Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Canterbury Bulldogs v Melbourne Storm
This is it. After 26 rounds, 192 regular-season games and eight finals clashes, the biggest day of the NRL year has arrived. And, fittingly, it pits the two most dominant sides in the Telstra Premiership this season in a blockbuster battle for the title.
The script could barely have contained more drama or intrigue. When Des Hasler walked out on Manly after a bitter battle with the club’s fractured board late last year – just weeks after guiding the Sea Eagles to their grand final win over the Warriors – no-one could have guessed just how dramatic his impact at Canterbury would be. But the Bulldogs’ decision to go hard for Hasler’s signature has certainly paid off. Having missed the finals in both 2010 and 2011, they took a few months to really find their feet under the new clipboard holder before embarking on a stunning 12-match winning streak to claim their first minor premiership in 18 years.
Yet, from Hasler’s perspective, some things never change – and it is his old sparring partner Craig Bellamy and the Melbourne Storm that stand in the way of his latest title quest.
With Hasler in charge the Sea Eagles developed one of rugby league’s great rivalries against Melbourne, with two grand finals (for one win apiece) and last year’s infamous ‘Battle of Brookvale’ lingering long in the mind.
And although the same level of passion doesn’t exist between the Storm and Bulldogs, Hasler will be well aware of the tough task ahead this Sunday.
Melbourne’s path to their fifth grand final in the past seven seasons hasn’t been as smooth as Canterbury’s but, ominously, they appear to have rediscovered their best form at the business end of the season.
After a cracking start to the year that saw them win nine in succession, the representative period hit Melbourne particularly hard and with fullback Billy Slater sidelined for a month after State of Origin II with a knee injury, the Storm lost five in a row before getting their season back on track with a 46-6 thrashing of Penrith in Round 22.
They haven’t lost since.
Most impressive, however, has been their form in the finals, having easily disposed of Souths 24-6 in Week One of the playoffs and destroying rivals Manly 40-12 last Friday night in a clash that was supposed to be another heart-stopper. Even Bulldogs back-rower Frank Pritchard has admitted that he was shocked to see Melbourne storm into the grand final with such ease.
There will be no shortage of side-stories on show at this year’s grand final.
For Bulldogs fullback and Dally M Medallist Ben Barba it is all about capping off a phenomenal individual season by adding the ultimate team prize. For discards Krisnan Inu and Sam Perrett, it will be about proving their former clubs wrong after they were released to Canterbury mid-season by the Warriors and Roosters respectively. For halfback Kris Keating it will be about completing a remarkable career turnaround given that he wasn’t even in Hasler’s first-choice 17 when the season kicked off in March.
And for Melbourne? All of those players who remain from their 2007 and 2009 grand final wins insist that adding an ‘official’ premiership to the two they had stripped for salary cap breaches won’t provide any added motivation – although it’s hard to imagine such thoughts haven’t crossed their minds on at least a few occasions.
As for Hasler and Bellamy? For one of them at least, their already considerable legacy is about to reach grand new heights.
The Bulldogs have named the same squad that downed Souths last week, with Dene Halatau again the unlucky 18th man.
Meanwhile Melbourne coach Bellamy has named an extended 21-man squad with Ryan Hinchcliffe, Kevin Proctor, Jaiman Lowe and Richie Fa’aoso likely to be the four bench players come Sunday. Winger Sisa Waqa has been named to make his return from the knee injury that kept him out of last week’s win over Manly, with 19-year-old Mahe Fonua dropping back to the extended bench.
If history repeats it could be a grand day for one of Canterbury’s big men, with three forwards having won the Clive Churchill medal since it was introduced in 1986 – Paul Dunn (1988), Jim Dymock (1995) and Willie Mason (2004).
However, they will have to overcome Melbourne’s Ryan Hoffman, who appears to be the club’s lucky charm. Not only has Hoffman enjoyed career-best stats for average runs (15.4), average metres gained (114.4) and tries scored (10) in 2012, he enjoys a 5-1 record in games played for Melbourne at ANZ Stadium and has won six of his past eight clashes against the Bulldogs.
This will be the 25th meeting in a grand final of the two top-ranked sides from the regular season, with the minor premiers having prevailed 16 times. It is worth noting, however, that this year’s Storm squad boasts 11 players with grand final experience compared with five from Canterbury.
Interestingly, Canterbury has won the penalty count just three times in 26 games this year (and Melbourne 10 in 26). The Bulldogs will be keen to get off to a good start given that the Storm boasts a 27-1 record when leading at half-time over the past two seasons.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Canterbury have scored more tries from kicks than any other side this season (27 during the regular season); however they might want to re-think their strategy before putting the ball high against Melbourne on Sunday. The Storm are brilliant when it comes to defusing bombs. In 2012 they have defused 45 of 50 attacking bombs at a 90 per cent success rate (the best in the NRL), 13 of 15 mid-field bombs at 87 per cent (third best) and 30 of 50 cross-field bombs at 60 per cent (second best).
Danger Sign: Melbourne’s kicking game is one of their greatest weapons, with Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith the masters at turning around their opponents’ big men. And against Canterbury’s impressive pack, that could prove decisive. The Storm are the most accurate side in the Telstra Premiership when it comes to clearing kicks, finding open space 124 times from 205 attempts during the regular season at a success rate of 60.5 per cent. And they are particularly difficult to pressure into error, given the added bonus of Smith being able to kick so well out of dummy-half. Smith has kicked 68 times out of dummy-half in 2012 – 49 of them clearing kicks – for a gain of 2637 metres. By comparison, Wests Tigers captain Robbie Farah ranks second for dummy-half kicks with just 46.
