NRL Grand Final 2016 – Cronulla v Melbourne: Our Year

Cronulla Sharks 14 V Melbourne Storm 12

7:30 pm, Sunday 2nd October

ANZ Stadium, Sydney

Paul Macadam

 

How do I start? I’ve longed to write this piece all year, but hadn’t given a moment’s thought to the opening paragraph. It starts with bleary eyes. A triple-check for your CSSC ticket. A train and then another train. Lidcombe Hotel is glowing. Some fans pacing themselves; others already partying lest the result denies them the chance later. Traditionally a worry wart, I surprise myself by being less nervous than most people I speak to. But all are smiling.

 

Minutes before the match, Paul Gallen is smiling, too. Cronulla know how to start. Much like they did last week. After struggling with slow opening 20’s for most of this year, they’ve figured out how to kick-start the lawnmower just in time. Second play of the game, Ennis fires a warning shot in the form of a high tackle. Koroibete soon returns serve by swinging an arm across Townsend. Just beside the posts. First points to Cronulla. They’re straight back at the Storm. Maloney breaks the line. Passes to Lewis. Yes yes yes he’s in. Right near our end. Green, a Shark in the 2008 prelim defeat to Melbourne, lunges out to haul Lewis down. They slide across the dry grass. Slam on the breaks. Sliding but slowing. Short. By centimetres you can count on one hand. A sprinkle of rain in the afternoon, and Lewis scores. Football can be like that.

 

Leadership comes in many forms. The ones coaches love most tend to be subtle. Quiet words to settle a flustered teammate, or demanding the ball in situations where few want it. But sometimes leadership is barging your own halfback out the way to execute a scrum move only you and the fullback-come-back-rower know about. Gallen, temporary playmaker, sends the shortest of inside balls to Barba. Storm are still in scrum formation. Barba’s over. In front of him, we celebrate as though it’s the last try we’ll see in our lives. Melbourne have been Mankaded.

 

Repeat sets. Quick play-the-balls. Everything they hate. Cooper Cronk rattled after each kick; Cameron Smith reduced to a tackling machine. Unable to stay in the attacking 20, their primary weapon is the bomb. Holmes and Feki are faultless under the high ball; the latter especially impressive at one point in escaping what looked a certain line dropout. If there’s one criticism of a near-perfect half, it’s that the lead should be healthier. At 8-0, Melbourne can aim to survive til half-time and work their way back in afterwards. 14 would’ve had them summoning the spirits of ’99.

 

The interval arrives, and all I can do is take deep breaths. I’m not the only one. This is an unprecedented position. When Liverpool entered half-time of this year’s Europa League final with a 1-0 lead, twenty-thousand Reds sang “There She Goes” by The La’s. It’s harder to relax when you haven’t been there before.

 

For ten minutes Cronulla look more likely to score, until Melbourne do through Bromwich. Feki hurts his leg in a dog of a gang tackle. He can’t continue no matter how badly he wants to. Within five minutes, both Prior and Bukuya require concussion tests. At one point we’re left with a single fit substitute, and only because Bird plays on despite a busted elbow. Christ. Can’t catch a break. The Sharks’ attack loses focus for the first time, burning up tackles trying to steamroll the least steamrollable defence in the league. Townsend kicks not for the corner or the sideline, instead kicks it dead. Seven-tackle set. The Storm prefer not to attack via off-loads, but they’ll happily cut you apart that way if you allow them. Beale, never entirely comfortable on the wing, makes a poor attempt to tackle Chambers, but the ball should’ve been wrapped up five seconds earlier. 12-8 to Melbourne. After all that dominance. It’s absolutely crushing.

 

15 minutes remain. That’s loads of time to score, really. But all you can think of is scoreless second halves in preliminary finals from 15 years ago. Opponents of older Cronulla sides could be confident that if they overtook the Sharks late in a big game, they’d run away with it. Not so anymore. This lot have other ideas. A penalty for holding down. There’s your lucky break. Fifth tackle. Now another penalty, for another high shot on Townsend. Nothing much happening. Four tackles pass without incident. Fifita has other ideas. Ennis feeds a flat ball. Fifita charges, twists, thrashes his way through five defenders. And grounds it. He’s got it down. We all know immediately. Cronulla by two.

 

I hope I never live through a longer nine minutes than these. This is where having three quarters of the stadium in blue helps. To multiply the torture, Melbourne get closer to scoring with each possession. Bird catches a chip kick with his one functional arm. Their next set is a blur but ends with an error. The set after that takes the ball from one edge to the other and then back again. Melbourne frantically throwing it about. Cronulla running on empty, running on guts. Vunivalu’s kick goes long. Bird pumps a fist in front of us. Turns to take a quick tap. Holmes holds him back, because why on earth would you be in a hurry now. Cool heads. It sounds like standard game management, but remembering to do these things must be so hard when you’re that knackered.

 

Two minutes. I can’t stand up for another two minutes. I can’t even speak. Cronulla’s set is solid. Townsend blams a grubber into touch with the decisiveness he lacked the previous time. Ennis, a wind-up merchant to the very end, kills precious seconds by packing into Melbourne’s side of the scrum. Final minute. Two nondescript hit-ups. But it’s coming. Pass after pass and they’re inside our half. Here it comes.

