Fairytale shatters in NRL storm
Melbourne is through to the grand final after beating Cronulla in the grand final qualifier.
MELBOURNE is through to the grand final - champion fullback Billy Slater may not be.
The Storm superstar has set the stage for rugby league's biggest ever match review verdict and judiciary case after he appeared to get away with a shoulder charge on Sharks winger Sosaia Feki before the Storm ran away to an impressive 22-6 preliminary final win over Cronulla at AAMI Park.
Slater's match review fate is set to be the biggest story of grand final week after he appeared to cause Feki injury during a 14th minute incident.
From there Slater was in everything. Even in potentially his final game, Slater was inspirational, unstoppable. He scored a first half double and continued to be the most noticeable player on the ground as the Storm turned the screws in the second half.
The Storm will learn on Saturday if they will face the Roosters or the Rabbitohs at ANZ Stadium next Sunday in the NRL grand final.
Friday's game may be Slater's final appearance, but it was certainly Sharks great Luke Lewis' final game.
The former Panthers forward scored his team's only try as he captained Cronulla to a frustrating defeat.
His 68th minute try was nothing more than a consolation - Slater's first half heroics had already shut the door on the Sharks.
Melbourne led 20-0 at half time as Brodie Croft proved more than a handful for the Sharks' defensive line.
The win will still leave a bitter taste in the Storm's mouth as Slater waits to learn if he will be cleared to play in Sunday's grand final at ANZ Stadium.
The 35-year-old told Channel 9 after the game that he only carried out the shoulder charge because he was unable to avoid putting his body in any other shape while charging in at Feki at high speed.
"I was just coming across at speed, I actually thought Sosaia Feki was going to step back on the inside and there was a collision," Slater said.
"In the end it was one of those things where both players were running at speed to get to a position, it would have been an awkward position to put my head in if I had to duck it down.
"There was no malice in that or anything."
Slater will learn on Saturday whether he is charged for the act, with even a grade-one offence earning him 200 demerit points and his final game on the sideline unless he can beat it at the judiciary on Tuesday night.
Storm captain Cameron Smith said: "It's totally out of our control what happens from here. I think their winger bounced up pretty quickly so there's no damage done".
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan, however, could prove to be Slater's most important character reference this week after declaring in his post-match press conference that Slater won't have a case to answer.
"I thought he had a hand in there actually," Flanagan said.
"What do you want him to do there? I'm not quite sure. 100 per cent, he'll be there next week, or he should be."
Storm coach Craig Bellamy said simply that it would be a "tough call" to rip Slater out of the grand final, considering his position as one of the NRL's greatest statesmen.
Slater's hit overshadowed a dominant showing by the Storm, who remain a chance of becoming the first team to go back-to-back in a unified competition since Brisbane in 1992-93.
Friday's win came on a golden night for Melbourne's old guard, with Cameron Smith passing 1100 career goals and reaching his highest season tally of points with 199.
In front of 26,621 fans, Slater was involved from the lead up of the Storm's opening try after he hit a gap at speed from a Felise Kafusi ball and put Brodie Croft over in the 20th minute.
That opened the floodgates, with Slater slicing through Matt Moylan on the Sharks' left-edge 10 minutes later, before he had his second moments before the break when he dived onto a Smith grubber out of dummy-half.
The try came as a number of Sharks' forwards were distracted by a scuffle involving Andrew Fifita in back play, opening the gap for Slater to chase through.
It was a play that summed up Cronulla's opening 40 minutes, the Sharks lacking composure without injured co-captains Wade Graham and Paul Gallen. They had 52 per cent of the ball and had more play-the-balls in Melbourne's red- zone than the Storm did at their end, but had to wait until the 68th minute for retiring veteran Luke Lewis to score their only try.
- with AAP
NRL world reacts to Slater controversy
IT may all be over for Billy Slater.
His shoulder charge on Sosaia Feki is set to spark one of the most high-profile match review and potentially judiciary cases ever seen in rugby league.
The superstar fullback appears to need a miracle to play in next week's grand final after his shoulder charge wiped Feki out in one of the craziest moments of the season.
Cronulla had a real chance to score the first try of the game when they set-up camp in the Storm's red zone after a poor early kick from Brodie Croft.
But they were denied an early try when Billy Slater screamed across in cover defence to shoulder charge winger Feki as a last-gasp try-saver in the left corner.
Slater's deliberate shoulder charge was penalised, but commentators immediately pointed out Slater should have been sent to the sin bin and the referees should have considered a penalty try because it was a professional foul as the only defender between Feki and the try line, less than one metre away.
The controversial tackle may have ended Slater's career with the No. 1 potentially facing a minimum two week ban if the NRL Match Review Committee hits him with a grade 1 shoulder charge offence - which caries a minimum 200 points even with an early guilty plea.
Under NRL rules, a player can be charged if the contact is forceful and the player doesn't use his arms to tackle.
Australian rugby league legends Peter Sterling and Brad Fittler told Channel 9 in commentary that Slater's fairytale farewell could be ruined.
"If the review committee see that as a shoulder charge that's an automatic 200 points," Fittler said.
It does not help Slater's cause that Feki shortly after was forced from the field with a shoulder injury and was ruled out for the rest of the game.
NRL legends Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston also said Slater's hit is a shoulder charge under the current rules.
That doesn't mean Joey was happy.
"As much as I don't want to say it, he's braced for contact, what else can he do, every coach wants to see that desperation," Johns told Channel 9.
"Unfortunately, it's going to be deemed a shoulder charge, which I don't agree with, everyone else doesn't agree with, but under the rules that's a shoulder charge."
Slater gets a double as tensions boil over
Billy Slater scored his second on the brink of half time to all but kill off the Sharks.
Slater pounced onto a brilliant grubber from Cameron Smith - but the try was initially denied because of a fracas involving Andrew Fifita and Storm prop Jesse Bromwich behind play.
The scuffle saw players run in from everywhere, but when the dust settled the try was awarded because there was no interference on the try scoring player.
Melbourne pile on points
Brodie Croft extended Melbourne's lead when he finished off a sweet combination play between Billy Slater and Felise Kaufusi.
Kaufusi stepped around Ricky Leutele on the right edge and then off-loaded to Slater who streaked into open field before dishing to Croft to get around fullback Valentine Holmes.
The Storm extended their lead a few minutes later when Croft returned the favour by orchestrating a try for Slater with a sweet cut-out ball that put the Storm fullback into space 5m short of the line.