Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Warriors v Storm
Mt Smart Stadium
What a game this promises to be! Having endured a truly horrible 2012 season and a worryingly similar start in 2013, the Warriors have dramatically turned their fortunes around over the past month and could move into the top eight for the first time this year with a win over premiers Melbourne.
That they have been in the bottom half of the ladder for all 19 rounds so far this season doesn’t sound like a great rap for the form they’ve displayed, but consider this: After Round 10, when they suffered an embarrassing 62-6 loss to Penrith, the Warriors sat in equal last spot on the NRL ladder with just two wins, eight losses and a for-and-against of -133. Since then they’ve won six out of seven – including all three games at Mt Smart Stadium – and can count premiership heavyweights Sydney Roosters, Manly and Newcastle among their scalps.
So a home game against the Storm looms as a mouth-watering prospect for all rugby league fans. Most pleasing has been the return of the Warriors’ famed attacking game which took them all the way to the 2011 grand final. Led by halfback Shaun Johnson, the Auckland club has made a habit of scoring spectacular tries and are the masters of making opponents pay for offering up broken-play situations.
Despite all of that, the Warriors’ season is still very much on the line and they will need to continue their recent surge to steal a finals spot in 2013. No doubt they will see this week’s clash as both an opportunity and a serious test of their credentials.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy has witnessed some wild fluctuations in his side’s form of late but will be pleased to finally have the draining representative season behind him.
With star trio Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk back in the mix, they will be looking to build towards their premiership defence with a tough win against the Warriors a great way to start.
Still, there are some pieces missing and it will be interesting to see how they fill the void. Forget their 39-0 loss to Canterbury last start – that was the result of being so down on troops thanks to Origin III – but with five-eighth Gareth Widdop sidelined for the year they will need Brett Finch to fire. And rep season or not, Bellamy will be concerned that his side have dropped three of their past four.
The Warriors have made one forced change, with Ngani Laumape coming into the side on the right wing in place of the injured Glen Fisiiahi.
The Storm welcome back their four Origin stars with Brett Finch moving from halfback to five-eighth, Maurice Blair returning to the centres and Justin O’Neill shifting to the wing in place of Mahe Fonua. Tim Glasby and Ben Hampton have been named as the extra men on an extended bench.
Storm fullback Billy Slater needs just two more tries to become the eighth player of all time to score 150 career tries. Doing so would go a long way towards his side avoiding four consecutive ‘away’ losses for the first time since 2010.
Watch Out Warriors: The Warriors’ kicking game will have to be at its absolute best this week because Melbourne’s back three are among the best in the NRL when it comes to getting a set off to a good start. Fullback Slater is the most dangerous in the competition, averaging 136 metres and making 14 line-breaks with 51 tackle-breaks while Sisa Waqa and Justin O’Neill are averaging 127 and 102 metres respectively.
Watch Out Storm: It is the individual brilliance of Shaun Johnson that won the Warriors last week’s game against Wests Tigers and he remains one man who can spoil Melbourne’s best laid plans. The zippy half is lightning-quick off the mark and always dangerous when snooping around the big men in centre-field, so the Storm will need to stay awake to the threat he poses whenever he has the ball in hand.
Plays To Watch: The cross-field bomb to Manu Vatuvei – one of the NRL’s best under the high ball – on the left and the early pass to Konrad Hurrell on the right. Hurrell is almost impossible to stop when at full pace and the Warriors will look to isolate a defender before letting him loose.
Billy Slater is the man to keep an eye on for Melbourne. Watch for the inside ball from Cooper Cronk, as well as the chip back inside for Slater storming towards the posts.
Where It Will Be Won: Whoever holds firmest in defence will prevail here because one thing both sides can expect is to have plenty thrown at them. Melbourne’s big three will test the Warriors around the rucks but likewise Shaun Johnson will look to run the Melbourne forwards ragged. Back-rower Feleti Mateo is also a danger man if allowed to offload the football at will. Mateo leads the NRL for offloads this season with 45.
The History: Played 32; Storm 17, Warriors 13, drawn 2. The Warriors have recorded the second most wins by any club over Melbourne (behind only Canterbury). A total of 12 of the 15 clashes between these two sides at Mt Smart have been decided by 10 points or less.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
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 Warriors v Storm clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 12pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The Warriors have a proud history against the Storm and we’re going to go for a slight upset again this week with the home side having the goods. They will have to defend well against Melbourne’s big three but in the Mt Smart cauldron and brimming with confidence we can see them causing the Storm problems. Warriors by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.