The first preliminary final for 2018 has been run and won with Melbourne claiming victory 22-6 over the Sharks. The Storm entered the game as strong favourites and took some time to find their feet. Once they did though, it was one-way traffic as Billy Slater ran riot. The Melbourne fullback may have a nervous wait though after committing what looked to be a shoulder charge early in the match. Plenty of talking points coming out of this match, here’s what we learnt.
1 A night for records
In one of the closest premiership races in recent memory, Melbourne have won through to a remarkable third grand final in three years. In the salary cap era, that's no mean feat and goes to show the professionalism of the Melbourne outfit. Should they manage victory next Sunday night, they'll become only the second side since Brisbane to claim back-to-back NRL premierships.
This win has also meant that Craig Bellamy now holds a 50% strike rate in getting his side to the grand final. Since 2003, Bellamy has guided the Storm to eight grand final appearances and collected the trophy twice. It's no wonder the Storm were so keen to keep their very own master coach.
2 Finals ferocity catches up with Sharks
The Sharks have been gallant the past two weeks, but the intensity of finals football caught up with them in this match. Cronulla looked flat from the outset and never really settled into the game.
Losing Wade Graham in the first week of finals was a huge blow for the Sharks and their cause wasn't helped the following week when Paul Gallen suffered a shoulder fracture. Luke Lewis played through injury to take the field against the Storm but down on numbers, the task was too great. Playing in Melbourne is never easy and the Sharks were always going to have their work cut out for them. The extra week off for Melbourne proved the difference - the Storm looked sharper, quicker and stronger and were far too slick for the Sharks tonight.
3 Farewelling a veteran
While it was lights out on Cronulla's 2018 season, it was also the end of an era for Luke Lewis. The veteran forward nabbed a try late in the match in what was a brave effort but by that stage, it was too late to salvage a result for Cronulla. Lewis was visibly busted but battled through a leg complaint to captain the Sharks in the absence of Paul Gallen.
The 300 gamer has had a decorated career representing country and state on his way to collecting two premiership rings and a Clive Churchill Medal. While another grand final appearance would have been a fitting finale for Lewis, it wasn't to be and the winger turned-forward finishes his career one game short of the big dance.
4 Vintage Slater
Speaking of premiership veterans, this preliminary final marked Billy Slater's final game in Melbourne ahead of his retirement from the game. Slater was sensational in this match and was easily Melbourne's best. He laid on the opening try of the match for his halfback Brody Croft and then scored two of his own to seal the game by halftime. While a quiet second 40 minutes followed, Slater ran for a total 189 metres and had done enough early damage to secure his side a grand final appearance and give himself the chance to go out a premiership winner.
5 Is it bye bye Billy?
Finally, the big talking point of the evening. That Billy Slater tackle.
Just 13 minutes into the game, Sosaia Feki was charging down the left touchline and looked likely to score the Sharks first points. That was until a flying Billy Slater bundled Feki over the sideline. At first glance it looked like a crunching tackle but replays suggested the Storm fullback used more shoulder than arm. The tackle was penalised for a shoulder charge and is sure to come under scrutiny from the match review committee in the coming 24 hours. Should Slater be charged, he would rack up 200 points, meaning even with an early guilty plea Slater would miss the grand final.
If that eventuates, Slater would join an impressive list of players to miss a grand final through suspension including Luke Ricketson (2004), Isaac Luke (2014) and Slater's own captain Cameron Smith (2009). Pretty illustrious company but not a list Billy will want to join.
What did you make of the Slater tackle - should he face a suspension and miss a grand final?
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