NRL Predictions: Melbourne vs Cronulla Grand Final Preview

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The 2016 NRL Grand Final pits the rugby league powerhouse of the Melbourne Storm up against an experienced Cronulla outfit. Will the Storm be the first team to claim two NRL premierships in this decade or will the Sharks win their first premiership in their 50th season? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts and prediction for Sunday’s big game in the final NRL predictions article for 2016.

Preliminary Finals Review

In the first Preliminary Final, Cronulla were by far the better side and were able to coast for the final 20 minutes of this game. They started fast, capitalised on early mistakes and took a 14-0 lead into halftime. The size of the lead didn’t reflect the dominance of the Sharks in the first half and this appeared to be costly early in the second half, when the Cowboys closed the lead to 8 points. It was from this point that Cronulla found another gear and blew the Cowboys off the park and out of the premiership. It was the most impressive performance of the finals series to this point, which has been a good indicator of the eventual premiers in previous seasons. While Cronulla were quite good, the Cowboys were not good and produced their worst performance of the season in their final game. The premiership defence eventually took its toll, which should be a major motivator for both sides playing on Sunday, as these chances do not come by easily.

The other Preliminary Final was a much tighter encounter, with the Storm finding a way to get home over Canberra. Once again, they were clinical while not being spectacular, but this was enough to clinch them with their first Grand Final appearance since 2012. The main reason for this was that they were able to get to a lead late in the first half and maintain it with their league-best defence. The Raiders had their chances to snatch the game away from Melbourne in the latter stages, but were unable to come away with the win. The Raiders were not quite at their best, but were still very good. The experience that they have gained as a result of this year’s run in the finals series should put them in a good position next season for another top 4 finish.

2016 Matches

  • Round 4 – Cronulla Sharks defeated Melbourne Storm 14-6, Southern Cross Group Stadium
  • Round 26 – Melbourne Storm defeated Cronulla Sharks 26-6, AAMI Park

Previous Finals Match

  • Preliminary Final 2008 – Melbourne Storm defeated Cronulla Sharks 28-0, Allianz Stadium

Grand Final Record

  • Melbourne: 4 wins, 2 losses
  • Cronulla: 0 wins, 3 losses, 1 draw (including replay Grand Final and Super League)

Finals Record at ANZ Stadium

  • Melbourne: 5 wins, 3 losses
  • Cronulla: 0 wins, 2 losses

Team Changes

  • Melbourne – In: Young Tonumaipea, Slade Griffin, Matt White, Felise Kaufusi, Ryan Morgan (all extended bench)
  • Cronulla – In: Sam Tagataese (interchange), Joseph Paulo (extended bench)

Grand Final Facts

  • Blake Green was five-eight for Cronulla in last finals game between two sides
  • Opposing five-eighths have played for the other club (Maloney 4 games for Melbourne in 2009, Green 19 games for Cronulla in 2008 and 2009)
  • Only other player to have played for opposition is Sam Tagataese (18 games for Melbourne in 2007 and 2008)
  • 6 Cronulla players have played in Grand Finals, 4 have won premiership (Maloney, Prior, Lewis, Heighington)
  • 6 Melbourne players have played in Grand Final, all have won premierships except Finucane
  • Only players in this game to have played in a Grand Final and not win one were all part of Canterbury 2012 Grand Final side (Barba, Ennis, Finucane)
  • With Cronulla making the 2016 NRL Grand Final, Canberra and Gold Coast are the only two clubs to not make a Grand Final in the NRL era

NRL Grand Final Preview

Positional Match-Ups

Backs

Starting with the back three for each side, which is comprised of six very good players. The Storm have Cameron Munster at fullback, who has developed a strong passing game throughout the season and could easily play in the halves. On the wings, Melbourne has the flying Fijians in Marika Koroibete and Suliasi Vunivalu, who are both notable try scorers. Despite these similarities, they are different players, as Koroibete is smaller but runs and tackles harder, while Vunivalu is tall, great in the air and is an intelligent player for someone in his first season in the NRL. Not to be outdone, the Sharks have a dynamic back three, with Ben Barba returning to near his Dally M winning form this season. He has been somewhat quiet in recent weeks and will be looking to avenge his loss in the 2012 decider against Melbourne. Cronulla’s wingers are Sosaia Feki and Valentine Holmes. Feki is one of the most underrated players in the competition, while Holmes is one player that has the ability to break open this game. Both wingers are fast enough and strong enough to give the Sharks momentum in the middle of the field, which will be crucial against Melbourne’s big pack.

In the centres, Will Chambers and Cheyse Blair come up against Jack Bird and Ricky Leutele. The matchup between Chambers and Leutele should be good, as Chambers is an elite centre, while Leutele is in career-best form, as evidenced by his strong performance last week. The matchup on the other side is a great contrast, as the future superstar and current NSW representative Bird comes up against Blair, who is another fringe first grader that thrives in Melbourne. Bird will likely have more possessions in the game and is capable of coming up with something from nothing, while Blair can take advantage of any opportunity, as evidenced in his crucial try last week.

Both halves combinations will have a big say in the outcome of this game. The most important player on the field is Cronulla five-eight James Maloney. He has been sensational in this finals series and provides a great deal of unpredictability in attack, which the Sharks need to break through the strong Melbourne defence. It will be interesting to see how often Maloney combines with halves partner Chad Townsend during the game, as they found success when combining last week. Townsend showed just how mentally strong he is in playing as well as he did, after being benched against Canberra. When on his game, Townsend provides a steady hand and point of difference in attack. As for the opposing halves, what more is there to say about Dally M favourite (this article was written on Tuesday night) Cooper Cronk. He is the professional’s professional, who is often accused of being obsessive compulsive. He was the best player on the field last weekend and almost single-handedly got the Storm to an important lead early in the first half. Blake Green has played the role of sidekick very effectively for Melbourne over the past two seasons. He can take pressure of Cronk and Smith, especially in the short kicking game, and is good at providing good ball to his outside backs.

Forwards

One battle that should be good is the battle in the middle of the field, with Jesse Bromwich, Jordan McLean and Dale Finucane up against Andrew Fifita, Matt Prior and Paul Gallen. Both starting middle forwards are very similar, as each has their dynamic forward, capable of an offload (Bromwich and Fifita), a hard-nosed workhorse (Finucane and Gallen) and an underrated young forward that is a very strong ball runner (McLean and Prior). In the finals, both sides have come up against very big forward packs and have been able to overcome them in different ways. Cronulla have done this by being fitter than their opposition and tiring them out, primarily through the speed of their outside backs running through the middle. Melbourne have frustrated teams out of games, through their strong defence and ability to control the speed of play in the ruck. The Storm have plenty of size in their pack and are the bigger of the two forward packs in this game.

On the edges, the Kiwi duo of Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris are up against Wade Graham and Luke Lewis. Much like the match up of the back threes, this is one of the premier matchups in this game. For Melbourne, both Proctor and Harris are unsung heroes. Both are more than capable of scoring a try in attack, provide good support in defence for their halves and very rarely make bad decisions in both attack and defence. Their mobility makes it difficult for opposing teams to score out wide, which is a reason for their strong defensive record in 2016. On the other side, Graham and Lewis are somewhat different players. Graham provides alternate kicking and ball-playing options down the left and combines well with Maloney, while Lewis is now a strong ball-running and defensive back rower, as opposed to earlier in his career. Lewis was one of Cronulla’s best last week and showed just how determined he is to win another premiership when scoring the try to take Cronulla’s lead back out to 14 points early in the second half last week.

The marquee individual matchup pits hookers Cameron Smith against the retiring Michael Ennis. They have faced off against one another in many big games, including State of Origins and in the 2012 Grand Final. For the most part, Smith has had the better of Ennis in these big games, but Ennis now gets one final chance of getting a win over Smith. Smith has been the benchmark at hooker over the past decade and is able to control the tempo of a game like none other. His kicking game will aim to limit the impact of the Cronulla back three, as well as win the field position battle. Ennis is a different player than Smith, as his strength in the kicking department is his short kicking game. He can create a try or force a repeat set by jumping from dummy half and putting a deft kick into the opposition goal area. He also isn’t as strong of a running hooker as he was earlier in his career, but he does enough to keep the markers honest, helping his forwards gain metres, which will be important on Sunday.

Interchange

Both sides will carry the same interchange bench as last week, with one exception. The Sharks have named Sam Tagataese on the bench and he is set to replace a highly unlucky Kurt Capewell. In a Grand Final, a player with Tagataese’s experience and impact simply can’t be left out. Until the rise of Matt Prior in this finals series, Tagataese was missed greatly by the Sharks. His inclusion provides more impact off the bench. In addition to Tagataese, the Sharks will have Chris Heighington and Jayson Bukuya to play minutes in the forwards. While both players do lack size, they make up for it in footwork and offloading ability, which will aim to expose a tiring Storm forward pack late in the first half. The Sharks will also likely play Gerard Beale on the bench, providing cover in the backline. However, if the Sharks don’t suffer any injuries to their backs during the game, I don’t see Beale getting a great amount of game time.

