William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent, NRL.com
Storm v Bulldogs
For the fourth time in five years these two teams will meet in Round 18 of the home-and-away season – and like many meetings before each will boast Origin stars across the field.
On the assumption every representative star backs up on Saturday night the Storm will field a competition-high five Origin players, while Bulldogs have named three New South Welshmen in their starting side.
Canterbury is the only team in the competition that can lay claim to a winning head-to-head record over Melbourne with a ledger that reads 17-16 and a draw.
That is largely thanks to the 40-12 drubbing it handed the Storm when the two teams met over in Perth in Round 4 earlier this year.
The Bulldogs have in fact won the past two meetings, including a 39-nil thrashing in Round 18 last season.
But don’t go proclaiming victory just yet Doggies fans – none of the ‘Big Three’ played in that shutout win 12 months ago while Storm skipper Cameron Smith was a late withdrawal in Round 4.
Despite named fit to play for the Maroons, Cooper Cronk has been left out of the squad for Saturday night with the Storm medical team to assess the fitness of the star halfback when he returns to the club.
Tony Williams’ brief stint in the halves comes to an end, with ‘T-Rex’ reverting to the back row as Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson return from Origin duty.
Aiden Tolman is out and will face another 3-4 weeks on the sidelines after re-injuring his hamstring.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 18
Watch Out Storm: Can’t shake that losing feeling – despite their outstanding period of success it may surprise some to think this Melbourne team has found it difficult to bounce back from a loss. 18 of its past 19 losses have been part of back-to-back defeats. Round 25 against the Manly last year is the only time since 2012 the Storm has not lost at least two games in a row. Perhaps the bye week will help break the slump and confine the loss to the Dragons a fortnight ago to a one-week hiccup.
Conquered all, except one – The Storm can gloat about having a winning head-to-head record over every team in the NRL except one. The Bulldogs are the only team in the competition to hold a favourable ledger against the Victorian side; largely due to the fact Canterbury has scored more points against Melbourne than any team in NRL history.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Big Three worries – despite holding a winning record against the Storm that ledger becomes a lot less favourable when you look at Canterbury’s history against the Storm’s Big Three. Since 2007 when Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk have all been in the Melbourne line-up the Bulldogs have won just 2 of 11 meetings. However in a good sign for the Bulldogs, Cronk has been left off the Storm team sheet and if he doesn’t play, it will be three straight meetings between these two teams without the complete assembly of Melbourne’s most important trio.
Melbourne travel troubles – the picture does not become in any way rosier when you look at the Bulldogs’ record in Melbourne. You have to go back to Round 11, 2005 for the last time Canterbury returned home with the premiership points. They have gone home empty handed in their last seven trips to the southern state.
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Plays to Watch: Billy’s Back – seven tries in his last four games for the Storm. Tohu tough – Harris was in some hot form before the bye, averaging 153 metres and 28 tackles in his last three games. Origin IV? – Just three days after Cronk and Hodkinson battled it out in the halves at Origin level, they will go around again for their clubs on Saturday night.
Where It Will be Won: Defence decides – success in a football team is often measured by its ability to stop the opposition from scoring. The Bulldogs have done that well in 2014, the Storm not so much. Just four times this season opposing teams have scored 20 points or more against Canterbury. On the other hand teams have achieved that feat in 11 of 15 games against the Storm, ranking them 11th for points against. A staggering statistic when you consider Melbourne has been ranked in the top three in this area in every year since 2005. Whether the Bulldogs can sustain their 2014 defensive effort or whether the Storm can recapture theirs from seasons past will be crucial to Saturday night’s outcome.
History: Played 34; Storm 16, Bulldogs 17, and 1 Draw – The Bulldogs are the only side in the competition to hold a winning record over the Storm.
What Are The Odds: The Storm ($1.55) are relatively friendless in betting at Sportsbet.com.au. More than twice as many bets have been placed on the Dogs ($2.40), with punters also keen on them in handicap betting, receiving 4.5 points. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee – Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall, Michael Wise ; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports - Live 7.30pm (AEDT)
The Way We See It: Whether Cronk is a late inclusion or not, it may still not be enough to bridge the gap between these two teams. Bulldogs 14-6.