The Cronulla Sharks ended their 49-year premiership drought last night by grinding out a hard-fought win over the Melbourne Storm.
The game started explosively, the Storm defence hit hard by the rampaging Sharks. With only 80 minutes left of the season, it seemed neither side planned to leave anything in the tank. The tone of the match was set when Storm prop Jesse Bromwich was driven backwards in the very first tackle.
Cronulla drew first blood early after Melbourne winger Marika Koroibete, perhaps panicked by the intensity of the Cronulla assault, struck halfback Chad Townsend with a high swinging arm to concede a penalty. James Maloney seized the opportunity, putting the Sharks two ahead after eight minutes. Ten minutes later Cronulla crossed the line for the first try of the game: in a rare set-piece skipper Paul Gallen broke from the back of the scrum to launch fullback Ben Barba into open space and over the line. Maloney converted to take the score to 8-0.
The Storm players were forced to defend constantly as Cronulla, a team possessed by their premiership dream and backed by 80,000 baying fans, dominated possession through the first half. The Melbourne players made 240 tackles in the first 40 minutes, for just 40 per cent possession, while the Sharks made just 150. Against any other team Cronulla might have run in another couple of tries. Perhaps the only negative for Cronulla was centre Jack Bird hyper-extending his elbow when teammate Gallen landed on it during a tackle. The young centre defied the odds to stay on, battling through the remainder of the game in great discomfort.
The last five minutes of the first half saw the Sharks maul Melbourne repeatedly, piling on the pressure close to the line, but the Storm somehow held them out and went in to the break just eight points down.
The Storm started the second half on the front foot with Bromwich getting the first try for his team. After a simple hit up close to the line he spun out of the tackle to place the ball for the Storm’s first points, taking the score to 8-6. Melbourne’s never-say-die attitude showed again in the 64th minute when Will Chambers stepped out of a tackle and found space to cross for Melbourne’s second try, taking the Storm to the lead for the first time 12-8.
The Sharks were rattled, briefly, but a couple of penalties broke Melbourne’s momentum, putting the Sharks back on the attack. Prop Andrew Fifita fought his way through several Storm defenders and crashed over the line then planted the ball under the posts with a backhand swing, taking the score to 14-12 with ten minutes left on the clock.
Melbourne had a great chance to win the game when Chambers regathered his own kick after breaking the line but failed to look on the inside where teammate Cooper Cronk was supporting unmarked, squandering what would have been a certain try.
Both sides were exhausted, Melbourne by their astonishing and sustained defensive heroics, Cronulla by the intensity of their attack, but neither side would give up. Even in the final minute Melbourne threw everything they had at the Sharks, sending the ball went through countless pairs of hands, from one side of the field to the other, but to no avail. Cronulla’s scrambling defence held on to protect their narrow lead and clinch that maiden title. – Paul Burns
Cronulla 14-12 Storm
Clive Churchill Medallist – Luke Lewis
Photo of Cronulla Sharks hoisting their trophy from the National Rugby League’s Facebook page.