This is it. Come 10 pm Friday evening, one side will be on their way to a grand final, the other will be bundled out of the 2018 premiership race. The Sharks travel to Melbourne off the back of a one-point victory over the Panthers. After doing all the hard work in the first half of that game, Cronulla were lucky to hold off the fast-finishing Panthers and will need plenty of improvement against a dogged Storm outfit. Their case isn't helped with several players under an injury cloud.
Melbourne are looking to achieve what very few sides have - winning back-to-back premierships. Few thought they would be in this position, especially after losing the quality and experience of Cooper Cronk, but that simply shows the professionalism of the modern era's most successful club. There are no second chances in September and grand final glory awaits only one side. Will it be the Sharks or the Storm who are first through to the 2018 decider?
2016 - Grand Final - Sharks 14 def. Storm 12 at ANZ Stadium
2017 - Round 6 - Sharks 11 def. Storm 2 at AAMI Park
2017 - Round 14 - Storm 18 def. Sharks 13 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2018 - Round 4 - Sharks 14 def. Storm 4 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2018 - Round 22 - Sharks 17 def. Storm 14 at AAMI Park
If Melbourne has a bogey side then it is surely Cronulla. The Storm leads the head to head wins with 22 victories to the Sharks 14 however, it's Cronulla who have the recent ascendancy. Not only did the Sharks claim their maiden premiership against the Storm back in 2016, they've won four of their past five meetings. The Sharks have no fear playing in Melbourne either - they've secured a narrow victory at AAMI Park already this season in a 17-14 upset.
|1||Billy Slater||Valentine Holmes|
|2||Suliasi Vunivalu||Sosaia Feki|
|3||Will Chambers||Jesse Ramien|
|4||Curtis Scott||Ricky Leutele|
|5||Josh Addo-Carr||Edrick Lee|
|6||Cameron Munster||Matt Moylan|
|7||Brodie Croft||Chad Townsend|
|8||Jesse Bromwich||Andrew Fifita|
|9||Cameron Smith||Jayden Brailey|
|10||Tim Glasby||Matt Prior|
|11||Felise Kaufusi||Luke Lewis|
|12||Joe Stimson||Kurt Capewell|
|13||Dale Finucane||Paul Gallen|
|14||Kenneath Bromwich||Scott Sorensen|
|15||Christian Welch||James Segeyaro|
|16||Ryan Hoffman||Aaron Woods|
|17||Nelson Asofa-Solomona ||Jayson Bukuya|
|18||Brandon Smith||Josh Dugan|
|19||Jahrome Hughes||Ava Seumanufagai|
|20||Sam Kasiano||Joseph Paulo|
|21||Cheyse Blair||Kyle Flanagan|
The facts that matter
Paul Gallen has been named in the Sharks side this week, but there are plenty suggesting he won't lace up the boots on Friday night. After coming from the field part way through last week's match against the Panthers, things looked dire for Gallen. Falling awkwardly on his shoulder, the early prognosis was an injury to Gallen's rotator cuff. All week, the Sharks have remained coy on the fitness of their captain and it looks as though we won't know if he plays until right before kickoff. After losing Wade Graham the week prior, Gallen's injury is the last thing the Sharks needed and if they are to upset the Storm, they'll need a fully fit forward assault.
Key to victory for the Sharks will be the form of five-eighth Matt Moylan. Despite an up and down season, Moylan's 18 try assists in 2018 positions him as the third most effective five-eighth, behind only Gareth Widdop and Luke Keary. With halves partner Chad Townsend controlling the game, it's up to Moylan to bring the X-factor on Friday night. Melbourne have failed to settle on a halves combination all season and if there is any chink in their armour, it's in the halves. Should Moylan have a blinder this weekend, a second grand final appearance in three years won't be out of the question for the Sharks.
Melbourne also managed a one-point victory in their most recent match but unlike the Sharks, they've had a week off to rest and recover. That advantage can't be underestimated and is huge at this time of year. With most sides carrying niggles, an extra week's recovery not only provides a physical but also a mental edge. There are two huge ins for Melbourne this week with Will Chambers returning from a three-match suspension and Nelson Asofa-Solomona onto the bench following an injury layoff.
One final note - should the Storm win on Friday night, Craig Bellamy will officially hold a 50% record of taking his side to a Grand Final. Since 2003, Bellamy has taken his Storm side to the decider on seven occasions, tasting premiership victory twice. It's a simply remarkable record and one unlikely ever to be beaten. In an era where Wayne Bennett has taken the mantle as master coach, surely Bellyache can't be far behind him.
The Sharks have proven to be Melbourne's kryptonite in recent years and the memory of a 2016 Grand Final loss will linger for many in this Storm side. That said, an extra week's rest is a massive advantage for the Storm, especially as they come up against a bruised and battered Sharks. While there may not be a 100,000+ crowd like the AFL across the road, here's hoping that league fans pack out AAMI Park for what will be a very tight affair. If the finals series is anything to go by, expect this one to go right down to the wire. History awaits the Storm and at home, they're hard to go past.
Storm by 4 points.
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