Storm v Sea Eagles
The greatest rivalry of the past decade assumes its latest chapter when Manly travel to Melbourne on Monday night – but circumstances are a little different this time around.
The Storm began 2013 with seven consecutive wins which combined with their run to the premiership last season had them at 15 wins on the trot and chasing the all-time record of 19 set by the Roosters in 1975. Yet they suddenly find themselves staring down the barrel of three consecutive losses, having surprisingly fallen to Canberra and Penrith over the past two weeks, and have even surrendered the competition lead to South Sydney.
Coach Craig Bellamy has been at a loss to explain the sudden dip in form other than to observe a notable lack of intensity. To put the past fortnight into perspective, it is the first time Melbourne have ever lost two games in a row when Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop have all been in the side.
It’s not exactly panic stations. The NRL is a tough competition and every side is going to experience ups and downs during the course of the season although the Storm will want to arrest their slide now given that they still have the tricky representative period to get through in a few weeks’ time.
Much like Melbourne, Manly began the season strongly and as usual were being talked about as one of a handful of premiership contenders. Yet they too have stumbled – albeit largely due to a run of injuries that is starting to become a major headache. Having lost veteran prop Joe Galuvao a month ago to a career-ending Achilles injury, they have since seen Brett Stewart sidelined for the next month, Richie Fa’aoso suspended for two months and now co-captain Jason King looking at most of the year out with a shoulder problem.
Certainly their depth is being tested and although they are still well placed on the ladder in fourth, they have lost both games against fellow top-four sides Souths and the Roosters this season.
One thing we can look forward to on Monday is a contest with plenty of fire. Having faced one another in consecutive grand finals in 2007 and 2008 for a win apiece, Manly-Melbourne games have long been passionate affairs and none of those that were there for the infamous ‘Battle of Brookie’ two years ago will have forgotten the events of that night. Much like Liverpool v Manchester United or the Yankees v the Red Sox, no matter where these two sides are placed on the table they will always get themselves up for this one. It’s not a game to be missed.
Melbourne coach Bellamy has named the same squad that lost to Penrith last week with Lagi Setu added to an extended bench.
The Sea Eagles have also named a five-man bench, with Tom Symonds joined by James Hasson.
Watch Out Storm: Manly winger Jorge Taufua has been in electric form and the Storm can expect to see plenty of him on Monday night. The powerful young winger has scored eight tries from as many outings in 2013, made 11 line-breaks, boasts a team-high 29 tackle-breaks and has averaged 153 metres per game. With a number of forwards sidelined through injury, Taufua has the size and power to essentially act as a replacement forward when getting their sets off on the right foot.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly might be missing their talisman Brett Stewart but the Storm certainly won’t be without their star No.1. Billy Slater has been as scintillating as usual this year, his support play and ability to torment lazy defensive lines has helped him to six tries in 2013 as well as 10 line-breaks, four try assists, two line-break assists, 31 tackle-breaks and 132 metres per game.
Plays To Watch: Melbourne’s ‘big three’ are involved in most good things that the Storm does with the ball in hand but there is one well-known play that shows them at their brilliant best – Cooper Cronk’s inside ball. The play has become a common theme in Melbourne games but knowing it might be coming and stopping it when it happens are two very different things. Usually put together on the right edge, hooker Cameron Smith and Cronk will look for a quick play-the-ball and when the opportunity arises, Smith will fire a pass out to Cronk on the right. He will then quickly fire a short ball back on the inside to a flying Billy Slater who will steam through a gap should the defence fail to adjust quickly enough.
Key Match-Up: Cooper Cronk v Daly Cherry-Evans. If there is one man who can cause headaches for the Storm it is DCE. Playing on the right edge, the impressive young halfback has worked hard on his running game in 2013 – adding it to an attacking repertoire that includes top-quality kicking and passing games. He is also familiar with Melbourne’s ‘big three’ having been part of Mal Meninga’s emerging Origin squad for the past two years. And he will need to be at his best against the best No.7 in the business. Cronk controls a game better than anyone else in the NRL and will be looking to remind everyone of his quality this weekend.
Where It Will Be Won: The ruck defence of both of these sides will be crucial, particularly for Manly given Melbourne’s penchant for dominating opponents in the tackle. The Sea Eagles will have to work hard to win that battle but likewise, they’ve shown the ability to do just that in the past and with Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans waiting on each side they certainly have the ability to punish if the chance arises.
The History: Played 23; Storm 13, Sea Eagles 10. The Storm have won five of the past nine clashes and have won the only two occasions the sides have met at AAMI Park – including a 40-12 pasting in their Grand Final qualifier last year.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Nick Beashel; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Storm v Sea Eagles clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7pm.
The Way We See It: Two sides not quite at their best but we expect them to turn up the heat against their old rivals this week. The challenge for Manly is overcoming an injury toll that just keeps rising and with two props down and their star fullback missing it won’t be easy. The Storm lost their last game at AAMI Park but it’s hard to see that happening again with all their big guns there. If they’ve lacked desire the past two weeks they won’t against the Sea Eagles. Storm by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats