Melbourne set to test uncharted waters
The sixth-placed Melbourne Storm are set to taste sudden-death football in the opening week of the finals for the first time since 2009 when they face off against the Bulldogs in an elimination final on Sunday.
That year they finished fourth, and upset wins in the first week of the finals (from eighth-placed Parramatta over minor premiers St George Illawarra, and by the sixth-finishing Broncos over the Titans) meant the loser of the match between the fourth-placed Storm and fifth-placed Sea Eagles went out in the opening round.
On that occasion it was Manly who got eliminated from fifth in the opening week, which partly prompted calls to bring in the current, updated finals system.
Since the new finals system came into play in 2012 the two premiership winners have both come from inside the top two – the Storm themselves, who finished second in 2012 and went on to win, then the Roosters last year who finished minor premiers and premiers.
Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk didn't beat around the bush upon being asked about the Storm's final placing after 26 rounds but maintained that a premiership win "isn't impossible".
"There is no doubt that it makes it more difficult but that's the idea of playing consistent football and finishing in the top four. For 20 weeks of the season we were pretty inconsistent but our last eight weeks has been pretty good," Cronk said at the NRL Finals Captains Call on Monday morning.
"We have given ourselves the best opportunity. We know that our best football is up there with the top sides. Can we do it for a month? That's the challenge. I'm just really excited about playing some footy."
"Personally, finals are the epitome of why you play football. It is the best teams in the competition, the elite players on the biggest stage and there is a trophy up for grabs so if you can't get excited about playing your best football then I'm not sure you will ever."
When quizzed about the Storm's state of mind heading into the finals, Cronk explained with Melbourne's precarious position on the ladder it now becomes a matter of throwing everything they can out on the paddock and hoping it sticks.
"The mentality is when you're on top of the ladder you probably need to take advantage of the position whereas in the bottom four it's more like, you know what? Let's put it all out on the line and see how we go," Cronk said.
"It's definitely a challenge. I'm not shying away from it and the club isn't shying away from the fact we have to take the hard road."
A further major concern for the Storm lies with the lower leg injury of captain Cameron Smith, who may be forced to miss their clash against the Bulldogs despite finishing off their game against Brisbane strongly on Friday night – something that Cronk wasn't prepared to "sugar-coat".
"It is a concern. He is a very influential player and the captain of our football team. He is passionate about the club like no other player so he'll do everything possible [to play]," Cronk said.
"We have a super good medical department so the positive for us is he finished the game on Friday night, the negative is that he was on crutches on Saturday morning. The plus for us then is that we are playing on Sunday so it gives him that extra 24 hours."