Rugby league’s greatest modern-day rivalry resumes with a fierce encounter at Etihad Stadium that could have drastic repercussions for either side should they lose.
With the seventh-placed Knights given a fair chance of upsetting the Bulldogs in Brett Kimmorley’s absence, and the resurgent sixth-placed Broncos dominant favourites in betting markets to account for the Titans, a loss by the fifth-placed Sea Eagles or fourth-ranked Storm would see them out the back door in 2009.
Given that, there’s no doubt coach Des Hasler will have his charges primed and focused for this.
Likewise, Craig Bellamy.
The Storm enter this on the back of two wins, including a 30-nil shutout of the Warriors in New Zealand. Before that they thrashed the Roosters 38-4.
They’ll line up the same as last week, providing second-rower Adam Blair beats his contrary conduct charge at the judiciary.
Meanwhile the Sea Eagles may enter this battle without brilliant game-breaker Jamie Lyon, who remains troubled by a shoulder injury. Now, while we don’t doubt Lyon is injured, we also suspect Des Hasler could be playing a few mind games and, given the importance of the game, don’t be surprised to see Lyon on deck.
Watch out Storm: Anthony Watmough – Dally M Second-Rower of the Year and a strike weapon Craig Bellamy rated highly during Origin this year – is the danger man. The dynamic back-rower provides huge impact around the park – he’s averaging 16 hit-ups a game, makes 24 tackles and offloads almost 2.5 times a match. His 138 tackle breaks rank him the most damaging open-play runner in the NRL, while his 13 line breaks are the most by any Sea Eagle.
Watmough presents a huge try-scoring threat; he has tremendous vision and knows when to time his run through the ruck, picking up passes from ball-players like Matt Orford (22 try assists) or offloads from other forwards like Glenn Stewart (21), Chris Bailey (19) or Josh Perry (14). To counter that the Storm will need to ensure they wrap up the ball carrier in the centre of the park.
And Brett Stewart, just two games back from a long break, needs to be monitored closely. He has proven a real thorn in the Storm’s side in recent years and will be ‘up’ for a strong performance.
Watch out Sea Eagles: Billy Slater has had a quiet year by his great standards – which means he could be ready to explode.
Also Greg Inglis showed great form last week, scoring a wonderful 60-metre try from dummy-half. Right-side defending centre Ben Farrar will need to improve on his 80 per cent tackle effectiveness if he’s a chance of keeping the newly crowned Dally M International Player of the Year quiet.
On the other flank, expect Cooper Cronk, Will Chambers and Billy Slater to torment Manly’s left-side defending centre Steve Matai, who can be a liability with just a 68 per cent tackle effectiveness.
Where it will be won: In defence and forcing the opposition into repeated tackling effort.
Both sides have shown good mettle recently, with the Storm keeping the Warriors tryless last week, while the Sea Eagles surrendered just the one try against the Titans last week.
Also, both coaches will look to their forwards to lay a platform for their brilliant backs.
The Storm forwards were particularly impressive last week and coach Bellamy will be smiling at the way they are rolling up their sleeves.
Prop Aiden Tolman has really grasped his opportunities lately and his effort last week – 27 hit-ups for 233 metres and 27 tackles – represented the most metres by a Melbourne ‘bookend’ since Robbie Kearns’ 247 metres in 2001. But it didn’t end there – when added to Brett White’s 163 metres it represented a club record for the front row.
And for the Sea Eagles, Kite provided arguably his biggest impact all year with 127 metres in just 49 minutes.
Also, Cooper Cronk’s tactical kicking game to gain the Storm repeat sets will be crucial – the side was able to force the Warriors into six line dropouts last week and it’s that sort of sustained pressure that coaches love come finals time.
The history: Played 16; Storm 9, Sea Eagles 7. They are yet to meet at Etihad Stadium. The Storm have won four of the past six, although the Sea Eagles won 20-16 in Round 24 at Olympic Park when both sides were missing strike players Brett Stewart and Greg Inglis.
Conclusion: The Storm deserve to be narrow favourites in this one, although given the clash is at Etihad Stadium rather than their spiritual home and opposition ‘graveyard’ Olympic Park, it’s hard to read too much into the “home-ground” advantage.
This qualifying final will be played close to the chest – the Sea Eagles made just five offloads last week (average 10.8) and the Storm an extravagant (for them) 14 (average 9.9). It will all boil down to pressure and limiting mistakes. On that basis, we’ll pump for the Storm to frustrate Matt Orford into playing rushed footy. Melbourne to get the cash.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Jeff Younis; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.