The Storm also play a utility off the bench in Ben Hampton, who will also likely not see a lot of game time. Last week, Hampton wasn’t even used off the bench and I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened again. Melbourne certainly have plenty of size on the bench, as both Tim Glasby and Christian Welch are quite big and strong. Cronulla did struggle somewhat in the later rounds of the regular season against sides that had big players on the bench, which is what the Storm will be hoping to repeat. The x-factor on the bench for Melbourne is Kenny Bromwich, who is smaller than both Glasby and Welch, but provides a lot more in attack. Bromwich’s ability to break a tackle and to get offloads away will look to challenge Cronulla’s defence through the middle.

Why Melbourne Will Win

Craig Bellamy

There is no more prepared coach in the NRL than Bellamy. He will not leave a stone unturned in determining a strategy for Melbourne to utilise in this game. He has also coached in many Grand Finals previously, so he will have a greater understanding on how his team is handling the week, as opposed to counterpart Shane Flanagan. There is more certainty in how Melbourne will handle the big occasion, with a big reason for this being Bellamy’s influence.

Big game experience in key positions

While it’s good to have a coach that comes up with an ideal strategy, it means nothing if the players are unable to follow such a strategy. With Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith in the side, Melbourne will stick to their strategy for the majority of the game at least. No matter the situation, these two players will not panic. They also know how and when to influence a big game and have both done so on many occasions in the past.

Defence

As the saying goes, defence wins championships. While the defensive techniques have been brought into question (more on that later), their defence is very tough to penetrate. This alleviates pressure on their attack, resulting in them playing a more structured style that suits them best. The Storm are very adept in defending a lead, which they have shown in both finals games in 2016. If they get a lead in the Grand Final, the premiership will likely head south yet again.

Why Cronulla Will Win

Form and momentum

The Sharks have been the best team in this year’s finals series to date and have been rightfully rewarded with a birth in the decider. Both of their wins were highly impressive and both were different type of wins. The first was a comeback against Canberra in a hostile environment, while the other was a dominant win in front of a supportive crowd. As a result, the self-belief within the team would be quite high and they are back to their best form at the right time of year.

Attack

While Melbourne have the advantage in defence, Cronulla have the superior attack. If both sides are provided with equal opportunities to score points, the Sharks will ask more questions of the opposition defence than Melbourne. The main reason for this is the attacking threats across the park, with Ennis scheming at hooker, the forwards providing second phase play, the playmakers making smart decisions and the fast outside backs able to create something or find the line.

Destiny

There are a number of other reasons why the Sharks can win this game, but this deserves a mention. Cronulla have been the laughing stock of supporters of many other teams, particularly Dragons fans, over their lack of premiership silverware. Much like South Sydney in 2014, there just seems to be a feeling that this premiership drought will come to an end. The long suffering Sharks fans have endured enough and deserve a chance to celebrate a premiership.

Prediction

As much as I hate to mention this as a factor in this game, the ability of Melbourne to wrestle in the ruck will be a factor in determining this game. On a side note, if the NRL rules committee only does one thing in the off-season, it must be on finding ways to reward shoulder tackles more. Currently, ‘catching’ style tackles are being rewarded, as it enables defenders to utilise grappling techniques to more effectively slow the speed of the ruck. Anyway, it is Grand Final week and that line of thought is for another day.

As mentioned, Melbourne’s ability to wrestle and control the speed of the ruck is a major factor in their strong defensive record. This is why the start of the game is so important against the Storm. The only way to beat Melbourne is to get an early lead and to force them to play out of their comfort zone. Cronulla’s ability of their speedy backs to get the Storm defence on the back foot will also be a big factor in this game. If the Sharks backs can gain as much territory as they did last week, then the porch light will finally be turned out. In their last meeting in Round 26, Cronulla had plenty of opportunities to break through Melbourne, but a few poor decisions resulted in a defeat. The Storm will not give the Sharks many chances in this game and these chances need to be capitalised on, as Canberra found out last week.

The game being in Sydney gives Cronulla an advantage in terms of crowd support, but it shouldn’t be as vocal as it was last week. With the game at night, this favours Melbourne, as attacking will be more difficult, favouring the stronger defensive side. Given that the Storm are such good front runners, the start of this game is vitally important. The team that is leading at halftime will almost certainly win this game. The only way I don’t see this happening is if Cronulla have a small halftime lead and Melbourne find a way to win. The Sharks will need to replicate the start from last week, but even in their strong first half performance, the score didn’t reflect their dominance. Melbourne will be better than the Cowboys were last week and as much as I want to see Cronulla win, I think Melbourne repeat last week’s effort by getting to a lead and defending their way to the 2016 title.

Final Predicted Score: Melbourne 20 Cronulla 12

Clive Churchill Medal: Cameron Smith

First Try Scorer: Sosaia Feki

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