Storm vs Sharks
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Last Start Review
It’s difficult to know what to make of Cronulla after their victory over North Queensland in the first Preliminary Final. The result was never in doubt, and if you simply looked at the numbers the results would suggest a dominant Cronulla victory. On closer inspection however, it would be difficult to feel confident in the Sharks after that effort.
For a start, their offense in the first half was abysmal. Through a combination of excellent short kicking and a healthy serving of luck, the Sharks opened the match with an incredible possession advantage of 10 sets to 4. Despite this avalanche of possession (which was almost exclusively up the Cowboys’ end of the field), the Sharks never even looked like scoring, and they eventually gave up and settled for a penalty goal. By the time they finally managed to score a try (with a possession gained from a dubious Matt Scott knock on ruling), that advantage had blown out to 13 sets of six to 5. The point we’re making here is that there must be enormous question marks over the Sharks’ ability to trouble an elite defense like Melbourne, given their struggles to score against the Cowboys despite an overwhelming possession advantage. Yes, Cronulla would eventually blow the game open in the 2nd stanza. But by that point, how much of their success was the result of their offense, and how much was simply due to fatigue felt by the Cowboys after defending over 100 more tackles than their opponents, just a week after their bruising battle with Brisbane?
Secondly, the Sharks own defense has been prone to lapses all season long, and the sheer ease with which the Cowboys began running in points in the last 15 minutes must surely be alarming for Shane Flanagan. Granted, the result was already decided (though had the match run an extra 5 minutes longer it may have been interesting), but it still can’t be a great way to head into a Grand Final – having conceded 14 points in their last 10 minutes of football.
Finally, there’s also the question of just how good a preparation a match like this is for a Grand Final? While you wouldn’t want to be battered and sore for the game, surely a team would be better served coming out of an arm wrestle than a one-sided bludger of a game such as this, particularly one with such an unusual game script. It’s highly unlikely that the Sharks will be gifted so much possession in the Grand Final (and if they are, they’d better do a lot more with it), so they’ll be faced with a very different game flow that they may well be under-prepared for. Similarly, they’ll be required to lean on their defense, which was hardly tested on account of the Cowboys having no ball (and when they did finally get some footy it rained tries, as mentioned above). Perhaps the softer Preliminary Final will have the Sharks fresh come Sunday. Or perhaps it will expose their soft underbelly.
The Storm, on the other hand, came out on top in one of the all-time great Preliminary Finals. This was a real battle in every sense of the word, featuring two of the NRL’s best sides at the peak of their powers. The Raiders’ exciting offense was matched by Melbourne’s ‘purple wall’, and the result was a tense struggle that could easily have gone either way.
It could be said that Jack Wighton’s (correct) sin-binning turned the match, however that wouldn’t be giving enough credit to Melbourne’s defense, who’d been successfully turning up and denying the Raiders for the best part of an hour. No, this match was won by Melbourne rather than lost by Canberra. The Storm’s forwards did a remarkable job of making metres against the Raiders’ monster forward pack (finishing with a RMVOA of 8.09%), repeatedly forcing the Raiders to open their sets deep in their own end (and to the Raiders’ credit, the often enough found ways to did themselves out of there).
The Storm’s defense was similarly superb. The Raiders’ are one the most dangerous attacking sides in the league, and use offensive structures unlike most other sides in the NRL (their sweeping backline moves using the full width of the field are a thing of beauty). To the Storm’s enormous credit, they handled everything the Raiders threw at them with aplomb, and sent it back with interest. If the high-octane Raiders offense could only muster 12 points against the Storm, one has wonder about the Sharks comparatively stodgy offense.
Where it will be won
For the Sharks, it begins with defense. Their entire season has been built on their defense, and this will be the biggest test of all. Yes, they’ve been prone to defensive lapses (and if they start this match the way they ended their last one, this match will be over before it’s begun), but when the Sharks are on, their defense can be every bit as dominant as the Storm’s. Their defensive line speed is incredible, contributing to their league-leading RMCVOA of -7.25%, and the Sharks are particularly adept at lifting their defensive intensity at crucial times, or at critical places on the field (they’re one of the most difficult opponents to try and work it out of your own end against). This will be a central point in the Grand Final, with the Storm ranked first in RMVOA, with 4.22%. The battle for field position could well decide the game, with both sides likely requiring significant attacking opportunities to penetrate their opponents’ elite defense.
In attack, the Sharks can’t be afraid to dial up the second phase play. The Sharks are one of the best exponents of the offload, and they’ll likely need to utilise this tool to trouble the Storm’s defense. The Storm were able to handle the Raiders for the most part, however when the Raiders opened up the playbook and started playing more fast and loose in the last 10 minutes, the Storm were visibly rattled, and suddenly gaps started appearing in the Storm’s typically flawless defensive line. The Sharks would do well to learn from this, and be prepared to risk a few errors in the hope of creating a few creases to attack.
The Storm will be looking to control possession, and grind out Cronulla with one of their typical clinical performances. If the Storm can get out to any sort of lead, they’ll be confident that they can tackle their way to victory if required. The Sharks have an elite defense, there’s no denying that. However, the Storm’s is better. They concede less line breaks (LBCVOA of -43.52% vs -33.25%) and miss less tackles (TBCVOA of -23.83% vs -2.38%). The Storm typically concede more metres than the Sharks, however this is a result of the Storm’s defensive structure, with them being willing to concede a few more metres in order to prevent a line break (and to that end, the Storm’s inside defenders are among the best cover defenders in the competition).
On the offensive side of the ball, the difference between the Sharks and Storm is night and day. While the Sharks offense at times looks aimless and largely consists of just thudding into their opponents and hoping for a missed tackle, the Storm feature the most polished structured offense in the league. When the Storm hit their opponents’ end of the field you can be fairly certain you know what’s coming (a hit-up to the posts, then a Cooper Cronk run-around with Jesse Bromwich, and a 2nd Man Play with Kevin Proctor as the lead runner), but the Storm execute their plays so well that they’re still very difficult to stop. Cronk has a knack for selecting the right option, and of late has been taking the line on a lot more in these situations (perhaps setting up the Sharks to key in on him, and leave Proctor open for the short ball?). It’s one thing to understand what the Storm are doing, it’s another thing altogether to try and defend it.
This match looks to be relatively low scoring, and in low scoring matches anyone can win. The Sharks would be thrilled if they can keep the Storm to under 3 tries, and in doing so give themselves a huge chance of winning their maiden premiership. The Storm, however, are the best team in rugby league, and will be confident in their ability to professionally grind out another Grand Final win. Bring on the big one.