Resting Cronk pays off for Storm
Craig Bellamy's decision to rest star halfback Cooper Cronk for the grand final replay against the Sharks paid dividends with the Storm striking late to leave Southern Cross Group Stadium with a gritty 18-13 win that their coach described as their best defensive performance of the season.
Melbourne now sit four points clear of Cronulla after 14 rounds and are theoretically just one win away from sealing a spot in the finals.
Few gave the Storm a chance of leaving the Shire with the two competition points after Cronk was omitted from the squad 24 hours before kick-off, but Bellamy's decision to rest his chief playmaker turned out to be a masterstroke as Melbourne scored late through Felise Kaufusi to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Having played in the State of Origin series opener on May 31 and then for the Storm just two days later in their comfortable Round 13 win over the Knights, Cronk was rested for the grand final replay, with Ryley Jacks taking his place in the halves.
According to Bellamy, his biggest concern for Cronk wasn't whether he would be physically fine to back up for his third game in eight days, rather how the champion No.7 would cope mentally after a draining couple of weeks.
"To actually prepare yourself for another game after you've played two in three days, to actually mentally prepare yourself and get ready for it, that's the hard part, I think," Bellamy said after the game.
"It's not so much the physical [side of things] so it's just getting yourself up and getting ready, sometimes that's harder than the physical.
"I don't know whether it was a safe way or the conservative way – you can call it that if you like – it might be smart or it might not be smart, but at the end of the day, we just thought 'Coops' and the mindset he was in, it was probably better not to play him three games in eight days.
"It gave Ryley Jacks another chance tonight to come into the team because we're going to be playing without these Origin players for another two games so it was nice to get those guys in there and get them under the blowtorch. There is no hotter blowtorch than here at Shark Park in 2017 when you're playing the Sharks."
The decision to rest Cronk came a week after the Storm left skipper Cameron Smith out of the side that powered past Newcastle.
The Maroons captain said it made more sense to miss the Round 13 game as opposed to the grand final rematch otherwise his preparations for Game Two on June 21 would have been out of whack.
The week off appeared to work wonders for Smith, whose fresh legs nailed an early 40/20 before he laid on two quick tries to give the Storm a handy 12-0 cushion.
"Physically I felt really good," Smith said.
"It was my plan to go that way as well, to miss the game straight after Origin. I came back still sort of 50/50 about whether I was playing or not, but speaking with the coaches, the boys had a really good preparation for that game so I thought it'd be best for myself and the team not to play last week and come into this one fresh.
"If I didn't play tonight and I played last week, I think it's about three weeks in between games which probably isn't ideal for myself going into that next Origin.
"I really wanted to be involved in this game, to be honest, to get the opportunity to play the Sharks up here so it was really nice to come away with the win."