer prevented him from capping one of the great big-match performances with the Churchill Medal.
Rugby league fans claim Sharks star Andrew Fifita denied NRL Grand Final man of the match award due to his co… https://t.co/JdGbXmXUQY
— ICE-CREAM MAN (@Segzy006) October 2, 2016
Young guns step up
Fifita and Lewis were clear standouts, but not far behind was the Sharks’ brilliant right-side backline duo of Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird. Both produced fearless, fired-up displays that only got more impressive as the pressure mounted on the history-chasing team during the second half. Bird’s courage in playing on with what appeared to be a match-ending arm injury was inspiring, and the Sharks’ overall fortitude in the face of injury – with Sosaia Feki departing after 47 minutes, and Matt Prior and Jayson Bukuya leaving the field for concussion tests – was a feature of the heroic victory.
Created history! How good 😀 champs
— Jack Bird (@JackBird_1) October 2, 2016
— NRL (@NRL) October 2, 2016
Cam all class
It was a tough night out for Cam Smith, unable to dominate in his usual fashion and forced to reel off a mammoth 70 tackles as his Storm side came agonisingly short of pulling off a miracle come-from-behind win. But the champion No.9 covered himself in glory post-match, first in an interview with Darren Lockyer and then in the most gracious and touching speech by a losing grand final skipper ever.
“On behalf of the entire Melbourne Storm footy club I’d just like to congratulate the Cronulla Sharks, their club and all the fans,” Smith said.
“You guys have been waiting a very long time for this moment and it’s taken a lifetime and many people who supported the club for a very long time didn’t see a premiership, but everyone here has and I hope you enjoy it thoroughly.
NRL: Cameron Smith ‘all class’: If you’re not a Melbourne or Queensland supporter, chances are you’re not Cam… https://t.co/9w2TlLB7aA
— Rugby League (@RugbyLeagueFeed) October 2, 2016
Credit where it’s due
At the end of a season where the whistle-blowers and the Bunker were deservedly raked over the coals countless times, it was refreshing that the men in the middle and the control room had next to no impact on the decider. Granted, the officials had few genuinely tough calls to make, but they let the game flow and were decisive and quick with their decisions. Bravo, Matt Cecchin, Ben Cummins, Ashley Klein and Luke Patten.
Matt Cecchin utterly superb as main ref. He’s come through the wilderness and now at the top!#NRLGF
— Nathan Cripps (@hoodooguru81) October 2, 2016
Entertainment hits bum note
The AFL’s grand final entertainment consisted of Sting playing songs by The Police, legendary Aussie rockers The Living End and indie favourite Vance Joy. The NRL’s offering? Pop-country dirge from Keith Urban, and a cringe-a-riffic performance from Richie Sambora and his Aussie girlfriend Orianthi butchering Bon Jovi songs. The NRL seemed to finally get the memo last year when they booked in the great Jimmy Barnes, but that was clearly a fluke if Sunday’s embarrassing line-up is deemed acceptable pre-match fare.
Keith Urban does songs no one knows very well. Richie Sambora does songs every one knows very badly. #NRLGF
— Michael Byrnes (@MichaelByrnes) October 2, 2016
The Kangaroo crosshairs
Standout grand final performances can often shake up the ensuing selection room calls, and several players put their hands up for a Kangaroos Four Nations berth. Holmes and Bird couldn’t have done much more, veterans Maloney and Ennis could be surprise deputies for Thurston/Cronk and Smith respectively, and Fifita virtually demanded a place in the squad.
Wade Graham, Ben Barba and Matt Prior did their chances no harm, while on the Storm side Cameron Munster barely put a foot wrong and Will Chambers was superb. Touted as a possible bolter, Jordan McLean probably didn’t do enough.
Perhaps the most intriguing development to come out of the squad announcements, however, will be whether Australia or New Zealand attempt to fast-track rookie sensation Suliasi Vunivalu – who had a fair game in the decider – as he is eligible for both nations. Sosaia Feki’s injury during the second half may have opened up a wing spot in the Kiwis’ touring party.
