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Storm v Titans preview

Melbourne Storm v Gold Coast Titans
AAMI Park
Friday, 7.45pm

Are Melbourne storming back to top form and ready to regain premiership favouritism? Is the Titans’ hot run – and push for the finals – coming to an abrupt end? There are many questions that will be answered in this clash, just one of several Round 23 battles that will have a huge bearing on the ultimate make-up of the top eight.

After just two losses through the first 15 rounds of the competition, the Storm firmed solidly in 2012’s title betting… then, inexplicably, they lost five matches in a row, including to the lowly Raiders and Eels. However, last week signs emerged they might have just overcome their slump, thumping the Panthers 46-6. They currently sit in third position on 30 competition points – a win here will help shore up a top-four finish, a home finals match and a second bite at the premiership cherry.

The Titans, on the other hand, suffered a poor start to the season, winning just two of their first nine matches. Since Round 10, however, they’ve won seven of 11 to keep their finals flame flickering. Last week the Rabbitohs ended their three-match winning streak, pipping them 22-18. The narrow but competitive loss saw the Gold Coast slip out of the top eight – they currently sit in ninth position on 22 points, two behind the enigmatic Wests Tigers.

Melbourne have named an 18-man squad for this match, with Rory Kostjasyn added to the line-up that beat the Panthers last week.

The Titans, meanwhile, have named Blues forward Greg Bird in their 18-man squad. If he gets on the field it will be the first time since Round 13 the Gold Coast have enjoyed the services of all three of their representative players.

Watch Out Storm: The Gold Coast, somewhat surprisingly, have a better record on the road than at home. Not only do the Titans win more games away from home (six on the road compared with three at home), they also score more points (19.7 compared with 17.4) and concede less (16.6 compared with 21.1).

William Zillman has really made the No.1 jersey his during the back half of 2012 – he’s proving a headache for oppositions week to week, averaging 132 metres a match with almost five tackle-breaks to boot.

Danger Sign: In 2012 the Titans have already conquered the Cowboys, Sea Eagles, Raiders and Bulldogs on the road – arguably the four most difficult road trips in the NRL. If they get a good start in this match, there’s no doubt they’ll start to believe they can withstand the Storm on the road, too.

Watch Out Titans: Melbourne have scored 110 points in their past three games against the Gold Coast. They’re entering this game on the back of a strong attacking performance, too. The Storm went into half-time against the Panthers up 34-0 – their second best effort heading into a break. Their brilliant opening 40 minutes featured six unanswered line-breaks, 25 tackle-breaks and 217 per cent more running metres than their opponents.

The Smith-Cronk-Slater combo manufactured two scintillating tries through the centre of the field last week. The Titans will need to have their wits about them to prevent it happening again.

Danger Sign: The Titans defuse just 43 per cent of cross-field kicks (the second worst in the competition). Melbourne will naturally look to take advantage – they kick diagonally across the park (67) on more occasions than any other team in the competition. The Storm are also one of the most dangerous teams in the competition off the boot – they have already scored 22 tries from kicks this season, behind just the Bulldogs (with 23).

Cooper Cronk v Scott Prince: The two halfbacks are the lynchpins for their side’s attack – a strong performance from either player usually indicates a strong team performance, too. The Storm’s No.7 will no doubt be looking to return to consistently strong form after some disappointing outings in his team’s five-match losing streak. The secret to his success has always been his passing and kicking games – and how they keep opponents guessing. (He’s ranked second in the competition for line-break assists so far with 21.) Prince at his best is one of the competition’s most damaging playmakers. Can he rekindle his form of yesteryear and spark the Titans’ finals flames?

Where It Will Be Won: The territory gains of both teams is remarkably similar – the Titans make 1375 metres per match, compared with the Storm’s 1376 metres, and concede 1338 metres compared with the Storm’s 1345 metres. The real story of the season so far comes from their line-breaks and missed-tackles stats. Melbourne’s strong position on the ladder is reflected by their 4.8 line-breaks and just 26.5 missed tackles per game. The Gold Coast’s mediocre season, meanwhile, is shown in their so-so 4.2 line-breaks per match and a poor 33.6 missed-tackles record. If the Gold Coast can bridge this gap they’re in with a chance of causing a major upset.

The History: Played 8; Storm 5, Titans 3. There has been only one match played between these two teams at AAMI Park, with the Storm winning 40-12 in 2011.

Last Time They Met: It was all Melbourne in their clash with the Titans in Round 3 earlier this year.

Billy Slater showed why he’s the most dangerous attacking player in rugby league with a dynamic display at the back that tore the Titans apart. The Queensland and Australian No.1 scored two tries – one an amazing, athletic, thief-in-the-night effort just millimetres short of the dead-ball line – to turn the tide and give Melbourne the ascendancy.

The first half was an arm wrestle – Melbourne entering the break up just 4-0 – before Slater’s athletic efforts got the Storm brewing.

Amazingly, the Storm raced to a 30-6 victory despite conceding an additional 113 metres in total runs throughout the match. However the line-breaks (seven to one) and missed-tackles (nine compared with 27) statistics proved the visiting team’s dominance.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Henry Perenara; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: After a woeful five-match losing streak the Storm seem to have finally come good. With the finals just a month away, it’s hard to imagine them slipping away once again. The Titans, however, love underdog status and will no doubt receive a huge boost if Bird does in fact make it back onto the field. If he does the Titans are still a hope. The home side, though, should have too much attacking strike-power with Cam Smith, Slater, Cronk and co. Melbourne by eight… although given those recent poor performances from the Storm we’re far from certain.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm GEM (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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