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Who should neutrals cheer?

Melbourne's star halfback Cooper Cronk lived up to his top billing in his 300th NRL match.
Who should neutrals cheer?
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Who should neutrals cheer?
Of all the combinations to come out of the preliminary finals, a Storm-Sharks grand final was the worst possible result. The team that never goes away, even after being punished for fudging the books, against the team that, even with no titles in their first 49 seasons, manages to annoy.

With Paul Gallen, Wade Graham and Shane Flanagan the only front-facing Sharks remaining from the club's drugs saga in 2013, there appears little resentment of the team for that in particular. Instead it is Gallen in general and, especially so over the last few weeks, Michael Ennis who frustrate neutral fans. So who is an NRL supporter supposed to cheer for on Sunday?

With the premiership shared among a number of clubs in recent years – still nobody has gone back-to-back in the NRL era, with six different teams winning the last six grand finals – the biggest drought remains with Parramatta, whose last victory in 1986 betters only the bare cupboards at Gold Coast, New Zealand and Cronulla. It's safe to presume Eels, Titans and Warriors fans will be happy to see Melbourne lift the trophy.

But what of Cronulla's Sydney rivals? Sea Eagles and Dragons fans might be better served popping down to their various beaches and ignoring the game altogether, given their recent histories against the Storm and long-held desires to beat the Sharks. Rabbitohs supporters might find themselves split in two, with some recalling the happiness of breaking a long drought and others preferring to see it drag on even longer.

Could the kicking game win it?
Melbourne and Cronulla have made their way to the grand final in only slightly different circumstances. The minor premiers won their two finals games 16-10 and 14-12, while the Sharks won a tight qualifying final 16-14 before romping out to a 32-6 lead over the Cowboys last weekend. North Queensland hit back with three tries in the final 10 minutes but Cronulla's cue was quite clearly in the rack.

The Sharks shade the Storm for tries scored (106 to 101) this season but Melbourne's defence is well ahead of Cronulla's, having conceded 55 and 75 respectively. It's a good sign for the Sharks' hopes on Sunday that they put five tries past the Cowboys, who had conceded only 63 going into the preliminary final. With pressure at its highest point of the year, the foot skills of Cooper Cronk, Blake Green, Cameron Smith, James Maloney, Chad Townsend and Michael Ennis will come into play.

Every wide player will be on alert even more than usual, desperate to avoid making a mistake, and the numerous kicking options will give both teams a couple of weapons with which to attack. Cronk leads the pack for try assists off kicks – nine of his 29 for the year have come off his boot – and given the benefits of a strong kicking game it should come as no surprise that he also has more line-break assists than the remaining five players.

On the other end, Ennis (five try assists off kicks) might be most dangerous. If Cronulla want to avoid kicking to the advantage of the Storm's great leapers, the hooker could force some kicks through from the middle in a bid to turn the Melbourne forwards inside out. Sleight of foot will be crucial, if not for the final pass then at least to force repeat sets. The Sharks have forced at least three goal-line dropouts in their last five games – and in each they had at least 50 per cent of possession. That, however, includes their 26-6 loss to the Storm in round 26. Melbourne have more tricks up their sleeve and are a more clinical outfit than Cronulla. For that reason, we favour the Victorian outfit to topple the Sharks again to take out the grand final.

Who leads the Churchill race?
There is no shortage of options for the medal when the names involved in the game include Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Michael Ennis and Paul Gallen. Smith is the only member of Melbourne's 'big three' without one, having missed out in the club's previous grand final victories to Greg Inglis (2007), Billy Slater (2009) and Cronk (2012). Smith, though, has won the Wally Lewis Medal four times – including this year – and this could be his weekend on the big stage.

The Storm captain probably won a points decision with Josh Hodgson on Saturday night, the former coughing the ball up twice as a result of the latter and the latter giving away a poor penalty that gave Melbourne an eight-point buffer with 15 minutes remaining. Now Smith comes up against Michael Ennis, who has been exceptional in his last season of football. The two hookers, however, might yet be overshadowed by a try-scoring teammate. Jesse Bromwich and Andrew Fifita are rare scorers, yet they get through so much work in the middle that they would be tough to ignore if they were on the end of a flat pass close to the line. Cronk's ability to insert himself into the game can never count against him.

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