Storm v Broncos
Rugby league’s “unofficial” Queensland derby inevitably brings the best out of Melbourne and the Broncos. It was only a week or so ago that the core of each of these sides was standing alongside one another as brothers in arms as the Maroons levelled the State of Origin series at Suncorp Stadium. Now Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk will be looking to add a telling nail to the Broncos’ premiership coffin.
Melbourne and Brisbane have been two of the most successful clubs of the past decade so the fact that both sides head into this clash on the back of a loss makes for a unique situation – albeit one with far different consequences for this week’s loser.
For Melbourne, who never really looked like beating lowly Wests Tigers in the big wet last Saturday night, the end of the representative season can’t come soon enough. After winning their first seven games of the year, they have now slipped a full five points behind competition leaders South Sydney on the Telstra Premiership ladder, having lost their past two matches and won just three of their past eight.
It is becoming commonplace for the Storm to struggle at this time of year and they showed last year that they certainly have it in them to recover from the inevitable mid-season slump and go all the way. But rarely have they faced so much stern competition for a top-two spot and they won’t want to let their premiership rivals get away now that the Sydney Roosters have also leapfrogged them on the ladder.
The biggest challenge for the Storm moving forward will be the absence of five-eighth Gareth Widdop, who dislocated his hip a fortnight ago. While they gain plenty of experience with Brett Finch coming into the No.6 jersey, his presence will take some getting used to and Melbourne certainly struggled for cohesion once a second key position player in captain Cameron Smith withdrew from the Tigers game in the wake of Origin. If anything, it proved that coach Craig Bellamy can’t afford to lose any more players in the coming weeks.
Brisbane find their season at a crossroads. Last week’s disappointing loss to the Warriors in New Zealand has seen them slip two points out of the eight and with the business end of proceedings rapidly approaching they must start winning games now if they are to keep their impressive record of reaching the finals going (the Broncos have missed the finals just once since 1991).
Rugby league coaches often talk of performance coming first and results then taking care of themselves, but the fact that Brisbane dominated the second half against the Warriors will come as cold comfort to Anthony Griffin.
Still, he will at least know that his side isn’t too far off the mark. And what better way to boost the confidence than beating Melbourne in their own house?
Cameron Smith’s return after missing last week’s game with an eye injury means Ryan Hinchcliffe moves back to lock, with Tohu Harris dropping to the bench. A medial ligament strain has seen prop Jason Ryles ruled out with Bellamy naming an extended bench that includes Siosaia Vave, Slade Griffin, Junior Moors, Tim Glasby and Ben Hampton.
Griffin has named the same side that narrowly lost to the Warriors last week with Jarrod Wallace pencilled in as 18th man.
Slater will be looking to add to his amazing record of 20 tries from 23 games against the Broncos – the most scored against an opponent by any active player in the game and the most any player has ever scored against Brisbane. Brad Fittler sits in second in that regard against the Broncos with just 14!
Watch Out Storm: Every side in the NRL looks to their captain for leadership when times get a little tough and the Broncos are no different, with big Sam Thaiday seemingly on a mission over the past few weeks. Thaiday was brilliant for Queensland in State of Origin II, scoring the opening try with a superb run close to the line and getting the Maroons moving forward during the crucial early stages. He backed that up with another epic performance across the Tasman on Sunday – running for 120 metres and making 39 tackles.
Watch Out Broncos: Brisbane will still be having nightmares about Billy Slater after he tore them to shreds in their Round 4 clash earlier in the season. The world’s best fullback chimed into the backline to help set up the Storm’s first try, raced 40 metres untouched to score their second, chased through a Cameron Smith grubber to score their third and collected a Cooper Cronk chip to set up their fourth. Then, after Brisbane had fought their way back into the lead, it was Slater scoring his third to give Melbourne back the lead. Slater averages 139 metres, has made 14 line-breaks and 49 tackle-breaks in 2013.
Plays To Watch: The Cooper Cronk inside ball to Billy Slater storming through a gap. This is a well-known favourite of the Storm but it continues to work and caught Brisbane out when the two sides met earlier in the year as Slater raced 40 metres to score.
Melbourne will want to keep an eye on Corey Norman out the back when Brisbane spread the ballot to the left. Their pet play is for Peter Wallace to receive the ball one or two off the ruck and use a second-man play to Norman who can then give the ball to centre Jack Reed or fire a long ball to try-scoring phenom Josh Hoffman on the wing. The Broncos heavily favour their left edge and will look to attack there at every opportunity.
Key Match-Up: Billy Slater v Corey Norman. The veteran v the youngster. Slater’s brilliance has been well documented and he will inevitably be the man that most threatens the Brisbane line with his support play and lethal kick returns; however Norman is just as crucial to the Broncos’ hopes. The 22-year-old leads the club for both try assists and line-break assists with 12 and 11 respectively – more than halves Peter Wallace and Scott Prince combined.
Where It Will Be Won: It will be Melbourne’s edge defence versus Brisbane’s defence up the middle with both of these sides certain to throw plenty at each other. The big question is how will they handle what the opposition throws at them? Brisbane defended well against the Warriors last week – conceding just one try through the hands, the others coming from a bomb and an unlucky intercept – but they will need to be on their toes around the ruck where Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater like to wreak havoc. On the other hand, Brisbane are at their most dangerous attacking on the edges and the Storm will have to make strong reads to keep the likes of Justin Hodges, Corey Norman and Josh Hoffman quiet.
The History: Played 33; Storm 21, Broncos 11, drawn 1. Melbourne have lost just four games at AAMI Park since the start of the 2012 season and beat Brisbane 34-10 at this venue when they played last year.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Jason Robinson & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Storm v Broncos clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm (Qld); delayed, 9.30pm (NSW).
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The Way We See It: Melbourne’s form has been down of late but with captain Cameron Smith back this week they have their best chance yet to put things right again after consecutive losses. Brisbane won’t be an easy proposition, having started to find some form of their own the past fortnight, but the Storm should improve considerably at home and we think they will do enough to bank a win. Storm by eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats