The Melbourne Storm are the first team into the NRL grand final after cruising past the Cronulla Sharks in the first preliminary final at home. Here are my talking points from the match.
Should Billy Slater be suspended?
This is a really, really tough one.
If you look at other examples of shoulder charges and the letter of the law, he might be in a lot of trouble.
At the end of the day, Slater tucked the arm and made absolutely no attempt to tackle Feki, who probably would have scored in the corner without Slater doing what he did.
And while it wasn’t dangerous in the slightest, it was a shoulder charge.
Yet, this is the grand final, and you’d hate to see a player rubbed out for something like that.
The base penalty for a bottom grade shoulder charge is a suspension, so Slater is in a lot of trouble if the match review committee find him guilty.
Given Latrell Mitchell was suspended for his ugly crusher tackle and Greg Inglis only avoided a suspension because of no carryover points, the precedent is there. And who can forget Cameron Smith being rubbed out of the 2008 grand final as the Storm went onto lose 40-0 to Manly, while Issac Luke missed the 2014 decider because of a dangerous throw?
Slater defended himself post-match.
“I was coming across at speed and actually thought Sosaia Feki was going to step back on the inside. It was a collision in the end,” Slater said after full-time,” he said.
“It was one of those things where both players were running at speed to get to a position.
“It would have been an awkward place to place my head if I had to duck down. There was no malice in it, I don’t think.”
The NRL have a huge decision to make – one I don’t envy one bit, but, if we are sticking to the rules, it’s worthy of a suspension.
Can anyone stop Melbourne?
Whether Slater plays or not will have a huge bearing on the answer to this question.
He is the key to any match the Storm play and proved his worth again last night, going out at the absolute top of his game.
When it comes to big matches, there is no one better and his combination with Cameron Smith is fantastic at the worst of times as they inspire their team to a level beyond what they should be capable of.
But even without Slater, the Storm are going to be hard to beat. Jahrome Hughes would be an excellent replacement, the kicking game and competitiveness of Smith still exists, the coaching of Craig Bellamy isn’t going away and the combination Cameron Munster and Brodie Croft have built is still going to be there.
More importantly, their forward pack, one of the best in the game is still going to exist.
If Slater is there, no one can stop Melbourne, which would have been the way in 2016 had he played and certainly made all the difference last year.
If he isn’t there, well, there is a chance Melbourne won’t go back-to-back.
Luke Lewis – what a career
Before we go any further, let’s give a massive shoutout to Luke Lewis.
The second rower will hang up the boots following the Sharks’ loss last night, but he never deserved to go out behind on the scoreboard, and it was fitting he was the only Cronulla player with a try to his name at fulltime.
Try as he might, he simply couldn’t get Cronulla over the line last night, and by his own admission, would probably admit it wasn’t his finest night on a footy field.
Despite that, you always knew what you were going to get out of Lewis. Every time he stepped on the field, no matter where he was playing, what the circumstance was or how the game was going, you knew you were getting 100 per cent and a solid performance.
He never let anyone down did Lewis and deserves to be celebrated heading into retirement after a fantastic career.
Cameron Smith is still a master out of dummy half
While Slater is a gun – one of the best players to ever step foot on a rugby league field – he is made that much better by Cameron Smith, who seems to improve every player around him.
Whether it was organisation, picking the right plays or his incredibly good kicking game out of dummy half, he didn’t put a foot wrong last night.
I wasn’t counting, but it’s easy to pick at least three or four times Smith turned the tired Cronulla forwards around with a long-range kick, forcing Holmes to work it out of his own end and the backs to burn through plays as the forwards tried to get back onside.
Smith is the best dummy half kicker in the competition, and he proved it again last night.
Not just his long-range game either, with a sensational grubber kick for Billy Slater to score his second try of the game on the stroke of halftime.
That try all but sunk the Sharks, and the situational awareness to get the kick away was brilliant.
Cronulla’s halves and Holmes went missing
It was a rough night for Cronulla, and as the old saying goes, if you’re forwards aren’t in the battle, the halves may as well be in the dressing room.
While the forwards did get battered up the middle last night by Melbourne, the kicking game from Chad Townsend was particularly poor.
Even when they did get opportunities at the line, the chime in from Matt Moylan also wasn’t good enough.
Too often, they would pick out Billy Slater, take the wrong option or just put in a plain bad kick.
The impact of Valentine Holmes was also greatly diminished last night. He had some good returns from fullback after kicks, but a solid kick chase from the Storm all night kept him trapped and his popping up in support play or creation for himself was extremely limited.
After such a good game against the Panthers last week, it’s frustrating to try and work out why they were polar opposite this time around, and if the Sharks are to do anything next year, it’s a major issue they must address.
Melbourne’s forwards are hard to stop
If there was one point that could be made about the week off, it’s the obvious impact it had on the battle of the forwards.
While Cronulla were very brave in their efforts, playing understrength and busted up, the Storm dominated them in the middle third of the field all night long.
Whether it was big runs from Dale Finucane, Tim Glasby and Nelson Asofa-Solomona off the bench through the middle, or Joe Stimson chiming in from the edges, it seemed everytime the Storm needed a boost throughout the game, they would get it.
Don’t get me wrong, the Sharks had some very gallant efforts – Matt Prior was strong, and so was Aaron Woods after being called up to the starting side. Bukuya was reliable off the bench as well, but they just couldn’t match what Melbourne were throwing down.
The average metres per run prove the point.
Melbourne had 1,433 metres from 158 runs. Cronulla, 1,416 from 191. That’s a substantial difference in average per run and tells you why the hosts were able to build pressure despite not dominating possession.
This is the end of Cronulla’s premiership window
The Sharks are always a side who are going to be there and about under Shane Flanagan, but this might be the end of their premiership window. It started in 2016, continued for three seasons and probably won’t in 12 months time.
Cronulla have proven the doubters wrong before. A majority thought 2017 was going to be a rough year after losing Michael Ennis, but they had a pretty strong season, as they have done this year.
So, while I don’t want to write them off, I’m saying they won’t be winning the competition.
Not only do they lose Luke Lewis, but Paul Gallen is another year older and may need a bit of luck to last the 25 rounds, Matt Prior is getting on, Jesse Ramien and Ricky Leutele are leaving the club and more importantly Luke Lewis has reired.
What the Sharks have had is a dream run. Maybe they can eek out one more year with Gallen still around, but they rely on their back row heavily, and without wanting to hurt Sharks fans, they won’t be in this position next year.
Roarers, what did you make of the match? Drop a comment below and let us know.