Rookie Cronulla playmaker Kyle Flanagan helped engineer the upset of the season so far as the injury-hit Sharks outfit stunned Melbourne 20-18 at Pointsbet Stadium.
With injured representative stars Shaun Johnson, Matt Moylan, Wade Graham and Aaron Woods watching from the sideline, the young Cronulla side used an expansive game plan to over-run the Storm and inflict just their second defeat of the season.
It was an incredible effort given that the Sharks fielded six players who had played less than 10 NRL games in Flanagan, centre Bronson Xerri, second-rower Briton Nikora, winger Sione Katoa, hooker Blayke Brailey and interchange forward Braden Hamlin-Uele.
Match: Sharks v Storm
Round 8 -
Venue: PointsBet Stadium, Sydney
Most of the rookies had come through the Sharks Academy started by coach John Morris and his predecessor Shane Flanagan, along with the hooker Jayden Brailey, and the elite training program has readied them to play at NRL level.
Flanagan was playing just his third NRL match and had been named in the starting line-up for the first time following the loss of Johnson with a hamstring injury but he showed the composure and confidence of a veteran to steer the Sharks home.
"If we had of dropped that one we would have been one [win] from our last five so we were going to put our foot down, we had to get a victory and we had to beat someone who was up the top of the ladder," Morris said.
"I thought we had a really clear plan to come into this game and the boys didn't go away from it. What a second half. We were 20 from 20 [completions] so not one error in the second half and that is what it takes to beat the Melbourne Storm."
The teams went to halftime with the scores level at 12-12 after a bizarre opening 40 minutes that featured a Cameron Smith penalty goal after Cronulla exceeded the shot clock from a goal line drop out and a Sharks try that included a pass to Josh Addo-Carr.
The NSW winger appeared to have prevented a likely Sharks try when Jayden Brailey inadvertently passed to him as he was running back into the Melbourne defensive line – possibly after recognising a call from their time together in Cronulla's junior teams.
Bundled into the in-goal area, Addo-Carr managed a pass to five-eighth Cameron Munster, who found his way into the field of play only to be met by a crunching Paul Gallen hit that shook the ball loose and quick hands on the next tackle created an overlap for Sione Katoa to score a sixth minute try.
Addo-Carr hit back for the Storm when he scored five minutes later after fullback Jahrome Hughes tapped on a Munster pass and after missing the conversion Cameron Smith levelled the scores at 6-6 with an 18th minute penalty goal after the Sharks exceeded the 30-second limit for dropouts.
Flanagan places it for Nikora
A series of errors by Cronulla fullback Josh Dugan helped Melbourne to regain momentum but he was one of the Sharks best in the second half, with Morris declaring: “We don’t win it without Josh Dugan”.
Storm prop Jesse Bromwich scored in the 22nd minute after Dugan fumbled a bomb and conceded a penalty for being offside on the Sharks line. He was also bundled into touch returning a kick from near his own line.
Flanagan then took control of the game when he forced a goal line dropout with a deftly placed grubber kick and followed up with another kick for strike second-rower Briton Nikora to pounce on the loose ball in-goal and score in the 35th minute.
The Sharks lifted the tempo in the second half and Melbourne struggled to keep pace as they shifted the ball from side to side on every set of tackles.
Flanagan put Cronulla ahead 14-12 with a 51st minute penalty goal and interchange forward Braden Hamlin-Uele crashed over for his first NRL try three minutes later.
"We had some intensity come off our interchange bench, we really wanted to take them on there and I thought big Uele, Jayson Bukuya Jack Williams and Blayke Brailey really did well in that middle part of the game and got our nose in front," Morris said.
"Then, we put our senior boys back on at the end there and we hung on."
Melbourne interchange forward Ryan Papenhuyzen gave his team a chance to snatch victory when he scored three minutes from full-time but it was too little too late for the Storm.
Late Papenhuyzen try gives Storm hope