Melbourne Storm are leading the pack in the 2017 NRL and they look the favourites for silverware later in the year. Craig Bellamy and his side seem to have put last season’s Grand Final defeat to the Cronulla Sharks behind them and are currently holding a two-point lead at the top of the table as the regular season run-in begins.
It looked like Bellamy and his side were set to be handed a huge blow despite their recent 20-14 victory over the Canberra Raiders, with Billy Slater and Cameron Smith both picking up serious-looking injuries. However, both are set to return to action in the not-too-distant future, with their respective injuries not as serious as first feared.
It is looking like the rest of the NRL face a huge task in stopping Melbourne’s finely tuned machine, but one club that have shown signs that they could once again spoil Bellamy’s party is last season’s champions, Cronulla.
The Sharks shocked Melbourne in the NRL Grand Final last season, handing Bellamy’s side a 14-12 defeat at the ANZ Stadium, Sydney, to end the club’s 50-year wait for a Premiership title.
Shane Flanagan’s side are currently fourth in the league ladder, four points behind Melbourne.
However, Cronulla are beginning to find some form and could be a good bet to become the first NRL side to successfully defend their Premiership title since Brisbane Broncos won back-to-back Premierships in 1997 and 1998.
Whilst Flanagan’s side are improving, there are still flaws in their game, which the round 19 loss to the Gold Coast Titans proved. That night, the Sharks struggled and were handed a 30-10 defeat by their rivals. It is easy to look at that performance and question the Sharks’ title credentials, but a look either side of that disappointment and you will find two tremendous displays that put away the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs.
A 26-12 victory over the Rabbitohs did not come as a surprise, with Michael Maguire’s side struggling in their quest for the top eight. However, the Sharks’ 44-12 triumph over Sydney Roosters three weeks earlier was an outstanding result, particularly with the Roosters currently sat second and Melbourne’s nearest challengers.
After a tight first 40, which saw the Sharks take a narrow lead, Flanagan’s side opened up in the second-half, playing some attractive rugby league and running out comfortable winners over their top-four rivals.
It will take more performances like that if Cronulla are to claim back-to-back titles later this year, but they have been boosted by the recent return to fitness of James Segeyaro, who has missed the majority of the campaign through injury.
Having returned in the defeat to the Gold Coast Titans, the hooker continued his comeback against South Sydney, appearing as a second-half substitute and putting in an impressive cameo.
Segeyaro spent the second-half of last season in the English Super League with the Leeds Rhinos, where he was in inspired form for the Yorkshire side, helping them survive relegation after what had been a freak campaign for the competition’s most successful club.
The hooker was part of the swap deal between Leeds and Penrith Panthers that saw Zak Hardaker arrive in Australia for a short spell, and Segeyaro excelled in the British game, scoring six tries in just ten appearances for the Rhinos. The Super League outfit were keen to retain the 26-year-old’s service, but he completed a move to Cronulla in early 2017.
Segeyaro will be continuing his comeback against the New Zealand Warriors next week, a game that the Sharks are currently priced at a best price of 13/20 to win against the struggling opposition and continue their quest towards the finals and hopeful glory, with comparison sites such as Oddschecker providing a number of offers on the fixture.
The finals series in the NRL will undoubtedly be entertaining, and a brief look at the NRL table tells you that Melbourne are the team to beat and have been all season. However, Cronulla have shown signs in recent weeks – particularly in their victory over the Sydney Roosters – that if they can find their best form, they will challenge anybody in the competition.
If Cronulla begin to bring consistency to their game, and if the returning Segeyaro can rediscover the form he showed in 2016, then Flanagan’s side could be the team that challenges Melbourne once again for silverware later in 2017 and rewrites history in the NRL.