Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Wests Tigers v Storm
You’ve got to give the Tigers credit for hanging in there. Since their seven-match losing streak they have won three out of four games. And each of those wins has been a real battle. They beat the Cowboys 22-20 at Leichhardt Oval, the Panthers 20-18 at Centrebet Stadium and most recently the Raiders, 17-12 in the pouring rain at Campbelltown Stadium last Saturday. Two rounds back came their only recent loss, 32-12 against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium.
The Tigers have had to battle against an enormous injury toll for most of the season, and whenever they start to get players back others seem to get hurt, so the balance never seems to shift in their favour. Star hooker Robbie Farah has been one of those players out injured recently, but hopefully he will be able to back up for them after playing for NSW in State of Origin II. Star five-eighth Benji Marshall has been battling a form slump, but he was better against the Raiders.
The Storm are always vulnerable during the Origin period, and last Monday against the Titans they were without fullback Billy Slater, halfback Cooper Cronk, hooker Cameron Smith and second-rower Ryan Hoffman when they went down 18-12 on the road against the Titans. Hopefully for the Storm, all four of those players will be able to back up from Origin II, but the Storm will have to do without five-eighth Gareth Widdop after he suffered a season-ending dislocated hip against the Titans.
After opening the season with a seven-game winning streak, the Storm went a three-game stretch in which they lost two and drew one, but since then they beat the Roosters on the road (26-18), and the Sharks (38-6) and Knights (16-14), both at home, before losing to the Titans. They were without Cronk when they had to come from behind to snatch that win against the Knights, in another clear indication of how important the “big three” – Slater, Smith and Cronk – are to their cause.
James Tedesco returns at fullback for the Tigers, replacing Sean Meaney. Chris Lawrence, having returned from injury on the bench against the Raiders, is back in the starting side in the centres, with Joel Reddy moving to the second-row. Farah is back for Masada Iosefa, and Aaron Woods returns from State of Origin duty for NSW to start at prop. Ava Seumanufagai and Bodene Thompson both drop to what is a five-man bench.
Slater, Cronk, Smith and Hoffman have all been named to start for the Storm. Brett Finch moves from half to five-eighth for Widdop. Hinchliffe moves from hooker to lock. Jason Ryles, Tohu Harris and Ben Hampton all drop to what is a seven-man bench.
Watch Out Wests Tigers: Raw-boned, wide-running Storm second-rower Kevin Proctor has been getting the offload going recently. He’s such a difficult player to tackle that he can stay up long enough to possibly get the ball away if he’s not going to break the tackle himself. Proctor played his first 80-minute game of the season against the Titans, and despite the loss he excelled with 14 runs for 124 metres, one line-break, two offloads and 32 tackles.
Watch Out Storm: Presuming Woods is able to back up from Origin, expect him to lead the way up front for the Tigers. He’s big, he’s tall, he’s strong, he’s powerful and he’s got a great attitude, and the Origin experience will just make him better. Woods is so hard to pull down he has come up with 19 offloads in 13 games this season. Plus, he has run for over 100 metres 11 times, including five 150-plus games and a best of 202.
Plays To Watch: Tigers centre Blake Ayshford has been back from injury for two games now, and their other centre, Lawrence, returned against the Raiders. They know how to combine with Marshall and Farah. They know what to expect from those playmakers inside the red zone. Expect them to make a connection.
Tohu Harris, after playing for 80 minutes against the Titans, is back on the bench for this one because of Ryan Hoffman’s return, but that could suit him. Harris hasn’t offloaded recently, but he came up with four early in the season, and the Tigers can be slack in defence. He might catch them tired.
Key Match-Up: If the forward battle is reasonably even, then the halves will sort it out from there because each of the four players involved can make something big happen. Veteran Finch is back at five-eighth for the Storm, alongside Cronk. And for the Tigers it’s Marshall, having had a boost with an improved game against the Raiders, and young buck Curtis Sironen. This game is not going to reach the finish line without one or more of that quartet having a huge say in the result.
Where It Will Be Won: Commitment to defence is obviously important in every game, but in some games the level of importance goes off the dial. If you don’t commit everything you’ve got in defence to the 80 minutes against the Storm, you can forget about winning because they will get you, somewhere. The Tigers had a night off in defence against the Broncos two rounds back. They can’t afford anything even remotely like that again here. Tackle your hearts out against the Storm and at least you’ve got a chance.
The History: Played 23; Storm 15, Tigers 8. They have played at Leichhardt nine times, for six wins to the Tigers and three to the Storm, but the Storm have won the past two there – 26-6 last year and 12-4 in 2011.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Grant Atkins; Sideline officials – Luke Potter & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Matt Rodwell.
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The Way We See It: The Tigers rate as very dangerous in this game, with Marshall in better form, Farah and Woods back from Origin and Lawrence and Ayshford in the centres. The Storm have lost Widdop, but still have their big three. The Tigers need Leichhardt to be pumping to help them get the win. It promises to be close, but the Storm have handled this daunting venue well in recent years. Storm by four points.