Monday 18 December 2017 / 02:58 AM

NRL GRAND FINAL PREVIEW

NRL GRAND FINAL 2016

Melbourne Storm v Cronulla Sharks – 7.15pm (AEST), Sunday, October 2 @ ANZ Stadium, Sydney

HISTORY

Melbourne boast a 21-10 win-loss record against Cronulla since 1998, including a 28-0 victory in the clubs’ only previous finals meeting – the 2008 preliminary final. The Storm have won six of the past seven and 11 of the past 13, though the Sharks have won two of the past three in Sydney.

This season, the Sharks shut the Storm out impressively 14-6 at home in Round 4, holding their opponents scoreless in the second half.

The Storm turned the tables at AAMI Park in a Round 26 shootout for the minor premiership, powering to an emphatic 26-6 win with Cheyse Blair scoring a double.

FORM

After winning a club-record 15 in a row, Cronulla limped into the finals with just one win in the last six rounds – including heavy defeats to the Raiders, Dragons and Storm. But the finals reignited their fire, coming from 12-0 down to score a gutsy 16-14 win over the Raiders in week one before smashing the Cowboys 32-20 (they led 32-6 at one stage) in one of their most forceful displays of 2016.

 

Melbourne lost only five games all year, but two of those occurred in the final four rounds – to the Raiders and Broncos. The Storm closed out their qualifying final against the Cowboys in typically grinding style, 16-10, but were perhaps fortunate as they eliminated the Raiders 16-14 last week.

ATTACK

The Storm execute set plays as good as any team and exploiting defensive deficiencies better than any side. Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk give them a huge advantage, while Cameron Munster is a fine ball-player and excellent runner, and the three-quarter boasts plenty of scoring strike. A lack of variety in the pack is a slight drawback. Ranked fourth for points scored in the regular season.

On their day, the Sharks rate alongside the Raiders and Panthers as the most blistering attacking outfits in the NRL. They have a great attacking structure but have no problems deviating if opportunities present themselves – largely thanks to their contingent of offensive stars, Ben Barba, James Maloney, Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird. Their pack brings more skill, tackle-breaking ability and second-phase play than any in the premiership. Ranked third for points scored in the regular season.

Advantage: Sharks – more variety and points of attack, with the added advantage of being able to change things up as required and produce big plays when the flow appears to be going against them.

DEFENCE

The Storm are the best defensive side in the competition – and one of the best ever. So well organised and well-versed in the systems and structures without the ball, they don’t give away a single point easily.

Ranked fourth in the NRL during the regular season, the Sharks are among the toughest and most hurtful defensive sides seen in recent years. Their scrambling D is excellent, while their defensive pressure – as evidenced last week – can force the opposition into error when they’re switched on.

Advantage: Storm – Giving up just over 12.5 points per game, it will take something special to unlock the Melbourne defence this weekend.

EXPERIENCE

Cronulla take the most experienced squad in grand final history into Sunday’s clash, boasting 2742 NRL games between their top 17. Melbourne’s 17 have just 1882 games between them.

In terms of grand final experience, Storm duo Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk will make their sixth appearance on the NRL’s biggest day.

The club will also field three more survivors of its 2012 grand final victory: Will Chambers (who also played in the Storm’s 2009 win), Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor. Melbourne lock Dale Finucane featured in the 2012 decider against the Storm as a Canterbury rookie, while he also played in the Bulldogs’ 2014 grand final loss.

While this is the Sharks’ first grand final in 19 years, they also boast six players with previous experience on this stage. James Maloney played in the Warriors’ 2011 loss and starred in Sydney Roosters’ 2013 triumph, while Luke Lewis (Penrith, 2003), Chris Heighington (Wests Tigers, 2005) and Matt Prior (St George Illawarra, 2010) have also won grand finals with other clubs.

Ben Barba and Michael Ennis were both part of the Bulldogs’ 2012 grand final loss to the Storm.

Advantage: Storm – no matter what they say, grand final experience – particularly playing in grand finals together – is super important.

THE TEAMS

Fullbacks

Cameron Munster (Storm): 43 NRL games

Hard to believe Munster is just 22 with only two seasons of first grade behind him. Tough, composed and a wonderful ball-player, the Rockhampton product has ensured the Storm haven’t missed a beat since Billy Slater’s Round 1 injury. Boasts 12 try assists and 16 line-breaks this season.

Ben Barba (Sharks): 167 NRL games

The Sharks will be relying on the rejuvenated Barba’s spark on Sunday night – but the diminutive custodian is carrying a worrying injury. Enjoying his best season since winning the 2012 Dally M, Barba has 15 tries and 18 try assists to his name in 2016.

Advantage: Storm – on his day Barba is one of the game’s finest attacking players, but Munster is the superior all-rounder in the No.1 and a more imposing physical presence.

Wingers

Suliasi Vunivalu (Storm): 20 NRL games

The 20-year-old Fijian has enjoyed an extraordinary introduction to the NRL, breaking the Storm’s tryscoring record with 23 tries in only 20 games. Brilliant in the air and a powerful ball-runner, needs to up his involvement from his average of 10 runs per game.

