William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent
Storm v Eels
At the start of the season if we had said that when these two teams meet in Round 15 one would be in the top eight and the other wouldn’t, you would have thought the men in purple would be holding the better end of that equation.
But in fact it is Parramatta that sits a game clear of the 9th-placed Storm with eight wins for the year.
The last time these two teams met, in Round 24 last year, Melbourne recorded their fourth biggest win ever in a 64-4 demolition.
However this 2014 version is a vastly different Parramatta side than those that have preceded in recent years.
The Eels defeated the Bulldogs 22-12 last week, just their fifth win in their past 30 games without Jarryd Hayne. Chris Sandow filled in for Hayne like no other had done in the previous 29 games, setting up multiple tries, line breaks and even a near 40/20 kick.
The win also marked the third time this season the Eels have recorded back-to-back wins – a feat they had achieved just once in the past three seasons.
The Storm broke a hoodoo of their own on Monday night, winning for the first time in seven matches without their captain Cameron Smith.
Herculean efforts by Tohu Harris and Jesse Bromwich saw the Kiwi duo combine for 372 metres to lead their side to a stirring 24-20 win over the Titans.
Smith and Hayne return for their respective sides after Origin II.
Sandow moves back to halfback while Luke Kelly drops to the bench as Ryan Morgan makes way for Will Hopoate. Pauli Pauli gets a starting spot in place of the injured Manu Ma’u (fractured arm).
Meanwhile for the Storm, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith are the biggest inclusions a team could possibly have. Ryan Hoffman also returns from Origin duty with Tohu Harris hitting the bench. Kurt Mann also moves to the bench after some impressive performances at fullback.
Watch Out Eels: What’s wrong with coming to Melbourne? In the past seven years Parramatta have travelled to Melbourne just twice. Given their last two games there have been absolute nightmares you could be forgiven for their reluctance to board the flight south. A 60-point loss last year was horrendous and the Eels' previous visit resulted in a 38-0 defeat. That is a combined score line of 102-4. This is a much better Eels side in 2014… but will the mental scars still exist?
Melbourne have won 33 of their past 34 games when they have scored more than 22 points. That is the number that Eels fans will need to hope does not appear on the scoreboard come Sunday.
Watch Out Storm: Mahe Fonua and Young Tonumaipea have provided many highlights with the ball this season.
However it is their work at the other end that has opposition sides licking their lips. In the past two games the 21-year-olds have missed a combined 17 tackles and made just 27. That means the duo have missed almost 40 per cent of the tackles they have attempted.
When Cooper Cronk went down with a broken arm after Origin I most would have seen the Storm’s kicking game go down with it. Against the Titans, who themselves put in a second or even third string halves line-up, Melbourne managed to break even but in the previous two games without Cronk Melbourne has been vastly out-kicked. When weighing up its total kick metres against that of the Roosters and Cowboys (their previous two opponents) the Storm has differential of minus 241. Contrast this with the two games they played prior to Origin I with Cronk and the Storm had 397 more kick metres than their opposition. It is a clear sign of the Cronk effect and a need for the Victorian side to find a different avenue to the line.
Plays To Watch: Kurt Mann has looked more than comfortable at NRL level with three tries in his first five games and has filled Slater’s shoes admirably. Tohu tough – 188 metres by Tohu Harris when his team was undermanned and need him most last week could give him the boost of confidence he needs. Chris Sandow filled in for Hayne with aplomb last week, running 120m and setting up a couple of tries - was it an aberration or a sign of more good things to come. Semi Radrada is the Eels' leading try scorer with 13 for the season and an ever-present threat.
Where It Will be Won: Creativity is key at the top level and the value of a clever kicking game in the final 20 is priceless. The Storm have seen this first hand in Cronk’s absence these past three weeks. Ben Hampton has been inconsistent with his boot and questionable on fifth-tackle option at times. Sandow had a blinder last week, setting up multiple scoring chances. The maligned half has 1,156 more kick metres than any other Eel despite missing three games this season. Whichever player has the right boots on come Sunday could prove a match-winner.
History: Played 28; Storm 16, Eels 11, draw 1. Parramatta has endured some heavy defeats in this match up but the past eight games have resulted in four wins apiece.
What Are The Odds: Punters with Sportsbet.com.au are all over the Eels ($2.16) despite having to travel to Melbourne – Parramatta accounting for 90 per cent of head-to-head hold! The market will become clearer when we know who’s backing up from Origin.
Match Officials: Referee – Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee – Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Michael Wise, Adam Reid; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton, Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports - Live 2pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Hayne is back but so are Smith and Slater. The Storm’s win without them last week may just give the side’s younger brigade the belief they need to stand on their own two feet. Storm in a close one, 12-10.