Storm steal victory in grand final rematch
The Melbourne Storm have issued a statement of intent to the rest of the competition with a thrilling 18-13 win over the Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium despite being without star halfback Cooper Cronk.
While the win won't make up for last year's heartbreaking grand final loss to Cronulla, Thursday night's epic contest moves the Storm four points clear of their rivals after 14 rounds and in need of just one more victory to book a spot in the play-offs.
The Storm looked set to rack up a cricket score when they raced out to a 12-0 lead inside the opening 10 minutes, but the hosts worked their way back into the contest and found themselves in front late in the game after James Maloney nailed a field goal from close range.
It was a lead that would last less than 60 seconds as a perfectly-executed short kick-off was regathered by the Storm who took advantage of the field position to steal the win after Billy Slater delivered a short ball to a flying Felise Kaufusi, the back-rower racing away for his second try of the night.
The decision to rest Cameron Smith for last week's game against the Knights paid immediate dividends with the Storm skipper nailing a 40/20 inside the opening three minutes before he played short from the ensuing set to send Kaufusi over for a fairly soft try to get the scoring underway.
The mood around Shark Park went from glum to downright stunned when Smith produced an identical play to send Tim Glasby over two sets later to give the Storm a quick 12-0 lead before fans had even had time to return from the hot dog stand.
Cronulla had their chances to hit back but were frustrated time and time again by Melbourne's stubborn goal-line defence which eventually forced an error that allowed Cameron Munster to wrestle back momentum with a 70-metre charge down field.
Melbourne then looked to have moved further in front when Suliasi Vunivalu flew through the air to reel in a Ryley Jacks kick which he offloaded to Billy Slater who in turn found Kaufusi, but the Bunker denied the back-rower after they found a knock on from the Fijian flyer in the build-up.
It was the slice of luck the Sharks needed and they used their good fortune to halve the deficit as veteran Luke Lewis scooped up an errant pass and swerved past the rushing defence to get his side back in the contest.
The Storm suffered a double blow to start the second half with Jordan McLean forced from the field with a broken cheekbone before the Sharks snuck over through Sosaia Feki to cut the gap to two points with 30 minutes left to play.
Melbourne looked to have settled things down when right centre Will Chambers popped up on the left edge to grubber through for a flying Josh Addo-Carr to touch down, but the winger's four-pointer was rubbed out by the Bunker who ruled he had failed to ground the ball properly in the process of scoring.
Maloney might have hooked his conversion attempt from the earlier try but he didn't make the same mistake twice as he slotted a comfortable penalty goal from next to the posts after back-to-back infringements from the Storm on the hour mark.
Addo-Carr then had the chance to break the game wide open when he collected a loose ball in his in-goal and burst into the clear, only for Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes to produce a copybook tackle on halfway to keep the scores level.
Having watched on as Munster sprayed a field goal attempt wide at the other end, Maloney showed him how it's done with his second one-pointer against the Storm in 2017 to give the Sharks a 13-12 advantage with seven minutes left to play only for Kaufusi to strike late to keep Melbourne's perfect away record intact in 2017.
Storm 18 (Felise Kaufusi 2, Tim Glasby tries; Cameron Smith 3 goals) def. Sharks 13 (Luke Lewis, Sosaia Feki tries; James Maloney 2 goals; James Maloney field goal) at Southern Cross Group Stadium. Half-time: 12-6. Crowd: 7,912.