Cronulla have ended a half-century premiership drought with a heart-stopping 14-12 grand final win over a valiant Storm outfit to claim the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership – the first in the club’s history.
The two heavyweights could barely be separated after 80 minutes with Melbourne bashed and starved of football in a one-sided opening 40 before storming back like a true champion team to claim the lead just 15 minutes from full time before a late rally handed Cronulla a famous win.
Cronulla players collapsed after a dramatic final play movement from Melbourne saw the ball pass through countless pairs of hands as they searched for the miracle play to still a win on the final siren but on a historic night at ANZ Stadium in front of a heaving crowd of 83,625 it was Cronulla’s fairytale that came true.
Skipper Paul Gallen – the most experienced player ever to play in his first grand final – was in tears after the siren as he expressed his gratitude to his teammates.
The Storm were left to rue a below-par kicking game and a horror 60-40 opening half possession rate while for Cronulla, monster individual games from the likes of Matt Prior, Andrew Fifita, Jack Bird and Luke Lewis underpinned their win. Storm skipper Cameron Smith tackled himself to a standstill making 74 tackles in a typically herculean effort but it wasn’t quite enough.
The opening to the game was as physical as anyone would have expected, with Jesse Bromwich pounded backwards off the first hit-up and Jordan McLean collared high – receiving a penalty in the process – from the second play.
A heap of pressure from the physical Sharks and a below-par kicking game from the Storm resulted in Melbourne holding just 40 per cent of the ball and being forced to make 90 more tackles (240-150) in the opening 40.
However that wasn’t reflected on the score board with Cronulla taking just an 8-0 lead to the break.
A swinging arm from Marika Koroibete on Chad Townsend in the sixth minute resulted in the first of several flare-ups and a Maloney penalty goal.
A brilliant – and rare – scrumbase move from Paul Gallen sent Ben Barba over for the opening try in the 15th minute with the 8-0 score not added to before the break.
Flanagan had a headache on his hands when centre Jack Bird hyper-extended his elbow when landed on by Gallen in a tackle midway through the first half and was in great discomfort but battled on.
A head clash between Wade Graham and Kenny Bromwich rattled both but only Bromwich was taken from the field for a concussion check.
A couple of great efforts from Sosaia Feki in his own in-goal helped deny Melbourne repeat sets they may otherwise have earned while Cronulla’s rushing defence denied the Storm back three similar chances at the other end in edging the opening-half drop-outs three to one.
Melbourne had to absorb a sustained avalanche of Cronulla possession at their line in the final five minutes of the half in a period that saw another flare-up when Michael Ennis congratulated Cam Smith after Smith fumbled a kick, which resulted in Ennis being knocked over by Jordan McLean.
The end result though was a heartening survival for Craig Bellamy’s team in escaping further first-half damage on the score-board.
Cronulla’s failure to press their advantage while they had it began to look more telling as attrition became a factor in the second half.
The Storm started to get a better share of possession, Sosaia Feki – who had been one of his team’s best to that point – was taken from the field with a leg injury while another of Cronulla’s best in Matt Prior went for a concussion check.
Losing both of those players within 10 minutes of the resumption was quickly followed by a try to Jesse Bromwich against the run of play as he spun through a goal-line tackle to plant the ball and suddenly at 8-6 the Storm were miraculously on a level pegging.
Jason Bukuya knocked himself out shortly after lowering his head awkwardly in a tackle leaving – temporarily – just a single fit player on the Sharks bench.
When Will Chambers stepped out of an attempted Gerard Beale tackle to score in the 64th minute the Storm earned the lead for the first time in the game and Cronulla were looking rattled.
But the game found a way to take another twist and a pair of penalties against the Storm – the second for a high shot against Christian Welch in front of the posts – gave Cronulla a free attacking set and Andrew Fifita found a way to crash over and regain the lead with a tense final 10 minutes remaining.
Both teams were out on their feet and when the Storm forced a line drop out had the chance to mount a final challenge but a Jesse Bromwich drop put the fire out.
The Storm however had a gilt-edged chance to steal the win when Chambers regathered his own grubber after a right-side break but he failed to spot a supporting Cooper Cronk and a premiership-winning try went begging.
In the frantic dying moments the Storm had one last chance with a play that went through countless pairs of hands and traversed both sides of the field but the Sharks defence scrambled one last time to hang on to a famous, drought-breaking win.
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 14 (Ben Barba, Andrew Fifita tries; James Maloney 3 goals) defeated Melbourne Storm 12 (Jesse Bromwich, Will Chambers tries; Cameron Smith 2 goals) at ANZ Stadium. Half time: Cronulla 8-0. Crowd: 83,625.