Broncos v Storm
Oh the irony, in the week that Broncos coach Anthony Griffin is given notice that he has a maximum of 11 weeks to clear out his belongings from his Red Hill office, three of his finest former pupils return to try to rub salt into the wound.
Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk – aka 'The Big Three' – were but hopeful colts when under Griffin's tutelage at Norths Devils shortly after the turn of the century and now return to Brisbane as three of the finest players the game has known.
Questions remain about whether they can drag a Melbourne team beginning to look weary from a decade of dominance to the heights of a Telstra Premiership again in 2014 but after a couple of unfamiliar weeks outside the top eight are now poised to leapfrog the Broncos with a win on Friday night.
Their 28-14 win over Canberra last Saturday was their first in a month of football and with Cronk back steering the ship and Slater and Smith recovering from the after-effects of another torrid Origin Series, they are in position to make a customary late charge.
Broncos players are no doubt still trying to get their minds back on the game after the Monday bombshell that Griffin was going to be moved on in favour of Brisbane's former favourite son, Wayne Bennett, a decision Griffin took manfully in front of a throbbing media contingent.
Tipped by many at the start of the year to once again miss finals footy, the Broncos are well positioned to push for a top-four finish albeit with a daunting draw facing them over the next month.
After hosting the Storm on Friday night they have dates with the Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs awaiting them and then head to Melbourne to face the men in purple for the second time in the space of seven weeks to round out their regular season.
There is just one change to the respective starting teams from those that took the field last weekend but with extended benches named on both sides there could be a raft of changes come kick-off.
Matt Gillett returns to the second row for the Broncos while the trio who were dropped last week for disciplinary reasons – Jack Reed, Daniel Vidot and Corey Oates – have all been included on an eight-man Brisbane bench.
For the visitors, Ryan Hinchcliffe is back at lock forward, Jordan McLean returns to the bench with Dayne Weston and Young Tonumaipea two additional options for coach Craig Bellamy.
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Watch Out Broncos: The back three of any NRL team plays such a critical role in getting sets started well and in Billy Slater, Sisa Waqa and Marika Koroibete, the Storm are blessed with one of the game's greatest ever kick-returners and two wingers who have only two speeds: Flat-out and stop. Between them they registered 11 tackle breaks and ran for a total of 482 metres with Koroibete and Waqa both crossing for four-pointers. Since arriving in Melbourne from the Wests Tigers Koroibete has started to reproduce the type of form that enthralled league fans in his rookie year in 2012 while Waqa looks determined to leave Melbourne on the best possible note after penning a deal to play in Canberra from next season. Ben Hunt's kicking game will need to be pin-point to keep these three quiet.
Watch Out Storm: Few players in the game play with the raw emotion that Josh McGuire displays on a weekly basis and given his statements after last week's win over the Warriors regarding his commitment to coach Griffin, the Storm can expect to feel the wrath of his anger at Griffin's sacking. Having come close to a maiden Origin appearance in Game Three, McGuire has made more than 40 tackles on seven occasions this season and only three times has he run for less than 100 metres. His 73m from only eight runs last week was his second lowest return of the season so expect the 'Big Show' to come up with a starring role in the middle on Friday.
Plays To Watch: The move of Ben Barba into five-eighth didn't pay immediate dividends against the Warriors last week but you can bet the Broncos will have spent this week working on ways to increase his involvement and give the former Dally M Medal winner space on the edges. Barba's 27 touches last week were his equal fewest of the season and he rarely chose to take on the defensive line, passing 21 times and being credited with just nine run metres. The left wing pairing of Mahe Fonua and Marika Koroibete came up with three tries between them against the Raiders but the real danger for Brisbane lies in the big Storm edge forwards coming back towards the centre of the park on 'unders' plays that catch lazy defences off guard. Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris, Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean are all big men with clever footwork so the inside men for the Broncos will need to work hard for the entire 80 minutes.
Where It Will Be Won: Few teams in the NRL can match the fluency of the Storm attack when they are at their best and with the Broncos tinkering with their combination in the halves there is the potential for precision to win out over enthusiasm. For one of the rare occasions in their history the Storm go into this game with a negative points differential (-20) compared to the Broncos' +82 and the home side boasts a league-best 55 try saves over the course of the season while the Storm have the fewest in the NRL with 12.
Melbourne have missed 18 less tackles than the Broncos thus far in 2014 but that desperation on the line may be what proves the difference.
The History: Played 34; Broncos 22, Storm 22, drawn 1. No team in the history of the Broncos has had a greater stranglehold on the six-time premiers as the Storm with the most recent clashes heavily favouring the southerners. In the opening 12 games between these teams the Broncos suffered just four losses but in the 22 meetings since September 2004 they have won just four. The cruellest of these defeats was the 2008 Semi-Final in front of 50,466 fans at Suncorp Stadium with a late Greg Inglis try bringing the great Darren Lockyer to his knees. Since the 2006 Grand Final, the Storm have won five of six games played at Suncorp Stadium.
What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet is reporting close to a 50-50 split in this one, with both teams coming off wins, and both desperate to stay in the top eight. Storm 1-12 is the most popular in margin betting but there’s very little between the two sides. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee – Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh and Russell Turner; Video Referees – Steve Clark and Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: There are some nervous teams in the top four looking over their shoulders as to what the Storm are going to produce over the next two months but they face a stern test to continue their climb against a Brisbane team who has shown a commitment to their coach through their defensive efforts all season. It was shown in Newcastle last weekend that sentiment doesn't win you footy games but if the Broncos can keep their heads and simply produce the same standard of football that they have for the majority of the season, they should have enough to sneak home. Broncos by four points.