Two preliminary finals turned out two significant storylines after Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters despatched Cronulla Sharks and South Sydney Rabbitohs. Both tales involve shoulders. And both could see champion players watching Sunday’s NRL grand final from sideline seats.
In Melbourne on Friday night the Sharks wrestled with Storm and lost. Storm won a run of penalties and converted chances. They bashed and baited the Sharks. The game was good as over by half-time, Storm up 20-nil.
The Sharks needed luck – not Paul Gallen, Wade Graham and Josh Dugan on the bench. Not Andrew Fifita taking umbrage and giving away penalties. Not Luke Lewis, on one leg, limping out from marker to aid Fifita in a melee and leaving Cam Smith free to roll a grubber for Billy Slater to score.
Cronulla threw forward passes. Coughed it up under pressure. They’d beaten Storm twice this season. Yet Storm owned them. Beat them on the scoreboard, the penalty count, in the parlour of the mind.
Slater was hugely effective. His try in the 28th minute was a master-class of full-back play. He ran an angle, increased speed at the line, took the pass at optimum pace and beat Matt Moylan while defenders out wide were forced to mark their own. He scored two, set up one and saved a try that could cost him the decider.
See the vision: Sharks winger Sosaia Feki is sprinting down the line. Slater is sprinting across to meet him. Slater braces for impact, bunches his shoulder and bashes Feki into touch. Try saved. Penalty for a shoulder charge issued. And if the judicial rules of rugby league apply – and one assumes they do – Slater has played his last game of rugby league.
Some argued it should’ve been a penalty try. Some wondered why no sin bin for a professional foul. Others argued Slater couldn’t do anything else. Afterwards Slater said: “It would’ve been an awkward place for me to put my head.”
Can he get off? “Knowing the judiciary, he probably won’t, but I think he should,” one former NRL judiciary man told Guardian Australia. “It wasn’t what I’d call a shoulder charge. It was more of a shove. I think the shoulder charge rule, which I agree with, was meant for punishing front-on hits which knocked the crap out of the ball-carrier. Slater’s wasn’t like that.”
Perhaps therein lies the key to Slater’s defence – the definition of what a shoulder charge is. Yet if Storm’s crack legal team can convince a judiciary of three former players that it wasn’t a shoulder charge, a precedent will have been set. And there’ll be a future get-out clause – the Slater Clause – which declares it’s legal to bash wingers into touch with your shoulder as long as you’re either: saving a try; it’s the preliminary final; it’s your last game; you’re a future Immortal; it wouldn’t be fair to miss a grand final.
At the final hit-out at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night, a serendipitous clash between the ground’s traditional home-owners, Rabbitohs and Roosters, a record 44,380 fans saw a highly-physical, highly-charged, imperfect game of rugby league. Yet the quality of the game was immaterial. It was Souths and the Roosters – they haven’t played a friendly in 110 years.
Both teams worked over ball-carriers in rugby-like mauls. There were arm locks, wrist-bends and work on elbows in early tackles. It forced knock-ons that weren’t called strips. It was no completion-fest. It was intense, scrappy and tough, with spasmodic breakouts of hot skill.
James Tedesco’s quick-shift cut-out pass for Daniel Tupou’s opening try was a beautiful thing. Joseph Manu flicked a pass out of Sonny Bill Williams’s play-book for Blake Ferguson to score a try-in-a-telephone-box.
The story of the match, though, was Cooper Cronk’s shoulder. The great No7 copped a “stinger” (though “belter” or “jolter” would be more apt) from a near-horizontal Sam Burgess. Adam Reynolds put a softer shot on and Cronk’s arm hung limp, dangling off his shoulder, near useless. He flexed his fingers to test how useless. Wasn’t good.
Into the sheds and the Roosters’ medical staff worked the joint the entire break. They wrapped him up hard in sticky tape. And the Roosters ran out in the second half in a tied preliminary final against their mortal enemies, their half-back’s arm operating at 10%.
Cronk couldn’t kick for touch. He was forced to make tackles with one arm. His passes barely travelled five metres. But he was out there. And pivotal. His arm was stuffed but his brain worked fine. It was enough. The man’s a marvel, a premium half. And tougher than Norm Provan’s boots.
On Sunday the Roosters described Cronk’s rotator cuff injury as “serious”. Gallen’s injury is a similar one. And word is he wouldn’t have played the grand final had the Sharks got through. Can the Roosters play Cronk? Could he go around for 80 minutes as he did in the second half, busted, but out there, shifting it, driving the play? Surely not. After the match he was patted on the shoulder by the Roosters mascot and winced in agony.
Sure, if the league gods are kind, Cronk and Slater both play. But that’s the stuff of fairytales. Medical science doesn’t believe in fairytales. Whether the NRL judiciary does, we’ll find out Tuesday night.