— Triple M NRL (@TripleM_NRL) October 2, 2016
Ben Barba: Made a huge impression during the first half – including sneaking over for the opening try from a crafty scrum move – and was almost faultless. A bit quiet in the second stanza but still an outstanding all-round display. 8
Valentine Holmes: Took countless tough carries in a stellar performance. The outstanding three-quarter on the field with 16 runs for 159 metres. 8
Jack Bird: Looked gone after suffering an elbow injury during the first half, but played through the pain and got better as the match wore on to finish with 146 metres from 16 runs. 8
Ricky Leutele: Strong outing from the robust centre, making a line-break early in the second half and running for over 100 metres, though opposite number Chambers outshone him for the remainder of the match. 7
Sosaia Feki: Very solid with 10 runs for 78 metres until injury forced him out of the match seven minutes after halftime. 6.5
James Maloney: Arguably the best player on the field in the opening 40, almost laying on a try for Luke Lewis with a line-break and constantly threatening the Storm’s defensive line. Kicking was excellent, until two poor last-tackle options in the dying minutes kept Melbourne’s hopes alive. 7.5
Chad Townsend: Played second fiddle to Maloney but did his job in a composed performance. Chalked up 27 tackles but put his running game on the shelf. 6.5
Andrew Fifita: Couldn’t ask for any more from the controversial prop, racking up massive numbers and scoring the match-winning try. One of the great grand final displays by a front-rower. 9.5
Michael Ennis: Revelled playing behind a dominant pack, troubling the Storm with his short kicking game and goading his opponents in trademark fashion. 7.5
Matt Prior: Another workhorse effort from one of the stars of the finals series, making a game-high 191 metres from 17 runs and reeling off 28 tackles. 7.5
Luke Lewis: A popular Churchill Medal recipient for a towering performance. Lewis was in everything and worried the Storm all night by running excellent lines. 8.5
Wade Graham: Received few chances to impart his usual influence but was a solid presence on Cronulla’s right edge with and without the ball. 7
Paul Gallen: Led from the front with 19 runs for 144 metres and 28 tackles, while also putting Barba over for the first try from a scrum. Tireless. 8
Gerard Beale: Thrust into the action after Feki’s injury and was very good opposite danger-man Vunivalu. 6
Chris Heighington: Made a big impact after coming on during the first half, churning out 10 runs and 16 tackles in just 27 minutes. 7.5
Sam Tagataese: Afforded only seven minutes but an excellent cameo from the veteran with four strong runs. 6
Jayson Bukuya: Got through plenty of work during 32 minutes on the field – 23 tackles and nine runs – but his night ended via a clumsy tackle attempt on Tohu Harris, copping a knee to the head. 7
Cameron Munster: A courageous performance playing behind a team almost exclusively on the back foot. Finished with 150 metres from 21 runs, but wasn’t able to make an impact with the ball at the Sharks’ end of the field. 7
Suliasi Vunivalu: Made a line-break amongst 13 runs, but the Storm weren’t able to utilise his full array of talents. 6
Cheyse Blair: Solid enough, but a bit of a non-factor on the night. 5.5
Will Chambers: Put the Storm into the lead with a dazzling try and came agonisingly short of setting up the premiership-winning try with a clever kick-and-chase – but couldn’t link with Cooper Cronk on the inside. Finished with 158 metres from 16 runs in a fine display. 8
Marika Koroibete: Gave away first points with a high tackle but was otherwise excellent, racking up a team-high 185 metres from 18 carries. Couldn’t quite keep the ball alive on the buzzer as the Storm almost pulled out a miracle. 7.5
Blake Green: A tough night to be a half in the Melbourne line-up, but Green had some nice touches and featured prominently in the second half as the Storm started to find space. 6.5
Cooper Cronk: Hard to recall a poorer performance from the No.7 maestro. Kicking game was miles off, running game was absent and struggled to execute out wide with his usual precision. 5
Jesse Bromwich: Got the Storm back into the game with a try from close range, racked up 40 tackles and 17 carries, and a game-high three offloads. Made a costly late handling error, however. 7.5
Cameron Smith: Outpointed by Ennis and was unable to control things in the manner to which he is accustomed, but tallied an incredible 70 tackles and warmed up attack-wise during the second half. 7
Jordan McLean: Good 43-minute contribution in tough circumstances, making 26 tackles and 10 runs. 6
Kevin Proctor: Massive in defence with 41 tackles (no misses) but his dangerous combination with Cronk made little impression. 6.5
Tohu Harris: Arguably the Storm’s best, racking up 45 tackles and 17 runs in a superb 80-minute performance. Played a key role in the comeback. 8
Dale Finucane: A typical workhorse performance in defence with 38 tackles in 57 minutes, but didn’t stand out. 6
Tim Glasby: Handy showing off the bench, making 28 tackles and seven runs during 35 minutes on the field. 6.5
Kenny Bromwich: Got through a mountain of work during just 28 minutes of game-time, with 29 tackles (no misses) and eight runs for 67 minutes. 7
Christian Welch: The unfortunate fall guy for the Storm, with his 11-minute contribution forever to be remembered for a needless high tackle on Chad Townsend late in the count in the lead-up to Fifita’s try. 5
Ben Hampton: Thrown in late and was busy but well-contained. 5.5