National Rugby League

Hillside For The Cronulla Sharks vs Melbourne Storm Grand Final Replay

This is a cold Thursday night, and even after a week off and four straight wins, this was not going to be a walk in the park. Standing among the dozens on the hill in the north-eastern corner of the ground, you can feel the pressure.

by James Pavey
10 June 2017, 1:58am

"Hot dog mate, they're cheap, mate!"

These are the first words you hear as you slowly make your way down Woolooware Road. Just an honest chiseller trying to make an easy, greasy dollar, selling week-old frankfurts disguised in cheap supermarket bread on his front lawn.

Welcome to 'God's Country' aka The Shire, in Sydney's south, where a rugby league blockbuster is about to kick off.

Eight months after winning the first premiership in the club's history, and two months after holding the Melbourne Storm try-less in their own backyard in this season's first grand final rematch, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks prepared for another thriller.

This, though, is a cold Thursday night, and even after a week off and four straight wins, this was not going to be a walk in the park. Standing among the dozens on the hill in the north-eastern corner of the ground, you can feel the pressure.

Cronulla's home ground, Southern Cross Group Stadium, had averaged over 13,500 per home game this season to this point, so this Thursday night crowd of 7,912 was slightly underwhelming considering the match-up and its significance in the premiership race. Regardless, if there was any incentive for Paul Gallen and his men, tonight was a better chance than most to close the gap to a rampaging Storm outfit.

Craig Bellamy, Storm coach and swear jar aficionado, made the critical decision pre-game to rest star playmaker Cooper Cronk. A week earlier, Bellamy rested club captain Cameron Smith for a match that the Storm eventually dominated against the beleaguered Newcastle Knights. On his return, Smith is running rings around the Sharks in the opening stanza, with his pinpoint 40/20 kick catching the home team off-guard just three minutes in. Seconds later, Smith plays a short ball to Felise Kaufusi, who crashes over. It's a try to the Storm, Smith adds the extras, and Cronulla are behind, barely before fans had the chance to blow the froth off one.

The mood around the ground spirals into anger and confusion as another Smith set-play leads to another try, this time to Tim Glasby. Anyone expecting a dramatic tussle of ebbing-and-flowing is greatly mistaken. The Storm had now pissed in two easy tries, and after just 10 minutes, the visitors are up 12-0. Travelled Storm fans are wishing for their team to put a cricket score on the Sharks, while the fans in black, white and blue are angrily shuffling in their shoes. You can nearly hear the whistling of Gallen's anger-filled exhales coming from his swollen, beaten nose.

Cronulla have had their chances to hit back, but Melbourne's typically stubborn defence proves the difference. The Storm look like they have walked in another try after Suliasi Vunivalu and Billy Slater linked up to find Kaufusi, but a knock-on for Vunivalu in the build-up led to a no-try ruling. "We're getting shat on," an older Sharks fan mumbles. It looks grim for the hosts, but they cling on by their fingernails.

Suddenly, somehow, Sharks five-eighth James Maloney gathers the ball in his team's defensive half and sprints for the goalposts. Plastic beer cups go flying. Fists are flaying. The crowd is going crazy as Cronulla's pint-sized playmaker dashes away towards glory. However, as a horde of Storm forwards players come to within a hair's breadth, Maloney goes down like a sack of shit, the tackle is completed, and the crowd catches its breath.

Celebrating his 100th first grade game, Sharks halfback Chad 'Shit Haircut' Townsend is the early culprit, bombing kick after kick as Slater nullifies any possible Shark attack. "Shit kick, Townsend, shit bloody kick," is all one old guys says over and over again. However, grand final hero Luke Lewis helps halve the deficit, the veteran capitalising on an errant pass to find the line. Storm 12, Sharks 6. Game on.

The half-time siren brings an end to 40 pulsating minutes of footy, and as both teams head to the sheds, the crowds snake their way towards the bar. Four young blokes, all in identical white Converse shoes, retro Sharks jerseys and with jackets tied around their waists, return to their spot on the hill. Three take a seat on the rain-sodden grass, while one remains standing, blindly gazing at the cheerleaders.

Coming to a suburban ground, you nearly forget you're at the footy. To your left, there's a man picking his nose while tentatively holding his drink with white-knuckled tension. To your right, another man blows steam from his mouth as he struggles with the heat of his newly-bought bucket of chips. Behind you a security guard, decked out in fluorescent yellow vest and oversized black pants, leans on the fence, scrolling through his phone.

For the crowd, the second half couldn't come sooner, but for the Storm, it started like a Hitchcock horror film. Forward Jordan McLean is forced from the field with a broken cheekbone, and shortly after, the Sharks cut the gap to two points after Sosaia Feki finds the corner.

The away team recovers, and when centre Will Chambers grubbers through to Josh Addo-Carr, it looks like the Storm have sealed a crucial victory. However, the Bunker intervenes yet again, ruling that Addo-Carr had failed to ground the ball properly. Another bombed try, and another get-out-of-jail-free card for the Sharks. Then, at the other end, an easy Maloney penalty goal sees the teams level with nearly twenty minutes left.

Plastic beers cups and fists go flying again, this time in despair, as Addo-Carr collects a loose ball in his in-goal and sprints into the clear. Bravely, Sharks fullback Valentine Holmes chases Addo-Carr down and stops him dead in his tracks on the halfway line. Still, Cronulla had somehow remained in the contest, before finally taking the lead with minutes remaining after a close-range Maloney field goal.

His and Cronulla's worst nightmare comes to life, just seconds after Maloney's field goal, as Smith's perfectly-executed short kick-off is regathered by the Storm. Slater delivers a short ball to Kaufusi, and the back-rower races away for his second try.

For the Storm, it is a statement of intent to the rest of the competition. While the win won't make up for last year's painful grand final loss, this contest moves the Storm four points clear of their rivals after 14 rounds, and they retain their perfect away record in 2017. They only need one more victory to book a spot in the finals. For the Sharks, there is no need for concern. They still sit happily in the top half of the competition, but dropping points at home is, in any case, a frustration. There would be no singing of 'Up, Up Cronulla' tonight.