William Botoulas, Melbourne Correspondent, NRL.com
Storm v Sharks
One team is limping to the line whilst the other is desperately trying to make something of its 2014 campaign.
Melbourne missed a chance to go a game clear in fifth spot on the weekend when it surrendered a 10-point lead with three minutes to play against the Knights.
The 30-32 loss leaves Craig Bellamy’s side in seventh position with only a favourable points differential separating them and the ninth-placed Eels.
What could have been though for the Sharks… If Pat Politoni had passed to Michael Gordon for the winning try Cronulla would have cleared itself from the wooden spoon position for at least the time being.
But he chose to take the tackle and the history books will show the gallant Sharks lost to the Warriors 12-16.
If there was one positive to take out of it for Cronulla, they did hold New Zealand scoreless in the second half, quite an achievement against an opposition that had averaged 30 points in their previous five games.
The Sharks are quite literally limping to the line. Andrew Fifita (broken arm) has joined a significant injury list that has had their forgettable 2014 seasons come to a premature end.
Their big-man stocks took a further blow, with former Storm player Sam Tagataese hit with a Grade 3 Dangerous Throw charge.
Captain Paul Gallen has been named in the team after missing last week with a virus, while Tim Robinson and Matt Prior have been promoted to the 13.
Craig Bellamy persists with the same starting side and Jordan McLean is named on the bench after being a late withdrawal last week with a hamstring concern.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 23
Watch Out Storm: Old habits die hard? – For the first time since 2006 the Storm have conceded more than 400 points in an NRL season. They let in 32 points against the Knights. In their previous four games combined they allowed just 34.
Their defence has been found out this season but until last week seemed to be on the improve. Was Saturday just a lapse or a move back to old habits?
Penalty pain – It is fair to say Craig Bellamy was vocal about the unfavourable 7-nil penalty count his team endured in the second half against Newcastle. Perhaps that 40-minute stretch was the final straw for the mastercoach. Melbourne have been on the wrong side of the penalty count in their past five games and has been ahead of the count in just five of 20 games this season. For the record Ashley Klein is not listed to referee any game this weekend with Matt Cecchin to take charge at AAMI Park.
Watch Out Sharks: Depleted Sharkies – If you compare that Cronulla 13 that started the game on the weekend compared to the 13 named way back in Round 1 you get a sense of just how gutted this side is. Just four of 13 players named to start in that opening game were there for kick-off against the Warriors last week. You cannot help but forgive those at the Shire for counting the days until they can put this 2014 season behind them.
All the wrong ways – If you are a Sharks fan unfortunately stats have not been your friend this season. After going three straight games mid-season without scoring it is no surprise they have scored the fewest tries of any team, seven less than the next worst (Titans). Also no team has conceded more metres than the Sharks. In fact Cronulla have allowed 1,480 metres than any other side in 2014.
Plays To Watch: Will Chambers – This year’s Maroons debutant has hit a purple patch of form after the Origin period. In the last three weeks Chambers has notched a combined 555 metres and has built a dangerous partnership with Sisa Waqa on the right edge.
Sisa Waqa – Four tries, 176 metres and three line breaks last week; that isn’t a bad day at the office and has proven his side’s biggest attacking threat in recent weeks.
Michael Gordon – Perhaps the only shining light in a dismal season, Gordon is the only Shark to have played every game this season. He is their equal leading try scorer and leads his side in line breaks making him Cronulla’s greatest attacking threat.
Where It Will be Won: Possession Count – On paper the Storm look to be the vastly superior team with bigger names across the park. Should they be gifted too much possession their stars will have a field day with the Cronulla defence.
However Melbourne did look vulnerable when the Knights had the ball in hand, surrendering valuable metres in the middle of the field. It is vital the Sharks control the football and territory to minimise the amount of time the ball finds its way into the creative hands of Cooper Cronk.
History: Played 26; Storm 17, Sharks 9. Melbourne have won seven of the past eight meeting between these two teams.
What Are The Odds:
Melbourne opened at $1.20 but that was snapped up almost straight away and the Storm will start as the shortest priced favourite of the round. The money on them to win by 13+ has been phenomenal, but expected given the massive injury toll at the Sharks. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee – Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Rickey MacFarlane & Anthony Eliott; Video Referees – Alan Shortall & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 5.30pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: Even with a full squad available the test would perhaps prove too great for the visitors. Too depleted and with one eye on the finish line the Sharks will be hit by a Storm side that will have seven days to stew on last week’s embarrassment. Storm by 30-12.