David Skipwith is the Herald's rugby league reporter

NRL: Fifita can lead Sharks to grand final success

Sharks prop Andrew Fifita. Photo / Getty
Sharks prop Andrew Fifita. Photo / Getty

Sunday's NRL grand final pits the games modern day history makers Melbourne against would-be history breakers Cronulla.

The Storm head into their sixth grand final since their inception 19-years ago and despite being stripped of their 2007 and 2009 premierships their name remains synonymous with success.

The Sharks, perennial battlers in comparison, have gone half a century with nothing to show for it despite grand final appearances in 1973, 1978 and 1997.

Under the relentless coaching of Craig Bellamy and guided on-field by 300-game duo, captain Cameron Smith and Dally M award-winning halfback Cooper Cronk, Melbourne are a model of professionalism. While the 2010 salary cap scandal has blighted their phenomenal run over the past decade, this year's minor premiers continue to set the standards which all other clubs seek to emulate.

The Sharks, on the other hand, arrive at ANZ Stadium after two miserable years that saw them finish the 2014 season with the wooden spoon and their reputation in tatters following the Asada scandal, while also having dragged themselves out of bankruptcy and numerous off-field dramas.

A long-awaited title win would provide redemption for Shane Flanagan's side but if Cronulla are to overturn history and break their premiership drought they will need to find a way to unlock Melbourne's almost water-tight defence.

The Storm are masters of percentage football and have conceded the least points in 2016 (12.5 per game), along with the least handling mistakes (7.7), least linebreaks (2.7) and least missed tackles (19.5). They also control the football better than any side, boasting a completion rate of 81.9 per cent.

While they stand accused of being predictable, knowing how Melbourne will play and stopping them from do it are two different things. They are near-perfect both in how they execute their plays and how they defend their line which will leave little for the Sharks to feed off.

Both sides possess big forward packs but in fiery front-rower Andrew Fifita the Sharks have one player with the X-factor to worry the Storm. The NSW forward can bend the line and provide quick play the balls but also has the footwork to trouble defenders and a dangerous offload that can create havoc on second phase.

If Fifita and the likes of captain Paul Gallen can get the Sharks moving forward and provide their halves Chad Townsend and James Maloney with space they have the muscle and pace in their back three Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes and Sosaia Feki to do the finishing.

And it is out wide where the Storm have been most vulnerable this year, with their defence tending to jam in to leave them exposed out near the sidelines, where they have conceded 32 of 55 tries.

Both teams have six players with grand final experience and in Maloney the Sharks have a proven big game playmaker, but the star-studded Storm will be prepared for every contingency and are experts in closing out tight results.

A fast start is imperative for the Sharks and if they can post early points they could catch the Storm on the hop.

But should the men in purple have the edge in the early stages of the second-half it would take some inspired play to run them down.

- NZ Herald

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