Melbourne NRL coach Craig Bellamy says Cronulla have shaken off their State of Origin hangover and returned to the dominant form of their club-record 15-game unbeaten run.
The Storm and Sharks will duel for the minor premiership on Saturday night at AAMI Park, with Melbourne one point clear on the ladder in their quest to secure the JJ Giltinan Shield.
Bellamy said on Friday it was a fitting end to the season, with the two teams sitting above the pack for much of the year.
The Storm took advantage of the Sharks’ winless month of football to climb to the top but Bellamy believed Cronulla were back to their best which was demonstrated in their resounding last-round win over the Sydney Roosters.
“They won in style and I’m sure they took a lot of confidence out of that,” Bellamy said.
“They had a lot of Origin players this year than they’ve ever had and, sometimes, clubs with big representations in Origins, they have a hangover for a couple of weeks.
“From what I’ve seen last week, they’re back to their best.”
Bellamy says his side are on guard for mind games from Cronulla and has warned them to put the blinkers on and not be distracted by niggle from the Sharks, led by retiring hooker Michael Ennis and Andrew Fifita.
Cronulla managed to irk Storm players in their round-four win, with Fifita getting in the face of skipper Cameron Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk.
“That’s the way the Sharks play their footy … they’ve certainly got a bit of niggle in their game and they took us by surprise last time so we want to make sure we focus on what we need to do,” he said.
“That’s the challenge for our players – to stay focused.”
Melbourne look like they will be without hard-working second-rower Kevin Proctor, who has been battling a knee injury.
Bellamy said he was reluctant to play Proctor with the qualifying final next weekend.
“It’s touch and go and it’s a big game tomorrow night with the minor premiership and also it’s Tohu Harris’ 100th NRL game so I know Kevvie will want to play but the medical people will have a big say in that,” he said.
The Storm are hoping to cash in on a rare AFL-free weekend in Melbourne, with the rival code opting to have a bye weekend before their finals series.
Bellamy said he’d been in a bubble, concentrating on his team’s preparations for the Sharks game but his phone had been ringing hot with ticket requests.
“It’s been unbelievable – the most I’ve had in my 14 years here,” he said.