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Melbourne and Cronulla write another chapter in their fierce rivalry when the two powerhouse clubs collide in the preliminary finals on Friday night.
Having developed into one of the NRL’s most intense rivalries since Cronulla edged Melbourne to snap their premiership drought in stunning fashion two years ago in the competition’s showpiece, the two teams will once again clash in the business end of the finals series – but this time, one round earlier.
Cronulla have toiled away all season long, rarely hitting astronomical heights but also never really dipping below a solid base level. They’ve been consistent and tough to break down – and their style of play has carried them to within two wins of a second premiership in three years.
After falling to minor premiers the Roosters in the opening week of the finals, the Sharks held off a fast-finishing Panthers side to emerge triumphant by a 21-20 scoreline last week to secure their ticket to the preliminary finals.
Melbourne meanwhile also enjoyed a one-point victory of their own, conquering Souths 29-28 in the first week of the finals courtesy of a late Cameron Munster field goal, with that win propelling them straight into Friday’s preliminary finals with a week off in-between.
Close to one year on from their clinical dispatch of the North Queensland Cowboys in the 2017 Grand Final, the Storm are attempting to become the first team since Brisbane in 1992/93 to capture back-to-back premierships.
With Cooper Cronk departing the club at the end of 2017 and Melbourne never really finding a permanent replacement in the No. 7 jersey, it’s already been a phenomenal achievement from Craig Bellamy and his troops to make the preliminary finals – can they keep their momentum going into another Grand Final?
They will have to overturn a poor recent record against the Sharks to do so. Cronulla have won four of their last five meetings, including that 2016 premiership decider, while they also won 17-14 at AAMI Park a couple of months ago. The Sharks love getting into the grind and wrestle with Melbourne – it’s their comfort zone and more often than not, they’ve come out on top. The onus will be on the Storm to change things up, because if they fail to adopt a more expansive style of football against their rivals, they could be heading for another tough loss.
Will Chambers returns for the Storm as Ryan Hoffman and Nelson Asofa-Solomona join the bench, with Cheyse Blair, Brandon Smith and Sam Kasiano dropping to the reserves.
Cronulla have named an unchanged team from their win over Penrith, however Josh Dugan could return after being included in the reserves and Joseph Paulo is on standby for Paul Gallen (shoulder).
Storm: 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.
Interchange: 14 Kenny Bromwich, 15 Christian Welch, 16 Ryan Hoffman, 17 Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
Reserves: 18 Brandon Smith, 19 Jahrome Hughes, 20 Sam Kasiano, 21 Cheyse Blair.
Sharks: 1 Val Holmes, 2 Sosaia Feki, 3 Jesse Ramien, 4 Ricky Leutele, 5 Edrick Lee, 6 Matt Moylan, 7 Chad Townsend, 8 Andrew Fifita, 9 Jayden Brailey, 10 Matt Prior, 11 Luke Lewis, 12 Kurt Capewell, 13 Paul Gallen.
Interchange: 14 Scott Sorensen, 15 James Segeyaro 16 Aaron Woods 17 Jayson Bukuya.
Reserves: 18 Josh Dugan, 19 Ava Seumanufagai, 20 Joseph Paulo, 21 Kyle Flanagan.