Season over for Cronulla Sharks after 22-6 preliminary final defeat as Melbourne Storm face nervous wait over Billy Slater shoulder charge

Cronulla’s season is over after the Sharks fell to a 22-6 defeat to Melbourne on Friday night.

The Storm blew Cronulla away in the first half of the preliminary final in front of a sold out crowd at AAMI Park to reach their third grand final in a row.

While the Sharks will point to a number of contentious decisions that went against them, the truth was Cronulla were not at their best.

Cronulla were poor with the ball in the first half and lacked discipline, handing Melbourne possession and field position with a number of handling errors and penalties.

Already without Wade Graham to a season-ending knee injury, Sharks captain Paul Gallen was officially ruled out with the shoulder injury he suffered against Penrith late on Thursday.

Coach Shane Flanagan also opted to leave Josh Dugan out of his 17-man squad despite the former Test star being declared fully fit earlier in the week, going with the same backline that got the job done against the Panthers.

Melbourne could be without Billy Slater for the grand final, with the fullback put on report for a blatant shoulder charge.

The Storm took the lead through a Cameron Smith penalty goal before Slater’s controversial intervention to stop Sosaia Feki from scoring the first try.

Cronulla shifted to the left attacking Melbourne’s line in the 14th minute with Feki looking like scoring in the corner only for Slater to race across and bundle him into touch with a deliberate shoulder charge.

The Sharks received a penalty though some questioned why Slater wasn’t sent to the sin bin for a deliberate act of foul play in preventing a try being scored.

It was a scrappy start from both sides until Storm halfback Brodie Croft crossed for the first try midway through the first half.

There appeared to be nothing on down the right before Felise Kaufusi brilliantly stepped between Ricky Leutele and Matt Moylan before offloading inside for Slater.

Slater drew Valentine Holmes before finding Croft who jinked past Chad Townsend to score next to the posts.

It got worse for Cronulla when they lost Feki to a shoulder injury after he landed awkwardly following a collision with Suliasi Vunivalu.

More controversy was to follow when referees decided against penalising Slater for an incorrect play the ball. Instead, he was allowed to play the ball again, going against the trend of similar rulings this season.

Melbourne themselves earned a penalty from the ensuing set and marched down field, with Slater getting on the outside of Moylan to give the Storm a 14-0 lead.

Cronulla blew their best chance of the first half when Townsend forced Slater into an error with a floating bomb.

The Sharks shifted left but, with Kurt Capewell shunted to the wing in place of Feki, the back-rower was unable to get low and finish the move. Not a natural winger, Capewell was only able to put a foot on the touchline before being pushed into touch.

Cronulla looked like getting to half-time with only a 14-point deficit. But a bizarre Storm try seconds before the break gave Melbourne a 20-0 advantage.

Andrew Fifita was involved in a push and shove in back play after tackling Kenny Bromwich. With Melbourne attacking Cronulla’s line, a number of players including Sharks markers Luke Lewis and Jayson Bukuya appeared to be drawn towards the skirmish.

But Smith kept his head in the game to roll a grubber kick into the in-goal for Slater to touch down for his second try of the half.

Cronulla needed a response immediately after half-time and looked as though they had it when Jesse Ramien touched down three minutes into the second half.

Match officials ruled a try on the field, only for the video referee bunker to overturn the decision ruling Edrick Lee had knocked on from a Townsend kick.

The Sharks appeared to have changed their game plan, throwing caution to the wind with a number of offloads and second phase play as the Storm looked content to try and contain Cronulla.

Melbourne managed to extend their lead with another Smith penalty goal before Lewis picked up a late consolation try with 11 minutes to play.

Joseph Paulo schemed across field before hitting Lewis on a straight run to slice through and score a try in his final ever game. With Lewis’ career ending in the same city it started in 18 seasons ago.

As well as a nervous wait for the match review committee to see if Slater will be charged, Melbourne will wait to find out their grand final opponent tomorrow night with the Storm to take on the winner of the South Sydney-Sydney Roosters preliminary final.

A grade one charge is worth 200 demerit points, meaning any charge will rub Slater out of the grand final.

Leader Scoreboard

Melbourne Storm 22 (Billy Slater two, Brodie Croft tries. Cameron Smith five goals)


Cronulla Sharks 6 (Luke Lewis try. Valentine Holmes goal)

at AAMI Park, Melbourne

Crowd: 26,621

Melbourne advance to NRL grand final


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