Cronulla halfback Chad Townsend believes the current Melbourne side are better than the one the Sharks beat in last year’s NRL grand final.
The reigning premiers on Sunday meet the Storm for the first time since defeating them to claim the club’s maiden premiership last October.
However Townsend said Melbourne’s five-match undefeated start to the year, coupled with the successful return of veteran Billy Slater, has them alone at the top of the ladder for good reason.
Asked whether the Storm had improved this year, Townsend said on Tuesday: “They’re showing that they are at the moment. They’ve obviously got a pretty hefty return in fullback Billy Slater.
“For them to make the grand final last year without him – and now that they’re playing some really good footy with him – I think they have gone to the next level.”
Cronulla sit in sixth spot with three wins and the ladder positions are almost identical to this time last year, while the Storm were second.
“They’re the benchmark of the competition right now and playing some really good footy. For us, we’re not where we want to be. We’ve scraped through some of our wins,” Townsend said.
“For us, we need to be at our best and we know they’ll give us absolutely nothing. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Cronulla five-eighth James Maloney played down the hype surround the grand final re-match, admitting the Sharks hadn’t planned to be in full stride this early in the season.
While he conceded the build-up will create a buzz, he was unsure whether the Storm would be aiming for retribution.
“I think if you’ve lost a grand final and you think you’re going to get redemption by winning a round-six game the next year, you’ve got another thing coming,” Maloney said.
“It’s exciting and no doubt it’ll add a bit of build-up and hype to the game, but it’s a new year and we just want to go down there and make sure we can get a win.”
Maloney said the team’s focus is on building momentum, similar to last year’s fairytale run.
“It didn’t start off that way (last year). If we just came back and it was all flowing and rosy, I think you’d be finding yourself in trouble a bit later on in the season,” he said.
“I think it’s a good thing that we’ve got to go back to square one and rebuild and start another run again. It’ll be a good test this week and we’ll get a gauge of where we’re at.”