Flanagan frustrated by 'referee Smith'
Last year's epic grand final gave birth to one of the game's modern-day rivalries, and Sharks coach Shane Flanagan added to the drama on Thursday night when he accused Storm skipper Cameron Smith of playing the role of referee on the field after Melbourne rallied late to claim an 18-13 win at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
There was plenty of feeling heading into the Round 14 showdown given the sledging that took place at AAMI Park in Round 6, and Flanagan's comments will only fuel the tension should last year's grand finalists do battle again at the business end of the season.
While other teams don't like it, the Storm have long been the best wrestlers in the game, with their ability to control the ruck one of the biggest reasons they've been there or thereabouts for the past decade.
Smith – who was penalised twice on Thursday night for ruck infringements – is widely regarded as the best in the business, and his performance clearly frustrated Flanagan whose side won the penalty count 9-6.
"They were at their best, the Melbourne Storm, with their wrestle today. I thought they were at their best in that area; it was slow, it was frustrating. Referee Smith did a good job," Flanagan said.
"He's the best player in his position. I watched him closely today and he managed the game perfectly.
"He got off the line early…I can complain about it as much as I want during the week, but he just does it very, very well. I wish we had a couple of them! He's just a good player at whether you call it flaunting the rules or push the referees or whatever it is, he's the best at it and he showed it tonight. He had one of those games."
Sharks skipper Paul Gallen said wrestling was a part of the game and didn't seemed as frustrated as his coach when quizzed about the Storm's tactics.
"We know Melbourne do it so it wasn't something that we really got frustrated with," Gallen said.
"We know it's going to be part of the game when you play Melbourne with their wrestle, but there's nothing to whinge about. I don't think there was anything untoward or anything like that.
"It doesn't frustrate us because we've got a decent record against them. We wrestle them back so it's part of the game."
While much of the focus after the game was on Smith's work in the ruck, it was his efforts in the first 10 minutes that paved the way for Melbourne's gritty five-point win.
The Storm skipper got his side on the front foot with an early 40/20 and then set up tries to Felise Kaufusi and Tim Glasby with short passes from dummy-half to open up a 12-0 lead before the Sharks had even had their second set of the game.
The Sharks recovered from the slow start to take the lead late in the contest via a James Maloney field goal, but Kaufusi's second try of the evening six minutes from full-time proved the difference as Melbourne extended their lead atop the ladder.
"We just didn't get off the blocks tonight and they got two soft tries and in the end that's what probably hurt us," Flanagan said.
"We fought our way to get back in front but then didn't catch a kick-off and we didn't adjust from the short kick-off – it was hard to adjust – and they scored a try. It just goes to show how close it is between the two teams."