Watch Out Storm: Can Melbourne stand up to the Bulldogs’ big men? Canterbury’s pack has earned plenty of plaudits this season and with good reason: they ranked second in the NRL for metres made from hit-ups during the regular season with 12,559 at 523 per game (behind only Cronulla) and are the most prolific off-loaders in the competition with 305. That said, the Bulldogs might not have it all their own way up the middle given that the Storm have conceded fewer metres through hit-ups than any side in the competition! An intriguing battle awaits…
Danger Sign: If there is one aspect of their game that the Storm should put some serious time into at training this week it is their kick chase – and for very good reason. The worry for coach Craig Bellamy is two-fold. First, no side is as devastating when returning the football as the Bulldogs. They have produced 11 line-breaks directly from kick returns and scored 17 tries from inside their own half – ranking first in the NRL for both. Not surprisingly, Ben Barba is the man to watch here: his nine line-breaks from kick returns during the regular are five more than any other player.
However, more concerning for Bellamy will be the fact that his side has produced the most poor kick chases in the Telstra Premiership this year with 58. They can’t afford this type of lapse on rugby league’s biggest day.
Ben Barba v Billy Slater: Last week it was Greg Inglis that Canterbury fullback Ben Barba had to contend with – this week it’s Billy Slater! Clearly, Queensland’s fullback stocks are in good health! But while both sides will have their hands full containing their opponents’ No.1, it makes for a thrilling battle from a fan’s perspective. Barba has been the undisputed star of the 2012 season – his ability to turn a game on its head with a moment of individual brilliance seeing him score 22 tries on the way to his first grand final. His off-the-cuff brilliance was evident again last week when his pinpoint grubber yielded a timely try for Jonathan Wright on the stroke of half-time. Meanwhile, Slater’s importance to the Storm has never been greater. He scored nine tries in the first five games of the year as Melbourne won their first nine games. When he was out injured, they lost five in a row. And now that he is back to full fitness they’re firing again. This will be one of the great battles.
Where It Will Be Won: How the respective spines of these two sides handle the occasion will be crucial. For Melbourne, the big stage is nothing new – Slater, Cronk and Smith have been there dozens of times. But do they have what it takes to overcome the side that has dominated the competition since May? For Canterbury, it’s more about how their young spine handles the occasion. Captain Michael Ennis missed Brisbane’s 2006 grand final win with injury and it’s also a first NRL grand final for Ben Barba, Kris Keating and Josh Reynolds. Composure when opportunities present themselves could be the difference between elation and misery.
The History: Played 29; Bulldogs 15, Storm 14. Melbourne boasts a slight 4-2 edge in their past six clashes but, importantly, the Storm have won all three games played between these two sides at ANZ Stadium.
The Last Time They Met: Canterbury made their biggest statement yet with a commanding 20-4 win in their top-of-the-table clash back at Mackay’s Virgin Australia Stadium in Round 16.
A special occasion for Canterbury fullback Ben Barba and Melbourne centre Dane Nielsen with the pair returning to their northern Queensland roots, it was Barba who starred for the Bulldogs – scoring one try and setting up two more in a scintillating performance.
And it took him just eight minutes to strike when a Josh Reynolds in-field kick struck the post, with Barba swooping to score the opening try.
It took 22 minutes more for the Bulldogs to cross again, a Kris Keating kick finding Krisnan Inu who was handed benefit of the doubt, with the video referees ruling he had managed to ground the ball before fumbling it over the try-line.
That effort gave Canterbury a 10-0 half-time lead; however Melbourne closed the gap early in the second stanza as Cameron Smith’s grubber found an unmarked Anthony Quinn on the left edge. And they thought they were in again soon after when Ryan Hinchcliffe forced his way over… only to be called back for an obstruction.
The missed opportunity proved costly, with Barba producing another stunning play in the 53rd minute to give his side a match-winning lead. Sweeping around the back out wide, Barba sliced through from halfway before handing Inu his second try of the afternoon.
However, his best was yet to come as Barba fielded a kick on his own dead-ball line, beat two players just to get himself back into the field of play, then raced 60 metres up-field before kicking inside for Josh Morris to score one of the tries of the year.
A total of 37 missed tackles didn’t help Melbourne’s cause and they failed to make a single line-break.
Barba’s big day out saw him run for 198 metres, make all three of his side’s line-breaks and produce a whopping 16 tackle-breaks, while Aiden Tolman was busy up front with 158 metres and 39 tackles.
Ryan Hoffman was strong for Melbourne with 146 metres from 21 runs.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Shayne Hayne.
The Way We See It: Not since Canterbury last competed in, and won, a grand final against the Roosters back in 2004 has a decider loomed as so difficult to pick. Sure, those Manly-Melbourne deciders in 2007 and 2008 weren’t expected to be such one-way affairs, but even then the pre-match favourites ended up taking home the cookies while the past three seasons have seen Melbourne (2009), the Dragons (2010) and Manly (2011) head in as clear favourites.
This year is far tougher. Canterbury have been the benchmark for at least two-thirds of the season and have barely put a foot wrong, but if there is one side they remain wary of it is the Storm and their ‘big three’ of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. The Bulldogs know they can down this side, having done so earlier in the year, but the Storm are back to their best and ready to claim their first ‘official’ title since 1999. It augurs for a thrilling contest – but it’s the Bulldogs who get our nod by four points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 5pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 7.30pm.