Cronulla Sharks v Melbourne Storm @ ANZ Stadium - Grand Final
It's a date with destiny for the Sharks as they look to claim their first title in their 50th season when they take on the Storm in the Grand Final at ANZ Stadium on Sunday. Just 2 years on from the ASADA scandal which threatened to tear the heart of the club, it is an astonishing triumph for the Sharks and their long suffering fans. It's been a week of celebration and 'daring to dream' in the Shire after the Sharks' comprehensive 32-20 drubbing of the reigning premiers last Friday night at Allianz Stadium. The Sharks blew the Cowboys away with their speed and power in front of over 35000 raucous Cronulla fans. Meanwhile it is business as usual for the Storm who remarkably make a 6th Grand Final in 11 years after a tense 14-12 victory over a gallant Raiders side in the Preliminary Final at AAMI Park. The Storm were some way off their best, however as Minor Premiers deserve their place in the game's showpiece after another stellar season under redoubtable coach Craig Bellamy. The sides have met twice this season with the Shakrs prevailing in a low scoring struggle earlier in the season, while Melbourne were comprehensive winners in Round 26.
The Sharks make a massive change on the interchange bench with Sam Tagataese back for the big dance. It is somewhat of a risk for the Sharks given Tagataese has not played in 5 weeks with Kurt Capewell the unlucky player to make way. The Sharks appeared to have lost their way heading into the finals winning only 1 of their last 6 regular season matches. However the reality was they were guilty of simply waiting for the finals to start and their performance last week against North Queensland was of premiership quality. The Sharks are a team with a wonderful mix of grizzled and experienced veterans and the speed, flair and carefree attitude of youth. In Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Chris Heighington and Michael Ennis they have 4 senior men that are driving this club towards its greatest day. Ennis has been revelation at Cronulla. Whilst he was always a tough and reliable footballer, at Cronulla he has been given licence to create out of dummy half. His short passing and kicking game near the line is extremely dangerous and I expect him to have another blinder on Sunday. For Paul Gallen it would be the culmination of 15 years of graft in the Shire as he enters the most important game of his career. Gallen has been a polarising figure outside of the Sharks, however no one can doubt his toughness, his loyalty or his quality, and he will be putting everything on the line to claim the prize on Sunday. The Sharks made the signing of the season when they secured James Maloney from the Roosters in the off-season. Paired with Chad Townsend, Maloney is not the biggest or the fastest, however he has an outstanding football brain and instincts. He plays what is front of him and with the likes of Jack Bird, Valantine Holmes and Ben Barba in the backline the Sharks have the weapons to really damage the Storm.
Melbourne are expected to retain Ben Hampton as their utility player on their 4 man bench for Sunday's Grand Final. Highly rated forward Felise Kaufusi is expected to be the unlucky forward to miss out at Hampton's expense. Melbourne were far from their best last week, however they relied on their watertight defence to advance to the Grand Final. The Storm have clearly been the best defensive side in the NRL this year conceding just over 13 points per game. When the two sides met for the Minor Premiership in Round 26, the Storm were at their manic best in defence denying the Sharks with last ditch efforts on a number of occasions to claim a comprehensive 26-6 victory. However one of the main reasons the Storm are back in the Grand Final after a 4 year absence is their greater strike power in attack and size in the forwards. Suliasi Vunivalu has had an outstanding rookie season and is a huge threat in the air and a great finisher. With Marika Koroibete out on the other flank using his raw power and electric speed, the Storm have two of the games premier wingers.The likes of Jordan McLean, Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor have been hugely impressive this year in a typically under rated Storm forward pack. With a bit more size and ability to offload, this Storm pack has got on top of most teams this year. Cameron Munster has once again done a stellar job filling in for the injured Billy Slater having occupied the fullback's job with aplomb since Slater went down way back in Round 1. Undoubtably the driving force behind the Storm's success though remains Cooper Cronk at halfback and Cameron Smith at hooker. The remarkable pair play their 6th and 5th Grand Finals respectively and, coupled with their Origin success, are two of the games greatest big match players.
Verdict - Cronulla 26 Storm 14
I have been on the Storm since the pre-season, however I really think it is Cronulla's time. They are playing with speed, power, momentum and flair and have all the ingredients to end their title duck today. I watched the Western Bulldogs' unbelievable triumph yesterday ending their 63-year drought and thought sometimes it is destiny for certain clubs. The Sharks, with Michael Ennis retiring, will never get a better chance to break through, and they come into this game in red hot form. Their demolition of the Cowboys was the performance of the finals and they have all the confidence and momentum on their side. Despite going down to Melbourne in Round 26, that game was a far cry from a 26-6 type loss. Cronulla made more line breaks and created more try scoring opportunities. They had the Storm on the hop several times and only a few botched options and frantic scrambles saved Melbourne. The game could have easily been a similar result the other way in my opinion. Melbourne do have a lot of big game experience and the likes of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk won't shrink under the Title pressure. I think the only hope for Melbourne in this game is if they can get a couple of tries in front and rattle Cronulla. From there the Storm can play their robotic football, control the clock and grind them down like they have done so often in the past. I expect this Grand Final to have plenty of penalties as both sides look to assert themselves in the ruck and it could easily turn into a chippy affair. However I just think Cronulla's best might be a bit better than Melbourne's in terms of strike power, and, with 50 years of frustration behind them, I believe the Sharks are going to ride that wave of emotion into a maiden title. Sharks by 12.