Sharks circle Storm in grand final rematch
The Cronulla Sharks entered their grand final rematch in unconvincing form to start their premiership defence and hadn’t won in Melbourne since Round 2, 2008 to add to the odds against their favour.
However the reigning premiers rose to the occasion in their strongest win so far in 2017 with a gritty 11-2 victory to hand the Melbourne Storm their first loss of the season.
Coach Shane Flanagan was thrilled with his side’s breakthrough performance in the difficult wet-weather conditions and hoped they can build on it towards the rest of the year.
"We’ve been looking for that performance for six weeks," Flanagan said. "We weren’t perfect but [it was an] outstanding effort.
"[We] hadn’t put a whole [performance] against quality opposition together at moments during the season but [I] couldn’t be more pleased with the way the players performed.
"That’s the challenge as players and coaching staff that we have – to get that consistency. But it’s a very good starting point."
The Sharks were 3-2 and were yet to hit their strides in the first month of the competition after a short preseason including the World Club Challenge in the United Kingdom.
Besides an impressive 42-16 thumping of the fancied Canberra Raiders in the Australian Capital in Round 2, Cronulla looked devoid of the energy and spark from last season.
That was until they took on their grand final rivals, who skipper Paul Gallen shared his contempt for.
There was clearly no love lost between the two sides, particularly in a fiery opening exchange during the first 20-minutes which boiled over when Sharks half James Maloney was penalised for an ugly head-high shot.
"100 per cent, we don’t like each other, it’s no secret," Gallen said. "It was played in good spirit and we ripped into each other. We knew it was going to happen and we spoke about that.
"I was really confident of coming down here for a good performance. We always rise against the good sides."
With the game deadlocked 2-all with 10 minutes to go, Maloney nailed a clever field goal early in the tackle count for the visitors to take the one-point lead. While the side went on to score the game-clinching try shortly after, Flanagan admitted he thought it wasn’t time to resort to kicking the field goal yet.
"I was on the sideline because we had a bit of radio trouble up in the box. I said it was probably a bit early [to go for the field goal] but the message didn’t get across to 'Jimmy' (Maloney) on the other side [of the field]," Flanagan said. "That’s why he’s a good player, he’s been around for a while.
"At that stage, it was crucial for us to go one point ahead but it really helped when we scored the next try, so they would have to score twice and made it hard for them.
"I thought it was an outstanding game from both sides. They threw everything at each other. It was a worthy grand final rematch."
It’s a massive morale-boosting result for Cronulla in the type of victory that can initiate an electric run of form similar to last year’s historic 15-game win streak on their way to a maiden premiership.
"It’s only early, it doesn’t matter where you start, it matters how you finish as we showed last year," Gallen said. "We came down here to get the two points and that’s what we did."
The Sharks hunt for another two competition points against the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains next Sunday.