Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
Melbourne Storm will have to overcome their toughest adversary when they take on the Rabbitohs in the Qualifying Final at AAMI Park on Saturday night - themselves.
Imitation is said to be the sincerest form of flattery and that is exactly what South Sydney have done in 2012.
While they may not have the ‘big three’, the Rabbitohs have developed a culture through the playing group that resonates with what Melbourne has done in the last six years. With former Melbourne assistant coach Michael Maguire now at the helm at Redfern, it is a very different looking South Sydney outfit, both on and off the field.
They also have finals experience with former Melbourne players Greg Inglis, Matt King and Michael Crocker.
It is only their second appearance in the finals since 1989, but you get the feeling they are now in a position to give the competition a genuine shake.
Storm fullback Billy Slater agrees.
“There certainly is a Melbourne Storm feel about the South Sydney Rabbitohs,” Slater told NRL.com.
“They are playing really well. They have some dangerous players and with Sam Burgess and Dave Taylor on the edges, they are hard guys to contain as well.
“The young guys are stepping up and certainly playing some great football.
“It is going to be a great match on Saturday afternoon and we are looking forward to a big crowd at AAMI Park for Semi-Final football.”
Much of the build-up for the blockbuster encounter will surround the duel between two of the most exciting fullbacks the game has seen, Slater and Inglis.
It is an intriguing battle of former teammates and contrasting styles.
Both have blistering speed and great footwork, Slater has the edge in terms of experience and positional play, where Inglis has a thunderous right-hand fend and sheer power.
But the big thing they have in common is their importance to their respective football team’s.
“I have been admiring Greg for about six years now,” Slater said.
“Ever since he played first grade with us, he has been a tremendous player and no matter where you put him on the field he is going to be a threat to you.
“He gets the ball more at fullback than in any other position he plays, so we are going to have to be on our game defensively and work as a unit to just nullify where he gets the ball. If we can kick into the corners and get our field position game right, that is going to take Greg out of the game a little bit.
“When he gets the ball he is a dangerous player and we are going to have to be on our game.”
Slater has don strapping around his knee since coming back from a posterior cruciate ligament strain suffered during State of Origin two.
While Melbourne lost in his first match back from injury, they have gone on to win the next five in succession heading into the finals, with Slater showing signs of returning to his destructive best.
But he admits it is still not fully healed.
“Every week it is getting a bit better, and I’m not thinking about my knee when I am out on the field,” he said.
“It is in a good place at the moment, it is not 100 per cent, but anyone that has had a PCL injury would know that it is a work in process. I’m comfortable with where it is at the moment.
“I have had half a dozen games back now and the fitness is getting a lot better too. Obviously being off my legs for a period of time took a bit of match fitness out of me.”
After undergoing a tough trot during the middle of the season, the Storm have returned to the form that saw them open the season with nine consecutive victories.
With pretty much their full squad on deck, the Storm have learned from their form slump and are now ready to unleash the Melbourne of old on their rivals during the finals series.
“We went through a tough period in the middle of the season,” Slater said.
“We had a few injuries and a few players were playing out of position. We just went away from doing the things that made us play well.
“Once we got back to doing those things and players were playing in their normal positions, players were coming back from injury and everything fell into place.
“The last five weeks we haven’t been playing our best football, one game against Penrith was a game that we played particularly well in, but the other four or five games we have been up and down, and behind at halftime.
“There is still a lot of improvement in us and if we are going to do something in this Finals series we are going to have to improve that bit more.”
A team that has won five-in-a-row needing to improve?
That is a scary thought.
Follow Andrew Bryan on twitter; @AndrewBryan321