Every week there are renewed calls for Central Coast fans to be given a team of their own to cheer on – but when they are given games of this caliber every couple of weeks, who needs the Central Coast Bears?
As Melbourne surge back into premiership favouritism, and the Bulldogs lick their wounds from last Friday night’s highly controversial finish against the Dragons, Gosford fans will be treated to an absolute humdinger.
Melbourne’s attack has been hammered on a weekly basis this season, and with former Storm rookie of the year and new Broncos recruit Israel Folau leading the NRL in tries it was no doubt something which was beginning to eat at coach Craig Bellamy. But that evaporated every time the men in purple crossed the try line for another ‘meat pie’ against Canberra last Monday.
However, they will face a serious test against the men in blue and white – because no team has improved more since last year than the Bulldogs.
From a year where they were last in points scored, last in tries scored, last in metres gained, second-last in tackle-breaks and second-last in errors committed, the Bulldogs’ transformation has been truly remarkable.
In 2009 they rank in the top five for points, tries, line breaks and tackle breaks – Kevin Moore, take a bow.
The home team will have the same starting line-up as the one that pushed the Dragons right to the final whistle, however Buddy Gorden and John Kite had been added to the bench at the expense of Jarrad Hickey, who has been down on form since his return from a serious back injury. Daniel Holdsworth remains in jersey 19 as the Bulldogs monitor the fitness of impressive five-eighth Ben Roberts (leg).
Melbourne enter this game with an unchanged line-up, although Central Coast back-rower Hep Cahill has been added onto an extended bench as cover for Sika Manu, who collapsed after the Storm’s Monday night victory.
Watch out Bulldogs: Melbourne’s attack is back. It took 10 rounds, but the team everyone in the NRL fears has finally woken from their off-season slumber – thanks in no small part to the impact mid-season recruit Brett Finch has had on the team. While they have still only scored 33 tries this season, well down on where they have been in previous years, it is a fair reminder that one quarter of those tries came in Round 10 with Finch on board.
And while Billy Slater was explosive against the Raiders, to truly understand Finch’s impact on the Storm, simply look at the form of their previous no.6. Greg Inglis was dynamic in Round 1, but loafed through the rest of the matches until Finch turned up. Since Finch’s signing, Inglis has made five line breaks and scored two tries. GI’s contest with his opposite, Jamal Idris, will be worth the price of entry alone.
Idris will be a star in his own right, but he is still a rookie, and defensively can be a liability – he is averaging two missed tackles per match. Don’t be surprised to see Inglis’ right-hand fend emerge early in the game. It would make sense to get on the Queensland star, or his outside man Joe Tomane, for first try scorer.
Watch out Storm: Between the kicking games of Brett Kimmorley and hooker Michael Ennis, the Bulldogs trail only the Dragons in terms of metres gained through kicks this season. They find open space on more occasions than any team, other than the Dragons, and this will be key to keeping Billy Slater quiet.
Slater averages more than 10 metres every kick return – because of his ability to reach kicks on the full. If Kimmorley and Ennis continue to find green grass with their long kicks, then the Storm will start every set of six on the back foot.
Where it will be won: The kicking games of the star halfbacks. Cooper Cronk found his edge again against Canberra, picking up three try assists and reigniting his short-kicking game. He will have to be sharp though, as the Bulldogs’ back three have been arguably the best this season at defusing attacking kicks – 79 per cent of the time a kick goes up, it is defused by Luke Patten, Bryson Goodwin or Jamal Idris (who switches with Hazem El Masri).
Meanwhile Kimmorley has been the star for the ’Dogs all year round. Kimmorley (17 tackle-breaks) has found the right balance between a running game and organisation this year.
Also don’t miss the battle between Ben Hannant and Jeff Lima. Both forwards have amassed over 1200 metres already this year and are regarded as two of the best in the business. And they’re in rare try-scoring form too!
The History: The Bulldogs hold a slight edge historically, winning just over half of the 22 matches played, however Melbourne’s recent form is ominous. They have won the previous five clashes – and by some margins too. The combined totals of the past five times these two teams have played comes out to 171-38. Brutal stuff.
Conclusion: The Bulldogs will be fired up to reverse last week’s result, and they have the personnel to make a real dent on this competition, but without a parochial home crowd support (the Gosford fans are unlikely to support one team more than the other), they have foregone a huge advantage.
Take the Storm on the presumption that they continue to play the aggressive attacking football which blew the Raiders away so convincingly.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne, Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics NRL Stats