By Daniel Lang - Managing Director
The 2018 NRL Grand Final will be held at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium. The former Olympic venue has been the host of the big game since 1999 when it took over from the Sydney Football Stadium.
The contest is slated to kick off at 7.20pm, but as anyone who has ever watched a high-profile game of rugby league can attest, actual kick off could be anywhere between then and midnight. My money is on the ball leaving the kicking tee at around 7.28pm, however.
This year’s decider brings together the two best sides throughout the regular season. The Sydney Roosters finished the home and away portion of the campaign on top of the ladder with 34 points and a points differential of +181.
Melbourne also finished on 34 points courtesy of 16 wins and a bye, but fell behind the Roosters after a last round loss to the Panthers dipped their for and against to +173.
Both sides have managed to peak and hit their best form right at the business end of the season and have glided through the finals campaign undefeated but with both sides facing disruption and selection headaches over the coming week, preparations aren’t ideal on either side of the fence.
For the Roosters, the fitness of star halfback Cooper Cronk looms as the biggest concern over the next few days. Cronk finished last week’s win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs with a ‘severe rotator cuff injury’ and remains in serious doubt of taking the field this Sunday afternoon.
Given his direct importance to Sydney’s attacking structures and creativity, coach Trent Robinson will be sweating on Cronk’s fitness right up until the last minute.
Across the border and into Melbourne and the Storm have their own selection hang-ups this week.
Melbourne’s issues are not injury related but a trip to the judiciary for star fullback Billy Slater will hold the attention of fans and neutrals everywhere in the lead up to the big dance.
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, 10. Tim Glasby, 11. Felise Kaufusi, 12. Joe Stimson, 13. Dale Finucane, 14. Kenny Bromwich, 15. Christian Welch, 16. Brandon Smith, 17. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 18. Ryan Hoffman, 19. Jahrome Hughes, 20. Sam Kasiano, 21. Cheyse Blair, Coach: Craig Bellamy.
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 Warea-Hargreaves, 9. Jake Friend, 10. Sio Siua Taukeiaho, 11. Boyd Cordner, 12. Isaac Liu, 13. Victor Radley, 14. Dylan Napa, 15. Zane Tetevano, 16. Paul Momirovski, 17. Ryan Matterson, 18. Lindsay Collins, 19. Nat Butcher, 20. Sean O'Sullivan, 23. Cooper Cronk, Coach: Trent Robinson.
While I’ve already spoken in some depth about the battle between centres Will Chambers and Latrell Mitchell, it is worth noting once again how important their contest will be to the overall Grand Final in 2018.
Both star representative centres at the peak of their powers, we get the chance to see young firebrand Latrell Mitchell look to put another one over the current Queensland and Australia centre Will Chambers who is amongst the consensus best centres in the game.
Mitchell and Chambers aside, the contest between the two hookers also poses an interesting side note to this one.
Melbourne probably hold the edge here given the wealth of experience and crafty guile of Cameron Smith, but with Jake Friend clear to play after some discipline concerns of his own, the Roosters will be very happy to see their dummy-half on deck.
Friend gets through a mountain of work defensively and his smooth transitional play with the ball in hand helps build the sort of platform that Cooper Cronk, Luke Keary and James Tedesco have played off all season. Friend’s importance will be magnified if Cronk is unable to take the field.
Sydney’s defence is one of the very best units in the competition and they’ll back themselves to restrict a gritty but unspectacular Melbourne attack.
Despite boasting the likes of Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr, the Storm still find themselves grinding teams down and winning on the back of the wrestle through the middle more often than not so expect the likes of Dylan Napa, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Victor Radley to play key roles in locking down the middle third of the field.
In stark contrast, the Roosters need more out of their attacking weapons. While they were able to overcome South Sydney last week, they only managed 12 points in the process and their attack looked borderline clunky for large stretches, which will concern Trent Robinson.
Obviously plenty will hinge on the availability of Cooper Cronk, but if he’s unavailable, the weight of pressure on Luke Keary and James Tedesco will either make or break two very gifted players.
Fullback Tedesco left the Tigers to play on the biggest stage and win trophies, so he’ll need to lift if he is to realise that dream in 2018.
Despite leaving the club next season, winger Blake Ferguson also looms as a key figure in this one. The winger has averaged nearly 200 run metres per game this season and kick-started many attacking sets with his strong kick returns and general ball-running.
Prone to the occasional error, however, Ferguson will need to be near perfect on Sunday evening.
Despite Billy Slater’s looming battle with the NRL judiciary, Melbourne somehow manage to come into this contest the more settled of the two sides.
Craig Bellamy’s troops are as clinical and professional as ever and they’ll be up for the grind of another tight contest on Sunday night.
While Slater’s availability will be a crucial sidenote for the Storm after he was charged for a shoulder charge on Cronulla winger Sosaia Feki in the Storm’s preliminary finals win, the rest of the unit is fairly settled and look to be coming into this one with a ‘business as usual’ frame of mind.
Prop Tim Glasby has been cleared of a rib injury and will be on deck to help Melbourne win the battle through the middle of the ruck against the Chook’s big boppers. The Grand Final will be Glasby’s last as a Storm player before moving north to link up with the Newcastle Knights in 2019.
Melbourne were clinical and ruthless as they dispatched Cronulla last week but the performance and importance of Billy Slater could be seen as an added concern if he’s ruled out this weekend.
For the Storm, the control and dominance of Cameron Munster also looms as a huge key to how they approach Sunday’s Grand Final. Interestingly, Munster made his name filling in for Billy Slater at fullback a couple of years ago but has boomed in recent seasons, earning Queensland and Australia representative jerseys and positioning himself as a marquee superstar.
The big day
These two sides only met once this season, with the Storm coming away with a narrow 9-8 victory courtesy of a field goal from veteran rake Cameron Smith and it’s fair to expect a similarly tight contest this time around.
Grand Finals are notoriously tense and hard-fought at the best of times, but with two sides evenly matched and both facing disrupted preparations, this one could go right down to the wire.
At the risk of sitting on the fence or upsetting one bandwagon over the other, I'll tip a tight contest that could well even enter extra time to decide a winner. Melbourne by 1 point.