Sosaia Feki (Sharks): 85 NRL games, 2 Tests (Tonga)

An underrated performer on the flank, Feki is on the cusp of a New Zealand Test call-up after a career-best 14 tries this season. Robust and fearless with the ball in hand, the 25-year-old can be exposed defensively but gets through invaluable work out of the Sharks’ end of the field.

Advantage: Storm – Vunivalu’s scoring strike is crucial with tries sure to be at a premium.

Marika Koroibete (Storm): 73 NRL games, 6 Tests (Fiji)

Overshadowed somewhat by his rookie wing partner, Koroibete has had a fine season and put last year’s prelim final brain explosion behind him with an outstanding post-season campaign to date. A powerhouse who makes 159 metres a game, the rugby union-bound Fijian will play a key role this weekend.

Valentine Holmes (Sharks): 56 NRL games

A freakish finisher, deceptively strong and the most dangerous outside-back the Sharks have possessed in a decade and a half, Holmes’ form has tapered off a little in the latter stages of the year but he change a game in the blink of an eye. Holmes has equalled the Sharks’ season tryscoring record with 19 touchdowns this year.

Advantage: Sharks – grand finals come to down to big moments, and Holmes is better equipped than most to take advantage.

Centres

Cheyse Blair (Storm): 60 NRL games

Another Storm success story, Blair came off the Manly scrapheap and is into his first grand final. Tall and strong, Blair has revelled on Melbourne’s right side, forming a strong combination with Blake Green – but he can be a defensive liability.

Jack Bird (Sharks): 48 NRL games, 2 Origin (NSW)

Retrenched from five-eighth following the arrival of James Maloney, the 2015 Rookie of the Year rose to Origin status this season thanks to his versatility and superb performances in the centres. Can let a game pass him by, but there are few more skilful or dynamic centres, and he has been an excellent provider for Holmes.

Advantage: Sharks – Blair may be a superior hole-runner, but Bird is a far better defender and ball-player who won’t let the occasion get the better of him.

Will Chambers (Storm): 148 NRL games, 1 Test (Australia), 4 Origins (Queensland)

Gradually regaining his best form after a lengthy injury layoff, Chambers is an experienced big-game player and shapes as an underrated trump card in the Storm deck.

Ricky Leutele (Sharks): 78 NRL games, 3 Tests (Samoa)

Another unsung hero, Leutele has grappled for a starting spot with Gerard Beale for much of the year, but has undeniably earned his run-on berth. The 26-year-old was outstanding in the second half against the Cowboys and is a real handful with the ball in hand.

Advantage: Storm – Chambers’ experience gives him the edge, but it should be a fascinating duel on that edge.

Five-eighths

Blake Green (Storm): 92 NRL games

The journeyman has played an integral role for the Storm since arriving last season – an ideal foil for dominant playmaker Cooper Cronk. Crafty and tough, the 30-year-old will be eager to play a big role on Sunday before heading off to Manly.

James Maloney (Sharks): 182 NRL games, 6 Origins (NSW)

Underlined his value with a sensational prelim final performance, guiding his third club into a grand final in six years. Maloney is the link the Sharks have been missing for years, and no other pivot boasts the same balance of top-shelf running, ball-playing and kicking ability. He’s a clutch 80 percent goalkicker on of all that.

Advantage: Sharks – Maloney is arguably the most important player in Sunday’s decider.

Halfback

Cooper Cronk (Storm): 300 NRL games, 28 Tests (Australia), 19 Origins (Queensland)

What more can be said about the No.7 maestro? Playing as well as at any stage of his illustrious career, as his second Dally M Medal success on Wednesday would suggest. Clinical, tough and relentless, Cronk relishes the big occasion and should be favourite to claim his second Churchill Medal.

Chad Townsend (Sharks): 86 NRL games

Responded superbly last week after being hooked against the Raiders, and has undoubtedly enjoyed a career-best season after returning to the Sharks from Auckland in 2016. A dangerous attacking player with seven tries and 13 assists this year, Townsend will nevertheless be targeted by the unforgiving Storm.

Advantage: Storm – You wouldn’t swap Cronk for any halfback in the game’s history heading into a grand final.

Hookers

Cameron Smith (Storm): 334 NRL games, 44 Tests (Australia), 39 Origins (Queensland)

One of the most decorated players of all time, no one in the code’s history has more big-game experience, while the wily rake is in superlative form and finished equal-third in the Dally M Medal. The peerless dummy-half conductor combines tactical nous with a fierce competitive spirit belying his calm exterior, and manages referees like no other captain.

Michael Ennis (Sharks): 272 NRL games, 8 Origins (NSW)

The retiring stalwart is certain to go out with a bang. His attacking attributes are at their peak despite his advancing years, while he will be hell-bent on unsettling the Storm with his unmatched sledging game.

Advantage: Storm – a key battle and both are prominent Churchill Medal contenders, but Smith is quite simply the GOAT of hookers.

