Cronulla are on the verge of capturing their maiden NRL premiership when they take on Melbourne in this Sunday’s Grand Final.
The Shire outfit is playing in their first Grand Final since the 1997 Super League decider but under a unified competition, it will be their first appearance since 1978.
Melbourne, on the other hand, has been one of the most dominant teams of the modern era and will contest their sixth Grand Final in 11 years.
Both teams have been near standouts for most of the season and it’s no surprise to see them as the last ones standing in 2016.
Cronulla has been rewarded for one of their best seasons in recent history by getting to this stage of the competition.
Notching a 15-game winning streak and 16-game unbeaten run, they finished third in the regular season after dropping four of their five to end the regular season.
Their form was highlighted by a brilliant run at home which saw just the one loss, against Canberra, which ultimately ended their unbeaten run in Round 22.
When you talk about benchmark teams there has been none better than Melbourne in the past decade.
They have finished Minor Premiers for the second time in four seasons and been a regular fixture in finals since 2006 with the only exception being in 2010 due to salary cap breaches.
Arguably the main reason they secured top spot and home ground advantage throughout the finals was their defence. It was easily the best in the competition and conceded an average of just 12.5ppg. That trend has continued in the two finals they have played in 2016 with the Cowboys and Raiders scoring 10 and 12 points respectively.
It doesn’t bode well for Cronulla that they come up against Melbourne in the Grand Final as their record against them is terrible.
Such has been Melbourne’s dominance over the Sharks in recent years that the average winning margin has been a tick over 24 points per game.
The Sharks have just three wins against the Storm since 2008 and 11 losses, however, one of their wins came earlier this season at Shark Park. Cronulla defeated Melbourne 14-6 in Monday Night Football.
STUMBLING NO MORE
Cronulla fell into the finals series with their worst of the run of the season. Having not lost since Round 3 prior to their defeat to Canberra, they then dropped three straight before a brief respite against the Roosters.
They were then beaten by 20 points in the Minor Premiership showdown against Melbourne at AAMI Park in the final round of the regular season.
Despite the margin though the game was actually closer than it looked. Cronulla had several chances to put points on the Storm but luck, and a stout defence, kept them out when the game was on the line.
Week 1 of the finals saw them go to Canberra and give up an early 12-nil lead but they stuck solid and ground their way back into the game to win 16-14 to earn the week off.
Last week’s effort in the Preliminary Final against the defending premiers was simply outstanding.
Showing arguably their best form of the entire season, Cronulla blew North Queensland off the park to set up a huge 32-6 lead before switching off late. The end result was 32-20 but the reality was that there was a huge gulf between the teams.
Melbourne came into the finals as one of the form teams of the competition, losing just two games since Round 16.
The first of those was against the Raiders at GIO Stadium but the next one was somewhat unexpected when Brisbane gave them a lesson they won’t forget in a while. The margin was only 10 points in Round 25 but it may as well have been 100 because the Broncos began fast and registered points quickly. Before Melbourne knew what was happening the game was all but over.
Craig Bellamy’s side has had the benefit of having their last four games at AAMI Park including two Prelim Finals.
Week 1 saw them beat the Cowboys 16-10 in one of the games of the season while last week they survived by the skin of their teeth in holding out a fast-finishing Canberra side.
Some may have seen it as Melbourne getting lucky as Canberra definitely had their chances, however, you can’t get lucky all the time and the competition’s best defence did what they do best in securing the win.
HOW THE GRAND FINAL PANS OUT
Whoever begins the quickest and best will go a long way to winning this one.
If Cronulla can begin the way they did last week then no side on the planet would be able to stop them. The big question is can they reproduce that effort considering before that they were prone to slow starts?
Another big question for them is their record at ANZ Stadium which is a poor two wins from their past 11 games. That said, they have played there sparingly over the years and the Sharks teams that lost for the most part look totally different to the one we’ll see on Sunday. Cronulla has beaten the Bulldogs at Homebush in 2016 but lost to the Rabbitohs with both games decided by a converted try or less.
As for Melbourne they have big game players and any side with Cronk and Smith calling the shots is going to be difficult to stop. While their defence will keep them in the game for a long time it’s their attack that may be their biggest obstacle on Sunday. They scored just 16 points against the Cowboys while their 14 in last week’s match with Canberra came from two tries and two penalty goals.
They say you are only as good as your last game and Cronulla were sensational against North Queensland.
If they reproduce that form, and we think they will, then their 50-year wait for a maiden premiership will be broken.
James Maloney will be the key to their attack which is plainly obvious after he ripped apart the defending champs last week. The Sharks averaged 24.1ppg in the regular season which was up by six points on last season’s figures and the big reason for that was the outstanding five-eighth. This is Maloney’s third Grand Final in six years with three different teams (Warriors 2011, Sydney Roosters 2013).
With forwards Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and the prospect of having Sam Tagataese and Joseph Paulo back they have the size to match the Melbourne forwards, which will pave the way for the backs to do their thing.
Melbourne’s chances sit with their defence and if they can stifle the attack of Cronulla early then they will be well on their way to saluting.
There’s a sense of timing for Shane Flanagan’s men from the beaches though and on that note we are tipping a Cronulla win.
HEAD TO HEAD tip: Cronulla
MARGIN: We are going for value and tipping 13+. Close games are a rarity between these sides and the 13+ option is paying healthy regardless of which way you go.
1ST TRYSCORER: Valentine Holmes (Sharks). Melbourne’s defence is most vulnerable on the wings so look to Holmes, who has already equalled David Peachey’s club record for tries in a single season, to cross the line first.
CLIVE CHURCHILL MEDAL: James Maloney (Sharks). If the Sharks win then chances are he will have been the main reason why. Options for the Melbourne Storm are obvious in Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. Looking for value? Then throw in the likes of Dale Finucane (Storm) or Matt Prior (Sharks).
DID YOU KNOW? Cronulla are riding the longest premiership drought of any NRL club that hasn’t won a comp. Warriors (entered NRL 1995) and Titans (2007) are behind them.
DID YOU KNOW? Cooper Cronk is aiming to become the second man behind Canberra’s Bradley Clyde to win the Clive Churchill Medal twice? Clyde won it with Canberra in 1989 and 1991.
DID YOU KNOW? Cronulla has three players who have tasted Grand Final success? Luke Lewis (Penrith, 2003), Matt Prior (Dragons, 2010) and James Maloney (Roosters, 2013). Michael Ennis was part of the Brisbane premiership squad of 2006 but was injured early in the season and barely played.
DID YOU KNOW? This is the first time in the modern era that State Of Origin captains will oppose each other as captains of the Grand Final teams (Cam Smith and Paul Gallen).
DID YOU KNOW? Three players have won the Clive Churchill Medal from a losing side? Bradley Clyde (1991), Brad Mackay (1993) and Daly Cherry-Evans (2013).
DID YOU KNOW? Veteran forward Luke Lewis played on the wing for Penrith in their premiership win over the Roosters in 2003?