If these two sides had met at this stage of last season it would have been to decide the minor premiership. And while the JJ Giltinan Shield may not be on the line here, the match still carries monumental importance.
The 2008 grand final rematch comes with the Storm in the midst of what you might label ‘patchy’ form; consequently their position in the top four is now under threat. Meanwhile the reigning premiers are in danger of missing the post-season altogether!
Considering their formidable record at home, the retention of home-field advantage for the finals should be – and will be – foremost on the Melbourne minds, while the Manly boys are well aware of the precarious nature of their sixth-spot ranking.
The Sea Eagles do have the benefit of a reasonably healthy points differential, however a loss here could easily see them taking up rung 10 on the ladder at the end of the round!
All of this, plus a rivalry so intense it can only come from being recent grand final opponents, adds up to a sensational Sunday afternoon match-up which should get a huge audience both in Melbourne and on the box.
The Storm are still coming to terms with the Greg Inglis drama and must back up from Monday night’s loss in Newcastle to the Knights.
Coach Craig Bellamy has remained faithful to the side, with injury forcing a small change as
Matthew Cross is out. Aiden Tolman comes into the back row to start and Ryan Tandy joins the bench.
The Manly side comes to town with the same bunch of guys who smashed the Roosters, with the addition of Glenn Hall totalling a squad of 18.
Watch out Storm: Manly have been tinkering a little with combinations throughout the year but they may have finally figured it out with the inclusion of Kieran Foran in their side. It allows Jamie Lyon to play wider and puts Chris Bailey in the forwards where he can worry less about playmaking.
In his five games this season Foran already has three line breaks and three tries and with a little more confidence he could be a great secondary option to Matt Orford.
The Sea Eagles’ captain will no doubt start to trust Foran more and more as he continues to be part of the fabric. The Storm will obviously spend more time trying to combat Orford’s influence – but they shouldn’t relax on Foran, as the youngster will surprise them.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Billy Slater has sounded a little ominous in the press and with the realisation he needs to pick up some of the Inglis slack one gets the feeling he is about to have one of those screamers he produces every so often.
Slater is always a big part of the Storm’s fortunes but when he has a ‘wow’ game, Melbourne usually win – and win well. So far this year he is averaging 120 metres a match, has 13 line breaks, 15 line-break assists, nine tries, 15 try assists and 107 tackle breaks. With a little bit more time to get his head around the extra playmaking responsibilities Slater will be focussed – and this spells danger for the Sea Eagles.
Manly should try to limit his influence by first not kicking directly to the custodian; and second by getting up in his face every time he joins the backline. When his time is limited he can be bustled into a mistake.
Where it will be won: These two teams can win matches with their defence alone and it is exactly what they’ll need come Sunday afternoon. Both can manufacture points when they need to and both have individual brilliance scattered throughout their sides to crack a game open with one play, so it will be all about staying committed to defence for the entire 80 minutes.
In raw data terms the Melbourne defence has been the better this season, leaking 324 points (15.4 a game) compared to the Sea Eagles’ 423 (20.1 a game). The Storm are effective in defence on 88.4 per cent of the time, the Sea Eagles 85.7 per cent with just over 100 more missed tackles than Melbourne.
But when the Sea Eagles decide to focus hard on the defensive tasks, they are certainly capable of matching the Storm. We will get a real feel for how serious each side is defensively in the opening exchanges.
The side prepared to use defence as attack will be enthusiastic about getting up hard and meeting the runners at the advantage line. This could well set the tone of the entire 80 minutes – so buckle up for an intense opening 10.
The history: Played 15; Storm 9, Sea Eagles 6. The Storm took down the Sea Eagles 22-8 at Brookvale Oval earlier this season and have won four of the past five but the game they did lose was last year’s grand final… and that was 40-0! The Manly side will have to break a hoodoo to win though: in the five matches between the clubs at Olympic Park, Melbourne has won them all.
Conclusion: The Sea Eagles should be more desperate but the Storm knows all about momentum at this stage of a season. And the last thing they want is to be looking at back-to-back losses!
With a great record against Manly at Olympic Park the home side is the more obvious tip – but no-one will fault you if you fancy the Sea Eagles.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Brett Suttor; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 8.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.