NRL Grand Final preview: Slater cleared, Roosters sweat on Cronk

Rugby league doyen Phil Gould speaks with Hatch’s Troy Whittaker about the many storylines surrounding the NRL Grand Final.

It’s hard to remember a grand final with a more dramatic build-up than this Sunday’s decider between the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters.

The Storm are aiming to become the first team since the Brisbane Broncos in 1992/3 to claim back-to-back titles when they tackle Sydney, the minor premiers. Yet all the talk has swirled around two opposing men and their left shoulders: Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk.

Retiring Melbourne fullback Slater was  controversially cleared on Tuesday to take his place in the big dance, avoiding a shoulder charge suspension that would have seen his glittering 16-year career robbed of a fairytale finish. The decision to allow Slater to play has divided fans.

But while the champion No. 1 is now a certain starter, the same can’t be said for star Roosters halfback Cronk. He’s in grave doubt with severe rotator cuff damage.

Cronk, of course, represented the Storm for 14 seasons and was crucial in multiple premierships, including their 2017 triumph.

Weight of Sydney on Cronk’s shoulder

Cronk sustained his injury during the Roosters’ gritty preliminary final victory over the South Sydney Rabbitohs last weekend, playing the second half with virtually one arm. He has been named on an extended bench in jersey 23 to face his previous club.

Such an injury often requires surgery and a six-month layoff. Cronk will attempt to play after just eight days’ recovery with little more than painkilling injections and a hefty dose of courage.

While the loss of Cronk would be a heavy blow, the Roosters can still lift the Provan-Summons Trophy without their marquee player. At least, that’s the opinion of Phil Gould, the former Roosters coach, expert commentator and one of rugby league’s most astute minds.

“The Roosters can win without Cronk. It’s obviously not ideal going into their most important game without him, but they can cope,” Gould told Hatch.

Regardless of whether they could get the job done minus Cronk, Gould believes gambling on his fitness is a chance worth taking for the Roosters.

“There will be a number of players out there on Sunday who will be less than one hundred per cent fit. For Cronk, it just depends on what the injury restricts him from doing. If he can catch, pass and kick, it’s worth the risk to have his experience out there,” he said.

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“They can cover for any deficiencies in defence as they did in the second half last week against South Sydney. If he plays, the Storm will undoubtedly target him. However, it would be unwise to focus all their attacking plays on Cronk. The Roosters have a great defensive system and they will be well prepared.”

O’Sullivan in line for the ultimate baptism

Roosters coach Trent Robinson has a slew of options up his sleeve if Cronk is ruled out. Utility Mitchell Aubusson was named in the No. 7 earlier this week, but it’s extremely unlikely he’ll play at halfback given he hasn’t started there in any of his 262 NRL games.

A more probable reshuffle would push in-form five-eighth Luke Keary to halfback, with the big-bodied Ryan Matterson – who has filled in capably at pivot throughout the season – to partner him at the scrum-base.

But don’t discount 20-year-old half Sean O’Sullivan from marshalling the Chooks around the park. Despite having only one first grade game to his name, O’Sullivan has built a reputation on being calm and collected. He would be the most inexperienced man to play in a grand final in 43 years.

Gould – the current general manager of the Penrith Panthers – watched O’Sullivan come through the junior rep ranks at the foot of the mountains before the latter moved to the Roosters in 2017. He has no doubts that the youngster would handle the pressure of 80,000 screaming fans at ANZ Stadium.

“Sean is highly intelligent and has great composure. He knows the game really well; he has a tremendous passing and kicking game,” Gould said. “He is not one to try high-risk plays or panic under pressure.

“Naturally this will be the fastest and most intense level of football he has experienced, but I don’t think he would be overawed by the challenge. He is also a genuine halfback and would allow Luke Keary to stay at five-eighth and play his natural running game.”

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Smith key to Storm success, Tedesco crucial for Chooks

He might be 35, but Melbourne captain and hooker Cameron Smith is still at the peak of his powers. Smith was rewarded last night for another exceptional season with the Dally M Captain of the Year award.

And it’s the ever-competitive Smith who Gould says is the key for the Victorian side.

“Smith is the best ‘game manager’ in rugby league. He has been for nearly a decade. The Storm have won several close matches this year, [and] there is no better player in a tight finish than the experienced Smith,” said Gould.

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For the Roosters, he nominates NSW Origin fullback and big-money recruit James Tedesco as the integral cog.

“Tedesco will have the responsibility of organising the Roosters’ defensive structures … He will also have to be aware of the Storm’s attacking kicks, which have produced many tries for Melbourne this season,” Gould explained.

“In attack, Tedesco is the Roosters’ X-factor. I don’t think the Roosters can go around the Storm’s defensive line. They will have to go through them with quick play-the-balls and support play up the middle of the field.

“South Sydney and their hooker Damien Cook showed the blueprint for success against the Storm a couple of months ago. I expect the Roosters to adopt similar tactics. Tedesco is vital to this plan.”

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Gould’s prediction

When asked for his thoughts on the outcome of Sunday’s match, Gould said he anticipates a close affair.

“I think this will be a very low scoring game. We are talking about the two best defensive teams in the competition,” Gould said.

“The two teams met in Adelaide earlier this year, with the Storm winning 9–8 courtesy of a late field goal by Cameron Smith. I see this game producing a similar scoreline. I’m going to tip the Roosters this time – by one.”

2018 NRL Grand Final details

When and where: ANZ Stadium, kick-off scheduled for 7:20 pm

Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League

Sydney Roosters: 1 James Tedesco, 2 Daniel Tupou, 3 Latrell Mitchell, 4 Joseph Manu, 5 Blake Ferguson, 6 Luke Keary, 7 Mitchell Aubusson, 8 Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, 9 Jake Friend (c), 10 Siosiua Taukeiaho, 11 Boyd Cordner (c), 12 Isaac Liu, 13 Victor Radley

Interchange: 14 Dylan Napa 15 Zane Tetevano 16 Paul Momirovski, 17 Ryan Matterson

Reserves: 18 Lindsay Collins, 19 Nat Butcher, 20 Sean O’Sullivan, 23 Cooper Cronk

Melbourne 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 (c), 10 Tim Glasby, 11 Felise Kaufusi, 12 Joe Stimson, 13 Dale Finucane

Interchange: 14 Kenny Bromwich, 15 Christian Welch, 16 Brandon Smith, 17 Nelson Asofa-Solomona

Reserves: 18 Ryan Hoffman, 19 Jahrome Hughes, 20 Sam Kasiano, 21 Cheyse Blair

Top image: ANZ Stadium. Source: Tess James’ Flickr (creative commons)