FIRST there was jubilation – but Melbourne’s joy after a miraculous victory over Cronulla last night quickly dissolved into a deadly serious midfield team meeting.
Storm back-rower Ryan Hoffman scored his second try with two minutes remaining in the Monday Night Football game against Cronulla to leave Craig Bellamy’s men with just 90 seconds to snatch victory.
With the clock ticking towards 20 seconds, winger Sisa Waqa saw centre Will Chambers unmarked on the blind side and sent the centre over for the clincher. Reserves jumped from their seats and the AAMI Park crowd erupted.
But captain Cameron Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk didn’t let the celebrations last long. They quickly summoned all players to the centre of the field and most interview requests were denied.
While Sharks coach Shane Flanagan opted to focus on the positives after a heart-breaking loss, the Storm duo wanted to make sure the negatives were not forgotten.
“Cooper and I spoke to the boys and said it was a great effort and to win in those circumstances takes a special team,” said Smith.
“But we also said ‘we’ve got to stop making it hard for ourselves’. It’s nice to go out there and start well and lead from the front but we’ve only done that once in the last three months.”
Coach Craig Bellamy said: “With five minutes to go, I pretty much put my hand up – but the players’ didn’t.
Melbourne had completed just 12 from 22 in the first half and missed 22 tackles to trail 6-4. The scoreline clicked over to 14-4 and 18-10 as the Sharks ground their way to a seemingly inevitable victory.
Things started alarmingly for the home side when fullback Billy Slater went down with an ankle injury in only the seventh minute. After receiving attention, he was shuffled to the wing before eventually returning to the custodian position and playing on.
But even Slater wasn’t immune to the acute case of dropsies that had infected his team. When forward Sika Manu fumbled in the 16th minute, Melbourne had completed five from 10.
They still managed to score first after getting a scrum-feed 10 metres out after Cronulla – whose handling had not been much better – made an error in their own in-goal.
Slater moved into dummy-half and spied Cronulla winger John Williams alone, marking three of his Storm team-mates. Slater kicked from the acting half position and winger Sisa Waqa followed through to gratefully touch down for an unconverted, 20th-minute try.
Cronulla went back on the attack but Todd Carney’s pass to Nathan Stapleton was called forward. Then Waqa was tackled in the air by Colin Best, relieving intense pressure on the Melbourne line.
The lead-up to Cronulla’s first try was typical of the first half. Stormer Anthony Quinn knocked on running the ball out of trouble and then Cronulla replacement Tyson Frizzell fumbled as well.
But that meant a Sharks scrumfeed in an advantageous position and they made the most of it, John Morris and Paul Gallen combining for prop Sam Tagataese to crash over to the right of the posts with Todd Carney converting.
Carney added a penalty goal shortly after the resumption of play for the second half for a four-point lead, then Paul Gallen’s offload handed winger Stapleton a try in the corner.
Hoffman, who this time last year was celebrating Challenge Cup success with Wigan, flew high to claim Cooper Cronk’s kick in the 54th minute to give his side some hope.
But when late inclusion Issac Gordon crossed a minute after Melbourne’s Gareth Widdop had a try disallowed, it looked like being the end of the section.
Flanagan said: “Hopefully we can learn from that in the finals. We probably should have won. Coming down here doesn’t hold any fear for us.”
MELBOURNE 20 (R Hoffman 2 W Chambers S Waqa tries C Smith 2 goals) bt CRONULLA 18 (I Gordon N Stapleton S Tagataese tries T Carney 3 goals) at AAMI Park. Referees: S Hayne/A Shortall. Crowd: 12,847.
Filed for: THE AUSTRALIAN