You would think Melbourne have too much to play for in this clash – a top-four finish and much-needed momentum going into the finals just two things that should help propel them to victory. The Sharks, on the other hand, are well out of finals contention and sit at the bottom of the table (just above the Roosters) with 14 points.
But history shows the lads from the Shire rise to the occasion at Olympic Park – their controversial 17-16 victory last year one example – and the Storm should be prepared for one almighty challenge. Last week the reigning premiers, Manly, found that despite the injuries and dramas the Sharks have suffered this year, they’re still giving their all. This might be closer than we think…
Watch out Storm: The Sharks’ back three of Nathan Stapleton, Blake Ferguson and Luke Covell are in good form and have provided plenty of highlights for long-suffering Sharks fans in 2009.
Stapleton (eight games, three tries, 32 tackle breaks and seven line breaks) has been electric at fullback after replacing the injured Brett Kearney earlier this season. Ferguson (15 games, seven tries, 66 tackle breaks and seven line breaks) has also proved a handful, in particular against the Broncos where his remarkable Houdini effort saw him score a try from well outside the field of play.
Covell is another Shark who’s come on in leaps and bounds this season. After scoring his 1000th point last week, the sharpshooter will be full of confidence. Watch for his right-hand fend to help make inroads when he gets the ball.
Watch out Sharks: The Storm are wounded after a disappointing display against the Eels last round and will be eager to get their season back on track. There’s simply too much class in their team to fall short of the mark for too many games this season – with players of the calibre of Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith, it’s easy to see why they’ve been arguably the most consistent side of the decade.
Last week Smith (15 games, one try, 72 points, 27 tackle breaks, five try assists and five line break assists) was heavily missed – his return will provide direction for his team. Coupled with creative halves Finch (two line breaks and six line-break assists) and Cronk (seven line breaks and seven line-break assists), and it’s obvious why the outside backs like Inglis, Slater and centre Will Chambers often run riot.
Where it will be won: The battle of the hookers will have a big influence over the outcome of this match.
Everyone who knows anything about rugby league understands how important representative hooker Cameron Smith is to the Storm (shown by their loss last week with him on the sidelines) – but if the Sharks’ hooker, Corey Hughes, can use his experience to get under his guard Cronulla might just be able to cause an upset.
Expect Sharks coach Ricky Stuart to give Hughes (one line break, three line-break assists and four try assists) a similar game plan to what was given to NSW Blues hooker Michael Ennis in Origin III. Watch for Hughes to spoil the passing game of Smith whenever he’s defending at marker and apply constant pressure to the Storm rake. Who knows – he might just be a little underdone after a week off and a loss in the last game he played. The Sharks can only hope.
The history: Played 19; Storm 11, Sharks 8. In last year’s grand final qualifier the Storm smashed the Sharks 28-0 at the SFS. Could this be time for the Sharks to hand back some revenge?
Conclusion: The Storm are the better team on paper and have better form entering this clash, despite their loss last week. They have the finals to prepare for and the Sharks do not.
This match should mean more to the home team… but don’t write off the Sharks. They even have the upper hand at Olympic Park (four wins to three). But it’s difficult to tip against the home side so it’s Storm by 10 for me.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Steve Clark.
Televised: Fox Sports – Delayed from 9.20pm.