 

Melbourne fling it right. Vunivalu and Koroibete are on the same wing. This is madness. Half of Cronulla’s defence has rushed over. No. Oh no. Now they go left. Someone to someone else to Smith to Hampton. Up in the crowd, you see things that are harder to detect from ground level. There’s an overlap. If Hampton goes left again, Melbourne probably score the most Melbourne try ever. On the siren. He goes right, everyone on the field goes right, a Sharks player swings an arm against a Storm head which you’re convinced will be called back for the most sickening penalty imaginable but it’s not, Koroibete takes on Leutele, Leutele tackles Koroibete. It’s done.

 

Chaos. 49 years of noise let out at once. Strangers leaping into the arms of strangers. I’ve got tears in my eyes and beer in my hair. The guy in the seat to my right – he’s around the same age as the club – breaks down. Just doubles over like he’s been winded. What are you meant to do? We’re conditioned to associate this state with unbearable depression or raw grief. Not with one of the most joyful moments of your life. I place my right arm across his back while my left is around whoever’s on that side. I say “it’s all worth it now” or words to that trite effect. Maybe he’s lost someone? Could just be overwhelmed. We all are. Some yell in elation. Others stand in disbelief with hands on heads. Nearly everyone cries. An hour after full-time and I’m still there. Way up the back of the stadium. Consider taking a picture before I turn to walk out, but my phone camera’s crocked like Feki’s leg, and in any case this is better as a memory.

 

Some semi-connected observations which I can’t jam into one paragraph:

 

* Saw Mitch Healey on the train home. Man of the people.

 

* Got flooded with messages from friends who’ve no interest in league, but know what this means to me.

 

* The photo of Gallen and Ettingshausen in a tearful embrace will outlive both of them.

 

* Everyone at the game who didn’t make the welcome-home party at Shark Park later that night can pinpoint the station where they realised they’d run out of energy. Mine was Mortdale. Mind said yes. Body refused to walk to the ground from Woolooware.

 

* Passed the travel time by chatting with a couple of older fans. One reveals a rolled-up Sharks streamer that he took to the 1978 grand final. It looks its age. His friend is wearing a Western Bulldogs scarf alongside a Cronulla one. Decent weekend, that. In his words: “I feel drunk… emotionally drunk”.

 

As do I. Back home, and my ears are ringing. The song is locked in my head. I’ve known since March how I’d like to finish this.

 

Up, up Cronulla. You’ve seen a team uninhibited by historical baggage. Even if they should probably learn the song, their lack of familiarity with past agonies allows them to approach enormous games with assurance. The boys in the black, white and blue. For some people, Cronulla’s maiden premiership will always carry an asterisks mark. I simply have no interest in appeasing these people. Up, up Cronulla. The Monday night comeback win over Canterbury. That’s when you knew it was really on. Leutele, Leutele, Leutele for the corner. “He’ll kick this, he’ll kick this for sure”. And Maloney was true to your word. In off the post. Name of the Sharks fits you. Fairly confident we’ll win more in my lifetime. None will ever top this. Sharks, Sharks forever. This club was broken 24 months ago. Broke and broken. Go out and play without fear. You’ll never have to hear those jokes again. Now’s the time to see good football. There could be some golden years ahead. Make sure you savour this one above all. For the Sharks… are… here.

 

Here, we’re here, finally here.

 

Up the Sharks.

 

Cronulla Sharks 14 (Ben Barba, Andrew Fifita tries, James Maloney 3 goals) defeated Melbourne Storm 12 (Jesse Bromwich, Will Chambers tries, Cameron Smith 2 goals). Crowd: 83 625.

 

Clive Churchill medal: Luke Lewis (Cronulla Sharks).

About Paul Macadam

Songwriter under my own name, drummer for Library Siesta. Newly ecstatic Cronulla tragic who also loves Liverpool because life wasn't meant to be easy. Too slow for the wing, too skinny for the second row.

Comments

  1. kath presdee says:

    I watched the game at my mum’s place with two other diehard supporters, a Dragon’s supporter who was going for us on the night and someone who really didn’t follow anyone but wasn’t not going for the Sharks.

    I swear that the last minute of the game was the longest in my life and I thought it would be so Cronulla for Melbourne to score.

    But they didn’t.

    AND WE WON!

  2. kath presdee says:

    I’d also like to add that I’ve loved reading your reports this year Paul – thanks for being there and bringing it home.

  3. Good stuff Paul. Fantastic to view the games through your eyes all season. Now to win the World Club Challenge?

  4. andy frame says:

    I envy you being there Paul. It looked amazing. I’ll reiterate what Kath has already said. It’s been great to read your reports this year. You’ll have to keep writing them now though mate. Look at the effect they’ve had. We’re Premiers! Up, up Cronulla!

  5. Thanks all for the lovely words – I’m glad you’ve enjoyed reading these. And I enjoy writing them, so there’ll be more on the way in 2017. Thinking of doing a season preview in February.

    Kath: A Dragons fan even temporarily going for the Sharks suggests that the 1999 GF still cuts deep! Oh yeah, that final minute nearly did me in. But they hung on, and it’s (hopefully) been among the happiest weeks you’ve ever had.

    Hamish: I’m already dead excited about that match! Hoping Warrington get up on the weekend, as they haven’t won the English comp since 1955. Would feel great / somehow symbolic of how far the club has come to beat Wigan, though.

    Andy: Haha I won’t take the credit, but I did have a gut feeling that this season could be special. In the meantime, let’s all drink in the brilliance of being premiers :)

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