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Storm v Knights preview

Will Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent NRL.com Mon, Mar 24, 2014 - 3:10 PM

Newly re-signed captain Cameron Smith is nailing less than half of his shots on goal in 2014. Copyright: NRL Photos/Brett Crockford. Copyright: NRL Photos/Brett Crockford.

Storm v Knights
AAMI Park
Monday, 7pm

A trip to Melbourne is a daunting prospect for any NRL side but when you board that plane winless and without your star playmaker, you make the trip south with slightly less optimism.

AAMI Park is a venue that does hold fond recent memories for Newcastle, who ended the Storm's 2013 season with a two-point win in their semi-final visit last September.

However the Knights have endured a tumultuous start to 2014, and they conceded four second-half tries for the second straight week to lose 20-26 at home to the Raiders last Sunday.

Effort has not been the issue in the past fortnight for coach Wayne Bennett, as he has continued to state, but the absence of Jarred Mullen (hamstring) appears a chink in the Knights' armour that is proving just too great to cover.

Add to this the loss of Darius Boyd (again a hamstring injury) and the Knights have some serious injury concerns just three rounds into the season.

Meanwhile in the southern state, the Storm last week became the only team in NRL history to win three consecutive regular season games by one-point.

You would be forgiven for thinking the final minute against the Panthers was a replay of the previous week's win over Manly.

This time it was returning five-eighth Cooper Cronk who secured victory on a milestone night for the club.

A 2-0 start to the year, both thrilling wins, the re-signing of captain Cameron Smith and a near fully fit squad – it has been a season of positivity for the boys in purple so far in 2014.

No news selection-wise for either team heading into this clash. However given the game is not until Monday do not be surprised if changes are made.

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Watch Out Storm: Right side, strong side for Knights – Dane Gagai and Akuila Uate seem to have picked up right when they left off from last season. Both players have carried the football an average more than 160 metres in the first two rounds of the season. Centre Gagai ranked 11th in the competition for this stat last season, whilst right winger Uate has shown his try-scoring capabilities after opening his 2014 account last week with a charging run down the touch line. 

Defending the right wing was a real concern for the Storm last week against Penrith, as Kevin Naiqama (a former Knight) ran riot down that side with two first-half tries. It will be an area the visitors will no doubt look to exploit.

Then there's captain's kicking boots. It seems almost sacrilege to mention the man's name in this section of the preview, however it must be said that Cameron Smith has been off the mark in front of goal this season. This season he is currently 5 from 11 attempts. Given Smith has been the Storm's leading points-scorer in every one of the past eight season history suggests the slump will soon be shaken, however a third straight nail-biter may see the misses be finally made to pay.

Watch Out Knights: Make those tackles stick – the Knights missed 42 tackles last week, 11 more than any other team. Their inability to get control of the football appears to be putting a strain on them defensively. As a result of losing the possession count in both games this year, Newcastle have been forced to make 334 tackles a game – 34 more than last year's average. If the Knights are going to spend more time defending they must make their tackles stick, especially when they face a Storm side which ranked first in metres gained last season. Should the Knights give up possession too often Wayne Bennett's men could be in for a long night defensively.

Then there's the absence of Jarrod Mullen. It seems cruel to state the bleeding obvious but try as it may, Newcastle are struggling to cover the loss of its star playmaker. Mullen ranked third in the NRL for try assists and first for kick metres in 2013 – notching 3,829 more metres than any other player. Halfback Tyrone Roberts has performed well so far, but a Storm defence will prove his toughest test yet. The loss is compounded even further this week, as Dally M Medallist Cooper Cronk will lead the opposition's kicking game.

Plays to Watch: Jesse Bromwich barging in – the Storm forward has been in beast-mode this season, his 32 hit-ups last week the second-most of any player; Ben Hampton's run – the young Storm number six has been a shining light for Craig Bellamy, averaging 129 running metres this season; Akuila Uate running right – the number five will pose a significant threat to an area of the Storm's defence that has looked vulnerable.

Where It Will be Won: The Knights must keep the football. Despite trailing in each of its wins this year the Storm has worked its way back once it has wrestled back possession. Possession is something the Knights have enjoyed far too sparingly this season. Should the visitors do the same on Monday night and allow Cronk and Smith to dictate play through the middle of the field, all roads will lead to a purple victory. For the first time this season the Knights must win the possession count and control the football to have any chance of repeating last year's semi-final triumph.

The History: Played 31; Storm 18, Newcastle 13.  The Knights sent the Storm out of the finals in straight sets the last time these two teams met. However prior to that game, Melbourne had come out victors in the previous seven meetings, and have won 12 of the last 15.

What Are The Odds: Money is five to one for the Storm to keep the Knights winless in 2014, according to Sportsbet.com.au. They're into $1.28 from $1.34 with Newcastle out to $3.40.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Morris; Touch – Steve Carrall, Dave Munro; Video Referees – Steve Clark, Ben Galea

Televised: Fox Sports – LIVE 7.00pm (AEDT)

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The Way We See It: Every factor points in the direction of a Storm win. Undefeated, confidence sky-high, players re-signing and most importantly healthy. It is the opposite situation for the Knights. Under Wayne Bennett you know they will fight tooth and nail for a result, but come the end of the 80 minutes on Monday night we expect these efforts to be futile.