Props

Jesse Bromwich (Storm): 158 NRL games, 18 Tests (New Zealand)
Jordan McLean (Storm): 65 NRL games

Bromwich rates as arguably the game’s No.1 front-rower – mobile, strong and ultra-consistent, the Kiwi captain isn’t as explosive as some of his rivals, but none are as effective across 80 minutes of a game. The rangy McLean has enjoyed a career-best season and isn’t too far away from achieving honours higher than his Country debut earlier this year.

Andrew Fifita (Sharks): 140 NRL games, 6 Tests (Australia), 7 Origins (NSW)
Matt Prior (Sharks): 176 NRL games

The controversial Fifita – one way or another – will be a key figure on Sunday. Prone to a brain explosion or two, the dynamic prop has been outstanding during the finals and can bust a game wide open. Meanwhile, Prior is the far steadier of the two and has been in career-best touch to surge into Kangaroos attention.

Advantage: Sharks – by a whisker. Bromwich is the most valuable prop in the code, but the combined experience and X-factor Fifita and Prior bring gives them a slight edge.

Second-rowers

Tohu Harris (Storm): 102 NRL games, 11 Tests (New Zealand)
Kevin Proctor (Storm): 178 NRL games, 12 Tests (New Zealand)

The Kiwi duo are vital to what the Storm do, and are arguably the most consistent second-row pairing in the game. Harris has arguably outshined the more senior Proctor this year, but both have been superb for a number of seasons, racking up big tackle counts and threatening on the fringes with ball in hand.

Luke Lewis (Sharks): 283 NRL games, 16 Tests (Australia), 17 Origins (NSW)
Wade Graham (Sharks): 178 NRL games, 1 Origin (NSW)

Lewis and Graham bring an unmatched balance to the Sharks’ pack – plus a heap of experience, toughness and durability. Both dangerous ball-runners, Graham is the NRL’s best ball-playing back-rower while Lewis is no slouch in that department, and both can hit like a truck.

Advantage: Sharks – Again a split hair in it, but the Cronulla duo’s range of qualities puts them just in front.

Lock

Dale Finucane (Storm): 115 NRL games

A two-time grand finalists with Canterbury and a three-time Country rep, Finucane is a typical Storm-style forward – super-reliable, hardworking and underrated. Has only missed five games since making his first-grade debut in 2012.

Paul Gallen (Sharks): 279 NRL games, 32 Tests (Australia), 24 Origins (NSW)

The heart and soul of the Sharks, the skipper breaks the all-time record for most first-grade games before making a grand final debut. Despite being in the twilight of his career and not as effective as his heyday of a few years ago, Gallen will leave it all out on ANZ Stadium and lead from the front all night.

Advantage: Sharks – There’s a sense of destiny about this game for the Sharks and Gallen won’t leave anything in the tank.

Interchange

Kenny Bromwich (Storm): 71 NRL games, 1 Test (New Zealand)
Tim Glasby (Storm): 62 NRL games
Christian Welch (Storm): 26 NRL games
Ben Hampton (Storm): 35 NRL games

Four solid young players who all know their role and have come through the Storm system. Good balance and adequate cover for almost any contingency, with Hampton experienced at fullback, half and hooker, and Bromwich also providing dummy-half cover. Welch and Glasby face a big challenge, but they’ve handled everything thrown at them to date.

Gerard Beale (Sharks): 141 NRL games, 8 Tests (New Zealand)
Chris Heighington (Sharks): 294 NRL games, 3 Tests (England)
Sam Tagataese (Sharks): 155 NRL games, 3 Tests (Samoa)
Jayson Bukuya (Sharks): 125 NRL games, 10 Tests (Fiji)

A tremendous amount of experience and impact, with Tagataese’s return from injury a big boost. Little dumm-half cover but Beale can cover all backline injuries. The Sharks lose little when any of these four come onto the field.

Adavantage: Sharks – Massive experience advantage and more punch.

Coaches

Craig Bellamy (Storm): 401 NRL games, 9 Origins (NSW)

The master tactician, Bellamy takes the side he has built – and rebuilt – with his bare hands to a sixth grand final.

Shane Flanagan (Sharks): 139 NRL games

A maiden grand final appearance for ‘Flanno’, who has done an extraordinary job after the harrowing 12-month ban handed to him at the end of 2013.

Advantage: Storm – Bellamy will have meticulously analysed the Sharks, with no team better at exploiting a team’s weaknesses than the Storm.

THE VERDICT

Many recent premiers have had a sense of destiny about them: the Saints’ first premiership in 31 years (2010), the Storm’s retribution (2012), Souths’ drought-breaker (2014) and the Cowboys’ maiden triumph (2015).

It just feels right that the Sharks should break their premiership duck in their 50th season – and they have the team to back it up.

The sides are incredibly evenly matched, but Cronulla has arguably been the more impressive during the finals and have one or two extra game-breakers that could see them put the clinical Melbourne outfit away.

You can never be confident backing against the Storm, but get on the Sharks if you’re in the mood for a fairytale. Sharks by 4

[YouTube – JM3 MONTAGES]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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