Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
Storm v Warriors
It appears only the unpredictable nature of rugby league could thwart the Storm from extending their club record NRL winning streak to 15 games in the Victorian capital on Thursday night – but if any team is capable of unleashing a surprise, quantum-leap turnaround in form it’s this week’s opponents from across the ditch.
Melbourne have wrapped themselves in superlatives all season, disposing of all-comers but more importantly securing victories despite at times being ‘outplayed’ on the stats sheets – their 17-10 defeat of South Sydney a fortnight ago a case in point.
The Storm nabbed the competition points in Round 6 despite playing with five fewer sets of possession and making almost twice as many errors and missed tackles as the Rabbitohs. But when it mattered, their defence delivered, and their attack sparkled. It’s the reason they rank top of the NRL pile for points scored (26.5) and tries scored (4.7), while conceding the fourth-fewest points (14.3).
Meanwhile their Anzac Day opponents the Warriors are already teetering on the brink of irrelevance when it comes to semi-finals calculations. Their dismal 1-5 start to the season has been further complicated by injuries to captain Simon Mannering (calf), centre Dane Nielsen (ribs) and strike winger Manu Vatuvei (sternum).
In a reshuffle, coach Matt Elliott has shifted Ngani Laumape from wing to centre to cover for Nielsen, with Bill Tupou taking Laumape’s spot on the flank. Glen Fisiiahi returns on the other wing for Vatuvei (sternum).
Sam Rapira has been promoted to start at prop, with Ben Matulino reverting to the bench, while Ben Henry replaces Mannering in the second row. Elijah Taylor, Jacob Lillyman and Pita Godinet are the new aces on the interchange, with Jerome Ropati named 18th man.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy has just the one change to his run-on side, with Tohu Harris to start at lock for the injured Ryan Hinchcliffe (knee). Kenneath Bromwich, Junior Moors, Slade Griffin, Maurice Blair and Justin O’Neill are the new faces on this week’s extended interchange which numbers seven at this stage.
Watch Out Storm: The Warriors’ best chance of springing an upset victory will come if they throw the ball around like a hot potato. Clearly their ball-runners have struggled to assert themselves through the centre of the ruck, with the players registering the fewest tackle busts by any team (just 19).
However, improvement in their already prolific offloading game (11.8 per game – fourth most) could create opportunities for their little men Johnson and Locke to weave through the centre of the field or else speed around the defence out wide. Locke will be a threat offloading too – he has made eight to date, the most by a fullback. Expect the unexpected from this pair.
Watch Out Warriors: If the NZ crew don’t find a way to work the ball downfield, and also resist the multitude of Storm attacking options, it could be a long evening for coach Matt Elliott.
Worryingly the Warriors rank dead last for gaining territory with just 1187 metres a match (Storm seventh with 1365.5) and they rank next to last for yielding ground with 1435.8 metres an outing (Storm fourth fewest with 1285.5 metres). Doing the maths that means the Warriors are conceding 298.8 metres to opponents every week – while the Storm are making 80 metres more than their opponents every week!
Plays To Watch: Cooper Cronk’s chip kicks for his flying fullback Slater; Feleti Mateo’s offloads (15 to date, third most in the league); Kevin Proctor’s wrecking ball charges on the right edge; Konrad Hurrell busting the line – his five line-breaks are the second most by a centre; Gareth Widdop scheming and darting down the left edge, showing why the Dragons opened their wallets for him for a reported $2 million four-year contract from 2014.
Key Match-Up: Billy Slater v Shaun Johnson. They may not wear the same jersey numbers but the off-the-cuff brilliance of these stars will undoubtedly be at the forefront of their team’s ability keep the scoreboard ticking over.
What more can we say about Billy Slater? His combinations with Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and also Gareth Widdop are grease-like smooth and his ability to turn modest opportunities into a goldmine of points is unparalleled in the NRL. Slater has crossed for four tries already and his six line-breaks are the benchmark by a fullback in 2013.
Meanwhile Johnson’s mercurial running game continues to provide value to his team’s attack – his 18 tackle-breaks are the most by any No.7 to date. He also has three try assists, two tries and two line busts to his name. Expect him to look to spark something with a drifting, lateral run, showing the ball inside and out before putting the foot down and running himself or else throwing a cut-out ball to his wingers.
Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. The Storm haven’t put a foot wrong so far – but all it will take to fracture their record winning run is for them lose focus. With their season effectively on the line here the Warriors should be switched on from the get-go and rip into their work with force and purpose. The Storm need to match that intensity, or else they could find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard early and dazed about what has unfolded.
The History: Played 31; Storm 16, Warriors 13, drawn 2. The Storm have won six of the past 10 games between the sides, including both encounters in 2012. However, the Warriors hold a 2-1 advantage in matches played at AAMI Park.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Russell Turner; Video
Referees – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: It will rank as the upset of 2013 if the Warriors are able to overcome the Storm without the likes of Mannering and Vatuvei, and on Melbourne’s patch (despite their good record). Expect a convincing victory to the home side. Melbourne by 16 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.