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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Minor premiers take on reigning champions for rugby league's greatest prize
Returning to the game's biggest stage five years after last tasting grand final success, the Sydney Roosters will be hoping to realise their pre-season hype by claiming a fourteenth premiership title. Finishing the regular season in first position courtesy of a for-and-against differential just eight points superior to Melbourne, the Eastern Suburbs outfit appear resigned to being without star halfback Cooper Cronk after the long-serving Storm playmaker valiantly persevered through the second half of last Saturday's 12-4 win over the Rabbitohs with a severely damaged shoulder. At long odds to line up for his eighth grand final despite being named as part of the extended bench, the fallout of Cronk's likely absence sees utility Mitchell Aubusson named alongside Luke Keary in the halves. However, following on from coach Trent Robinson's audacious decision to play rookie Paul Momirvoski in such a crucial fixture last week, 20-year-old halfback Sean O'Sullivan could come into the team for only his second first grade game. Offsetting the conjecture surrounding Cronk's availability, Latrell Mitchell and Dylan Napa will return from suspension, while co-captain Jake Friend is set to play after accepting an early guilty plea for his role in a dangerous throw on Greg Inglis. Retaining five members of the 2013 premiership winning team, Sunday evening will serve as deserved reward for Isaac Liu and Dylan Napa after the representative duo were replaced just prior to kick-off from the team that downed Manly in Robinson's first season as coach. While just seven members of the 21-man squad have contested a grand final previously, the Roosters boast a wealth of representative experience including departing players Blake Ferguson (Eels) and Ryan Matterson (Tigers).
Primed to become the first team since the 1992-93 Broncos to claim consecutive titles as part of a complete competition, the Melbourne Storm will be looking to further their credentials as the pre-eminent club of the NRL era with victory on Sunday evening. Coming into an eighth grand final under the guidance of coach Craig Bellamy, the reigning premiers will fancy their chances of outlasting the Roosters having triumphed in Adelaide courtesy of a Cameron Smith one-pointer back in June. In spite of producing their highest tally of regular season losses to qualify for a grand final - discounting the stripped 2009 title - along with struggling to cement a consistent replacement for Cooper Cronk, the Storm's fortunes have been given a considerable boost following Billy Slater's successful outcome at the judiciary after being cited for a shoulder charge in the act of preventing a try during last week's 22-6 victory over Cronulla. With the retiring fullback set to line up for his final appearance after 16 seasons in first grade, the Storm will be unchanged from the side that downed the Sharks last Friday. Fielding 13 members of the team that downed North Queensland 34-6 a year ago, the significance of Sunday night will be especially felt for Newcastle-bound prop Tim Glasby, superstar fullback Billy Slater and 18th man Ryan Hoffman as they make their final appearances for the Victorian-based club. Likewise, Brodie Croft, Joe Stimson and Brandon Smith will relish their first taste of grand final football, while Christian Welch will be eyeing his first grand final ring after having the disappointment of losing to the Sharks two years ago compounded by missing last year's premiership win through injury.
Last meeting | Round 16 2018 - Roosters 8 Storm 9
Finals | First Qualifying Final, 2015 - Roosters 18 Storm 20
Featuring in Melbourne's grand final loss to Cronulla two years ago, interchange forward Christian Welch won't be looking for redemption nor some shallow kind of bliss on Sunday evening as he strives to claim the ultimate prize in rugby league - a premiership ring. Making a successful comeback from a torn ACL sustained early last year, the 24-year-old Queenslander has proven to be a consistent contributor for Craig Bellamy since debuting in 2015, while earning the recognition of representative selectors as 18th man for Kevin Walters' Game Three Maroons side. Among the lesser-known talents in the star-studded Melbourne line-up, Welch's contribution to the Storm may not be as glamorous as the blistering pace of Josh Addo-Carr or the clutch plays of Cameron Munster, but in the same way the likes of Bryan Norrie and Jaiman Lowe of past Storm teams have unfashionably played to the betterment of the whole team performance, the impact provided by the unsung forward may provide the lift needed to deliver Melbourne back-to-back titles.
Returning from suspension to play the biggest match of his young career, Latrell Mitchell will provide a much-needed attacking boost for the foundation club while taking on the all-important goal-kicking duties. Forced to persevere from the sidelines during the preliminary final victory over South Sydney, the 21-year-old New South Wales representative looms as a genuine game-breaker as a result of his powerful running style and brute strength close to the try line. Crossing for a personal best of 16 tries in addition to tasting Origin success and all but assured of a Kangaroos debut in the coming weeks, Mitchell looks set to continue his stellar season by evoking Greg Inglis feats from the 2007 decider with a starring performance epitomised by an individual moment of speed and power to live long in the memories of all rugby league supporters.
Gaining a significant boost from Billy Slater judicial exoneration, the wealth of experience present throughout Melbourne's ranks, along with Cooper Cronk's likely absence, has the reigning champions favoured to become the first team to record consecutive titles in the NRL era.
Of the previous 20 grand finals played during the NRL era, the Roosters and Storm have collectively featured on rugby league's biggest day 14 times, yet never met in a decider - until now. Considered to be the two premier clubs of the professional era, the telling factor in Sunday's clash won't be the individual contributions (or telling absences) left by Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, but instead the will of both sets of players to carry on and not let the biggest match of the season end before emerging as the winner. With a galaxy of stars lining up for either side, look for Cameron Smith to claim the only individual honour that has proved elusive with a starring role in another Melbourne premiership.
Margin: Storm by 8
Clive Churchill Medal: Cameron Smith (Storm)
First Tryscorer: Suliasi Vunivalu (Storm)
1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Latrell Mitchell 4. Joseph Manu 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Luke Keary 23. Cooper Cronk 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Jake Friend 10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho 11. Boyd Cordner 7. Mitchell Aubusson 13. Victor Radley 12. Isaac Liu 14. Dylan Napa 15. Zane Tetevano 17. Ryan Matterson
1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Will Chambers 4. Curtis Scott 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Brodie Croft 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Tim Glasby 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Joe Stimson 13. Dale Finucane 14. Kenneath Bromwich 15. Christian Welch 16. Brandon Smith 17. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Nick Beashel; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea;