The 80 minutes are up and the Shire has woken – those who went to sleep, anyway – as NRL champions for the first time.
It was truly one of the great grand finals of all time. The crowd of 83,625 never let up in this pulsating encounter which delivered what it promised and what the fans deserved. Neither team ever looked certain victors yet that’s what made this Grand Final so special.
As a Parramatta supporter through and through, I started attending games on a consistent basis in 2004. I attended the heartbreaking 2009 decider against the Melbourne Storm which we lost 23-16. When I found out two weeks ago that my Dad had tickets to this year’s final I was ecstatic at the thought of witnessing, perhaps, a slice of history.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Cronulla, partly because of their perpetual underdog status, partly because my mother has long supported them. The prospect of witnessing them lift their maiden trophy appealed immensely. That prospect grew stronger and brighter as the Sharks downed the Cowboys in their Grand Final Qualifier to set up a clash with the Storm, who outmuscled the Canberra Raiders.
Then, on Saturday, the Western Bulldogs broke their 62-year AFL drought. Surely that was an omen as we headed into the NRL clash?
We arrived at ANZ Stadium around 2pm. There was already a crowd of supporters across the Olympic Park precinct enjoying fan activities and entertainment while young kids swapped goal kicking duties in virtual goal kicking competitions. There weren’t just Sharks and Storm supporters either. Almost every team in the competition was represented by fans attending simply for the huge occasion that it is.
The Holden Cup Final was a boil-over as the Sydney Roosters came from 28-6 down to defeat the hot favourites, the Penrith Panthers, 30-28. Then the Illawarra Cutters tore apart the Burleigh Bears 54-12 in the State Championship as the crowd continued to build.
A phalanx of purple was beginning to form behind the goalposts at the southern end but they were outnumbered by the sea of blue, white and black as you looked around the ground.
The pre-match entertainment came and went to a mixed reception then – finally – the main event was upon us..
Paul Gallen led his Sharks side out to a rapturous roar; Cameron Smith took his Storm team out to a chorus of boos. Rapture again as Ben Barba scored the first and only try of the first half. As the teams went in at 8-0 Sharks fans began to murmur “Just 40 minutes away.” Oh, how long 40 minutes can be.
Jesse Bromwich crashed over, Will Chambers found the line, and the Sharks were behind 12-8. The roar of the outnumbered Storm contingent suddenly was deafening. Where was the inspiration going to come from for the proud Sharkies? Up stepped a man who had been in the media for all the wrong reasons lately, Andrew Fifita, to bustle past a number of Storm defenders, reach out – and plant the ball down in a superhuman effort. Cronulla led 14-12.
Surely the fairytale was going to happen now?
Not quite. As the clock ticked down the Storm had one last chance. Coming from their own half with a full set and 50 seconds to go, the Storm led by seasoned veterans, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, worked their way up the field. The whole stadium rose as one, as if to nervously oversee the final play. The Storm throw the ball around, player to player, offload after offload.
“Put him down! Tackle him!” Desperate shouts. My legs were shaking as I willed home the team for my Mum and for the players it would mean so much for.
For a moment it looked as though Melbourne were going to pull off a miracle … then departing winger Marika Koroibete was brought to ground, ending the agony, heralding the end of the Sharks’ 49-year wait for their first premiership. The final whistle was blown, the task, finally, was done.
Beers were thrown skyward, spraying down on emotional Sharks supporters but they couldn’t care less about the sticky mess. It was the moment the Shire had waited for.
Such an incredible game to witness live, so many feel good stories to speak about. Ben Barba, unwanted at Brisbane two years ago, finds redemption. Michael Ennis wins glory in his final game. Paul Gallen finally lifts the coveted Provan-Summons trophy for the Shire, a task, a dream, that had weighed heavily on him for years. Pure elation amongst the Sharks supporters and tears flow around the ground for a magnificent victory.
The heroic skipper “Gal” wouldn’t have felt a thing as he lifted the heavy trophy. Every Sharks fan was lifting it up with him.
The sheer passion and emotion that comes with every Grand Final Day is a crazy whirlwind. This is why I love it so. – Photo and report by Patrick Staveley