Rugby league super coach Jack Gibson once famously said that “waiting for Cronulla to win a premiership is like leaving the porch lamp on for Harold Holt.”
The Sharks did little to prove Gibson wrong, with three grand final defeats all they had to show for their first 49 seasons.
That was until Sunday night – an evening the club’s fans will never forget.
Following South Sydney and North Queensland’s drought-breaking NRL successes in the past two seasons, Cronulla completed the hat trick of fairytale grand-final triumphs with a 14-12 defeat of Melbourne in a classic decider at ANZ Stadium.
And while the last 15 minutes were thrilling, it is the scenes as soon as the match ended that will be etched into rugby league folklore.
Former captain Andrew Ettingshausen – a revered figure in Cronulla Shire – and current skipper Paul Gallen embraced.
The Sharks icons were in tears, a poignant demonstration of what the watershed win means to everyone associated with the club.
The emotions were running high on field, with elation, relief and disbelief all on display.
And then there were the fans.
Pandemonium reigned in the stands as the sea of sky blue, black and white belted out a deafening rendition of ‘Up, Up, Cronulla’.
They saved their biggest cheer for the final line of Gallen’s speech, though – a line every Cronulla captain must have been dreaming to say.
“And to all you people back in the Shire – turn your porch lights off because we’re coming home with the trophy,” Gallen roared in a declaration that signalled the end of one of Australian sport’s longest-running hoodoos.
The 80 minutes
Cronulla’s triumph was built on a relentless first-half display.
The Sharks led just 8-0 at the break – posting the only try via a crafty scrum play that saw Gallen put Ben Barba over – but their physical dominance and psychological advantage was significant as the teams headed for the sheds.
The flow of possession and territory continued the Sharks’ way in the second stanza but the Storm’s trademark defence held firm.
Even then, it was a surprise to see Melbourne take a 12-8 lead after 64 minutes when Jesse Bromwich powered over before Will Chambers eluded a host of Cronulla defenders to cross out wide.
The Storm had barely threatened going forward, yet there they were in the lead.
It left the fairytale on tenterhooks until Andrew Fifita produced a grand final play for the ages, crashing into the teeth of the Storm defence and somehow twisting and reaching out to score under the posts.
The drama wasn’t over, with Cronulla only just surviving a nerve-shredding final 10 minutes – including a frantic Storm movement on the final siren.
But there was no question the Storm were outplayed for the majority of the night.
Cameron Smith, who was phenomenally gracious in defeat, and Cooper Cronk have rarely been as ineffectual in a big game, while their vaunted forwards were constantly on their heels.
Fifita has attracted a welter of unsavoury headlines over the past month, but the dynamic prop pulled out a career-defining performance in the decider – one that arguably deserved Clive Churchill Medal honours, though veteran backrower Luke Lewis was a popular recipient.
What an achievement
Cronulla’s accomplishment is testament to the club’s resilience.
The Sharks have been down for the count so many times in their chequered history.
They were brought to their knees again just two years ago during the harrowing ASADA saga, finishing last as coach Shane Flanagan sat out a 12-month ban.
To rebuild in such a short period and overcome the weight of history ranks among the all-time great club achievements.
Their record 15-match winning streak had long-suffering fans believing this year, but the Sharks were forced to battle through a late-season slump – winning just one of the last six games – before rallying in an unforgettable finals campaign.
Every other premiership-winning team since 1950 won at least three of their last six regular-season games, again highlighting this Cronulla outfit’s rare fortitude.
The mini-fairytales interwoven with the broader narrative – Barba’s renaissance, the retiring Michael Ennis’ dream farewell, Flanagan’s return, and Gallen, at 35 the oldest grand final-winning captain in 56 years – all add to the mystique of the Sharks’ feat.
The porch lights may be off, but the biggest party the Shire has ever seen is only just getting started.