Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Storm v Rabbitohs
Potentially one of the games of the year, this clash takes on ever greater significance than originally promised given the somewhat surprising results last round that have thrown the premiership race wide open.
Nobody saw South Sydney’s capitulation at the hands of a red-hot North Queensland side coming. After a shock loss to St George Illawarra three weeks ago, the Rabbitohs had appeared to steady the ship when they easily accounted for the Gold Coast a week later.
Likewise, the Cowboys had shown no signs of such an impressive performance after consecutive losses to Canberra, Manly and Brisbane had ended their top-eight chances.
But with Johnathan Thurston leading the way, they showed that Souths still have plenty of work to do if they are to lift their first trophy in 42 years come October.
With fullback Greg Inglis sidelined and five-eighth John Sutton helped off with a foot injury late in the first half, their usually lethal attack lacked potency and it will be interesting to see whether they can put it all together minus two of their key playmakers.
On the other hand, any questions over Melbourne’s ability to mount a title defence evaporated in the space of 80 minutes when they blew away Canberra 68-4 in the nation’s capital last Sunday. Talk about playing yourself into form.
If there was one thing the Storm needed it was a shot of confidence and with their big three of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith back to their best they did just that as they raced in 12 tries to one.
It makes for an intriguing contest on Friday night. A Storm win would certainly make a statement that they are coming to get the joint competition leaders Souths and Sydney Roosters, while a Rabbitohs victory would put the Storm back in their place and set us on course for a potentially dream grand final match-up between the old Sydney rivals.
Not only is this a must-see match for all NRL fans given the quality on show, it is also one that will answer a lot of questions with just four more rounds to follow until the finals get underway.
Melbourne have named the same 17 that belted Canberra last week with Slade Griffin the 18th man. Luke Keary starts at five-eighth for the injured Sutton with Nathan Peats coming into the squad on the bench.
Watch Out Storm: Melbourne will be well served to keep an eye on Rabbitohs hooker Issac Luke around the rucks this week. Luke is the most dangerous running dummy-half in the NRL and loves taking on the defensive line at every opportunity. His 175 runs at an average 9.2 per game is the most by any No.9 in 2013 while his 10 line-break assists also ranks first for the position.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: The performance of Mahe Fonua last week will no doubt have South Sydney’s right-side defence on notice. Fonua is a powerful runner of the football and a brilliant finisher as evidenced by his three tries last week. Extremely difficult to stop from close range, he has scored nine tries from 12 games this year, averaged 119 metres per game with 29 tackle-breaks.
Plays To Watch: The Burgess one-two punch. Arguably the most effective play the Rabbitohs have unleashed this season, it involves big George Burgess punching it up through the middle when in the attacking zone, earning a quick play-the-ball and having Issac Luke fire a one-out pass to Sam Burgess who is extremely difficult to contain with the defence scattered.
The Storm are fairly predictable in their actions when they win an attacking scrum – but stopping their standard set play is another thing. It involves a double second-man play, with the first going from Cronk to Slater wrapping around and then out to the centre. They have scored identical tries in the left corner using this play the past two weeks and will also use it when attacking out to the right.
Key Match-Up: Cameron Smith v Issac Luke. These two men are incredibly influential to their respective sides. Smith isn’t as dynamic as Luke but no player in the NRL controls the tempo of a game like he does. Luke is an explosive dummy-half runner who is a master at exploiting tired and lazy markers.
Where It Will Be Won: Around the rucks. Although they boast some incredible athletes on the edges, both Melbourne and Souths love playing direct. They are two of the best at having bodies in motion and asking questions of the opposition big men – Melbourne through the relentless attack of their Big Three and Souths via their plethora of big men pounding the ball forward. Expect a fast tempo.
The History: Played 21; Storm 18, Rabbitohs 3. Tellingly, Melbourne have won all 10 games they have played against Souths in Victoria... by a combined score of 352-74.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & 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 Rabbitohs clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
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Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm (NSW & Qld).
The Way We See It: Injuries to Greg Inglis and John Sutton have cast a slight pall on the Rabbitohs’ premiership aspirations – at least until they both return – and with two losses from their past three games there is no doubt they are experiencing a tough time of it compared to the brilliant form they have displayed for most of the year. With Melbourne hitting top gear last week and now back on home soil, they will be mighty hard to stop. Storm by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats