A first half masterclass from Billy Slater has propelled the Melbourne Storm into their third straight Grand Final after they defeated the Cronulla Sharks 22-6 in front of a packed house at AAMI Park tonight.
The 35 year old Storm fullback was terrific, scoring two tries and setting up another to give his side a commanding 20-0 lead at halftime in which the busted Sharks never recovered from.
The tremendous win for the Storm and the sublime form of Slater has been overshadowed however, with the NRL Match Review Committee sure to pour over the footage of Slater's cover tackle on Sharks winger Sosaia Feki in the 13th minute of the game.
The former Australian and Queensland fullback was penalised for a shoulder charge, when making a covering tackle on Feki who looked certain to score. Replays showed Slater dropped the shoulder and failed to use his arms, which bounced Feki into touch saving a certain try albeit with an illegal tackle. The question of whether Slater, one of the greatest players of the modern era, who is retiring at the end of this season should be suspended is sure to dominate the headlines over the next couple of days.
Despite this drama heading into Grand Final week, Storm coach Craig Bellamy would have been delighted with the effort from his side, who were far more disciplined and dynamic then the tired looking Sharks, who were desperately missing the direct running and experience of skipper Paul Gallen and representative backrower Wade Graham.
The recent fierce rivalry between both clubs was the sell for this match and it didn't disappoint early, with the Sharks showing some strong defence from the kickoff. It was the Storm however, who was first on the scoreboard when Sharks stand in captain Luke Lewis was penalised for an attempted strip and Cameron Smith took the early advantage for his side to lead 2-0 after just six minutes.
Cronulla finally got a chance in their own end, when a well executed backline move saw Sosaia Feki speed towards the corner, however the controversial Slater tackle saved a certain try but gave the Sharks an important chance to get on the scoreboard. The Sharks however couldn't convert the chance, when Matt Moylan lost possession cold and Slater then made them pay, when he charged onto a superb Felise Kaufusi offload and found his halfback Brodie Croft backing up on the inside to score the first try of the night and put the Storm ahead 8-0.
Melbourne started to get on a roll and thanks to back to back penalties, Slater again was in the thick of the action when he got on the outside of Moylan close to the line and scored a terrific try to give his side a commanding 14-0 lead following Smith's successful conversion. Cronulla needed to get on the board desperately and were given a chance when Slater showed he was human, knocking on a difficult Chad Townsend kick on the doormat of his own tryline. The Sharks again failed to convert on their opportunities and the Storm again charged up field just before the break.
The flashpoint of the half then happened, when firebrand Sharks prop Andrew Fifita took Storm forward Kenny Bromwich out late and a scuffle ensued. Sensing a man short in the defensive line, Storm skipper Cameron Smith always the opportunist, grubbered for the in goal finding Slater to score his second try and giving the Storm a commanding 20-0 lead at the break.
Melbourne were typically clinical in the second half, protecting their lead by playing simple mistake free football, completing their sets and taking minimal risks throughout the second half. Cronulla gave themselves a sniff with ten minutes remaining, when departing utility Joseph Paulo held up a well timed pass for the retiring 2016 Clive Churchill Medallist Luke Lewis to crash over in his final game to give his side a pulse. It proved to be just consolation however, with the Storm holding strong in the backend of the second half to secure a third Grand Final appearance in a row and aim to become the first side since the Broncos of 92-93 or Super League era Broncos 97-98 to go back to back with consecutive premierships.