Broncos v Storm
Friday 7.05pm (Qld time)
One of the great rivalries of recent years takes on huge significance this Easter weekend with Brisbane in desperate need of a confidence-building win to kick-start their season.
Last week’s dour 8-0 loss to Sydney Roosters has seen plenty of criticism coming the Broncos’ way, with question marks over their ability to cross the try line with their new halves combination of Scott Prince and Peter Wallace.
Obviously those criticisms have some merit and they face another side that is notoriously difficult to break down in premiers Melbourne this Friday night. But on the flip side, Brisbane’s defence has been outstanding in the early rounds: two weeks ago they held the Dragons to just six points despite being pinned on their own line for much of the game while the eight points they conceded against the Roosters was also a sound effort.
If those defensive performances show us anything it’s that Brisbane is far from a dysfunctional outfit and if their combinations start to come together they will take plenty of stopping.
The problem they face is that simply putting in a good performance doesn’t mean they are going to come away victorious when playing the Storm.
Craig Bellamy’s perfectly drilled side has slipped comfortably back into their usual ways with three wins from as many starts including a 32-10 thrashing of North Queensland in Round 1.
It’s the usual suspects at play again – particularly Cooper Cronk who has been in superb touch during the early rounds. That said, two key aspects here work in Brisbane’s favour. One, if anyone knows the ins and outs of Melbourne’s ‘big three’ it is the Broncos who boast five players that are regulars alongside them in the Queensland State of Origin side.
And Canterbury’s powerful finish against the Storm last week in which only the clock prevented them from swamping Melbourne at the death showed that a side that plays with freewheeling confidence can more than match it with the NRL’s benchmark club.
Whether Brisbane have that belief in themselves at the moment is another matter altogether.
Justin Hodges returns to the line-up for Brisbane after he was a late withdrawal last week with David Stagg dropping back to the bench. Mitchell Dodds is the man that misses out.
Storm coach Bellamy has named an unchanged line-up to the one that downed Canterbury last week.
Watch Out Broncos: Cooper Cronk proved to be a thorn in Brisbane’s side last year as he orchestrated a thrilling win in Round 24 and he looms as the danger man again this week.
Cronk has been in scintillating form this season. In three games he tops the league for try assists and line-break assists with four each, has scored two tries himself and added five tackle-breaks. While Cameron Smith and Billy Slater present huge threats in their own right, it is Cronk that has risen to a new level over the past two seasons and if Brisbane can limit his influence they will go a long way towards causing the upset.
Watch Out Storm: If there is one man that the Storm don’t want to see with room to move it is Justin Hodges. His presence was sorely missed against the Roosters last week but back in the side this week he will be keen to put in a huge game against the NRL’s top side.
Hodges has been in great form in 2013 – almost single-handedly putting Manly on the back foot in Round 1 with two remarkable try assists. The first saw him step back inside and push away a defender before offloading on the inside for Matt Gillett to score untouched. The second was even more spectacular as he drew two defenders and threw a flick pass out to Lachlan Maranta who scored. The Broncos might be struggling to cross the stripe at the moment but Hodges is one man who can fix that problem in a flash.
Plays To Watch: The Cooper Cronk inside ball continues to be one of the most effective plays in the NRL. When he first unleashed it a few years back, Billy Slater was usually the man that would receive the football back on the inside but Cronk has expanded that this year in an effort to further confuse defences. In Round 1 his inside ball found Gareth Widdop storming through a gap and then in Round 2 it was Ryan Hinchcliffe charging onto the ball and running 60 metres to score.
Where It Will Be Won: The halves will have a huge say in this one. Melbourne’s duo of Cronk and Widdop have been brilliant so far this season and Brisbane’s thus far rock-solid defence will be tested like never before. As for Brisbane, they desperately need Prince and Wallace to find their groove if they are to become serious contenders in 2013.
The History: Played 32; Storm 20, Broncos 11, drawn 1. Melbourne hold a 7-3 advantage in clashes at Suncorp. They have also won their past four meetings and six of their past seven!
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Paul Simpkins & Neil Wharton.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 6.30pm (Qld), 7.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm.
The Way We See It: It’s hard to see Brisbane troubling Melbourne here. If there is one thing we know about the Storm this season, as always, it’s that they know how to score points. And if there is one thing we know about the Broncos it’s that they don’t. Brisbane will improve as the year goes on but to beat the reigning premiers you need to be playing your best football and Brisbane are still a long way from that. Storm by at least eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats