Storm v Dragons
How times change! This match-up between fierce foes would have attracted headline status as a season-opener last year but fast-forward 12 months and on paper it looks decidedly mismatched: the 2012 premiers and World Club Challenge champions hosting the roster-ravaged and key position-challenged St George Illawarra.
That said, perhaps fans shouldn't discount the passion factor involved, with the Red V essentially playing for coach Steve Price's NRL career over the opening two months of the 2013 season – and here the embattled mentor goes head to head with Craig Bellamy, the supercoach Dragons management was so keen to lure to their lair. Oh the irony.
Melbourne have had just the one blip on their radar since riding a purple wave to premiership glory in 2012, an uncharacteristic 40-8 trial game defeat to the Raiders a surprisingly unnerving final preparation for their World Club Challenge tilt. However, they put that anomaly behind them with a hard-fought 18-14 victory over Leeds.
Meanwhile the Dragons have experienced a frustrating trial period as they look to life after Ben Hornby, Dean Young and Beau Scott. They have shown glimpses of promise in their losses to the Cowboys (28-22) and Souths (28-10) but will need to make a quantum leap to trouble the Storm who are favourites to snare back-to-back premiership titles in 2013.
Melbourne have just the one change to the 17 that dominated Leeds, with injured winger Sisa Waqa replaced by Matt Duffie. Second-rower Tohu Harris and interchange Lagi Setu make their Storm first grade debuts.
Nathan Fien gets first bite at the Dragons' No.7 jersey, while out wide Chase Stanley is first-elect right-side centre. In the engine room Michael Weyman returns to the NRL after 10 months on the sidelines and Trent Merrin embarks on a new career at lock. New recruit Bronson Harrison will start from the bench, which numbers five at this stage.
It is quite the challenge for new skipper Ben Creagh – the Dragons haven't sung their team song in celebration in Melbourne since the finals in 1999. Since then they've listened to the Storm's version on 11 occasions...
Watch Out Storm: The Dragons still boast considerable firepower up front and should they make inroads it could allow their points-challenged backs to play with confidence. The Red V made the fourth-most metres last season (1401) with the key contributors Trent Merrin (131 on average), Dan Hunt (116), Ben Creagh (106) and Michael Weyman (95).
Merrin's positional change is intriguing; it wouldn't surprise us if the coach has visions of morphing him into a Paul Gallen clone, playing big minutes, carving out big metres and making a stack of offloads (his 45 offloads were just four fewer than Gallen's tally for 2012).
Brett Morris will need to register big stats if the Dragons are to be a chance. No player covered more ground in the NRL last year than the left winger who ran a staggering 3.75 kilometres (averaging 163 metres a match). His 14 tries were double those of his nearest teammate. If Morris quickly gels with new fullback Gerard Beale on the left edge it will go a long way towards solving their attacking problems.
Watch Out Dragons: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Ryan Hoffman and Justin O'Neill will give the Dragons' right-side defence a thorough workout. It was a weakness in 2012, leaking 36 tries compared to 26 on Matt Cooper's side of the field. Expect the blowtorch to be applied to ex-Storm centre Chase Stanley in particular.
It's likely Cronk and Cameron Smith will direct plenty of attack up the guts, deploying quick-fire inside passes – especially late in each half when the Dragons' big forwards will be fighting fatigue.
Slater is the obvious threat: the Dragons must maintain their good chasing form from last season (ranked third) or else the Storm No.1 will cut them to shreds (16 tries and 22 line-breaks in 2012).
Plays To Watch: Melbourne's quick interchange of passes at the ruck, with Smith handing off to Cronk who will pass back to Smith before the No.9 picks up a flying Billy Slater or Gareth Widdop; Cronk's centre-field kicks for Slater; Slater passing and looping around supports to provide the overlap; Ben Creagh hitting the defence hard off a short pass down the left edge; Trent Merrin's and Bronson Harrison's frequent and speculative offloads; Michael Weyman bending the line; Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale making metres through snaking runs.
Key Match-up: Cameron Smith v Mitch Rein. Rarely a game goes by without the Aussie Test captain having praise heaped upon him for his performance. He's far and away the most involved player in the NRL – illustrated by his competition-high 2518 touches in 2012. Smith's astute direction and dashes out of dummy-half (he ran 170 times last season, second only to Issac Luke) will keep the Dragons back-pedalling and ensure his forwards gather relentless momentum.
Meanwhile Rein is showing all the signs that he could one day take over from Robbie Farah in the No.9 for the Blues. He doesn't run all that often but he has a good passing game and loves to marshal his troops. He also has excellent vision and knows when to pounce – although he ran out of dummy-half just 92 occasions in 2012, he did lead all hookers for line-breaks (with 10) and scored seven tries from close range.
Where It Will Be Won: The cohesion of the respective spines. Melbourne's spine – Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk, Gareth Widdop and Billy Slater – bonds like super glue. The Dragons' new-look spine of Mitch Rein, Nathan Fien, Jamie Soward and Gerard Beale can't possibly hope to emulate that bond from the get-go but they have to ensure they don't offer a pasty, Clag-like unison. Still, Soward has played strongly for NSW, Fien is a Kiwi Test player and Rein is an Emerging Blues member. Plus, Beale is one of the NRL's more highly-rated outside backs. The potential is there; but they'll need to show more than a few flashes of promise, given Melbourne's spine accounted for 32 tries, 46 line-breaks and 282 tackle-breaks in 2012. By comparison the Dragons' new backbone quartet registered corresponding numbers of 18, 27 and 138.
The History: Played 26; Storm 18, Dragons 7, drawn 1. Melbourne have won seven of the past 10 clashes between the sides.
Last Time They Met: The Dragons upset the full-strength Storm 26-18 at WIN Stadium in Round 21 last season, with star winger Brett Morris scoring a hat-trick of tries.
Morris opened the scoring for the Red V in the seventh minute, snaffling an intercept and out-sprinting the Storm cover defence in a 95-metre dash to the line. Rapid-fire tries to Beau Scott (17th minute) backing up a Morris infield chip kick, and Trent Merrin (23rd minute) charging over from close range off an inside pass from dummy-half Mitch Rein, seized a commanding 18-nil lead for the home side.
However, the Storm rallied, exposing some flimsy defence on the Dragons' left edge; first Kevin Proctor charged over (35th minute), before Will Chambers' easy put-down four minutes later saw the sides head to the sheds with an 18-12 scoreline.
Morris edged the Dragons further ahead with another long-range try shortly after the resumption, streaking 90 metres after the Storm spilled the Steeden while pressing the try line. That made it 22-12 and when Morris sliced through for his third try in the 51st minute the Dragons grabbed a 14-point buffer.
Ryan Hinchcliffe crossed in the 67th minute to give the visitors a glimmer of hope but they were kept at bay by a determined Dragons defence.
This was a game in which the stats didn't tell the story: Melbourne made six line-breaks to the Dragons' two, while the home side missed 11 tackles more than the Storm. However, the Dragons' 83 per cent completion rate and modest 10 errors – as well as Morris' double strike against the run of play – ensured they were competitive.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Shayne Hayne & Justin Morgan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 1HD – Delayed 8.30pm.
The Way We See It: We'd be stunned if the Dragons upset the World Club Challenge champions on their home turf. The visitors will show flashes of brilliance but we fear an inability to hold onto the ball at crucial stages (pushing the plays) will count against them. The Storm should be too fast and too well-drilled. Melbourne by eight points.