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Storm (Winner 5) v Broncos (Winner 6)
Etihad Stadium
Saturday 7.45pm

This cracking non-NSW final reignites the fierce rivalry between two of the past three premiers. While much of the flame-fanning has centred on the Storm paying back the Broncos for “stealing” the 2006 title from under their noses, the truth is both sides will be far too busy worrying about adhering to their game plans and advancing to next week’s decider than carrying out vendettas.

Both sides have ‘winning’ form and excellent momentum, with the Storm looking to extend their hat-trick and the Broncos shooting for eight straight. But with the Storm form line looking stronger and Brisbane racked with injuries, the bookies have felt comfortable enough to post a $2.80 price about the Queenslanders knocking over Craig Bellamy’s boys in the Victorian capital.

After two dark, worrying losses to the Knights (away) and Sea Eagles (home), the Storm flicked the light switch to record wins over the Roosters, Warriors and Sea Eagles; importantly they amassed 108 points while conceding just 16. They received an added bonus of a week’s break when the Eels downed the Dragons in Finals Week One and enter this Preliminary Final with no injury concerns.

Not so the Broncos. They paid a heavy price during their stirring knock-out win over the Dragons last week when they lost pivotal playmaker Peter Wallace with a broken ankle with just minutes remaining.

Also, skipper Darren Lockyer remains under an injury cloud with a hamstring strain.

In a major surprise, coach Ivan Henjak has opted for 20-year-old utility Alex Glenn to fill in for Wallace, rather than specialist rookie Ben Hunt – although many inside the Storm camp suspect it to be a ruse and that Lockyer will be shifted into the no.7, with either of back-rowers Tonie Carroll or Ben T’eo braced to play five-eighth.

However, Glenn is a capable ‘Mr Fix-It’; he has played in 25 of the Broncos’ 26 games in 2009.

Watch out Storm: Brisbane’s recent successes have come on the back of all-out opening assaults. Against the Titans a fortnight ago they led 28-10 at halftime and after a confrontational opening 20 minutes against the Dragons they were up 12-nil.

The Broncos’ forwards really did a number on the respected Dragons pack, with Justin Poore copping the brunt of their force. It should be remembered Poore was involved in the nasty Origin incident that saw Steve Price knocked senseless and perhaps Poore was “retribution” target for the Queenslanders. If that’s the case Storm prop Brett White – also involved that Origin night – had better be prepared.

The Storm’s outside defenders need to contain Justin Hodges (average 145.2 metres a game) who will give his side huge territory. Brisbane are a power unit and top the NRL for tackle breaks (average 38 a game) – and Hodges leads the way for them with an average 6.4 a game.

Karmichael Hunt is in career-best form and is exhibiting great intuition when scoring opportunities are presented – he has a team-high 22 try assists, 11 tries plus 13 line breaks and 17 line-break assists.

And former Stormer Israel Folau (16 tries) will be a huge threat when chasing the high ball and also charging close to the line on the fringes.

Watch out Broncos: Billie Slater loves Etihad Stadium – he has scored seven tries in his past two games there, including four against the Sea Eagles a fortnight ago. Slater is the obvious danger man – he has a team-high 21 line breaks and 19 line-break assists, plus 19 try assists and 147 tackle breaks (second in NRL) and is warming back to the form that saw him the best no.1 in the game.

Greg Inglis (98 tackle breaks, 120 metres a game) is a big game player. And this is a big, big game.

The Broncos should also expect plenty of hit-ups directed the way of Glenn and Lockyer, with Ryan Hoffman (14.3), revelation prop Aiden Tolman (12.2), his partner Brett White (11.4) as well as Jeff Lima (13.8) the men most likely.

Although they have improved recently, the Broncos still rank the weakest defenders in the NRL, with an average 41.5 missed tackles per game. They’ll have their work cut out for them coming up against the Storm, whose 5.1 line breaks a game rank third in the NRL.

Where it will be won: Both sides will play their cards close to their chest, figuratively speaking. The Storm’s 9.8 average offloads ranks 15th in the NRL – only the Broncos with 9.1 make fewer. That means whoever makes the fewest errors will have the advantage. To date that match-up reads Storm 8.2 per game to the Broncos’ 8 – so toss a coin there!

If the Storm can contain powerhouse prop Dave Taylor (64 tackle breaks, eight try assists) on the left fringes, and also read any subtle variations in play (like last week when Taylor sucked in the Dragons’ defenders and was quick to hit an inside support like Hunt ) Brisbane may struggle to post points.

Field position from kicks is never more crucial than during finals, so it will be interesting to see how Brisbane share their kicking duties around given both halves Lockyer and Glenn are left-footers – expect right-footed Karmichael Hunt and hooker Andrew McCullough to be used as last-tackle clearers.

The history: Played 26, Melbourne 15, Brisbane 10, drawn 1. The Storm have won six of the past eight games between the sides, including a resounding 48-4 hammering at Olympic Park in Round 13. But the Broncos drew first blood this season with a nail-biting 16-14 win at Suncorp Stadium. The Storm hold a 1-0 advantage at Etihad Stadium.

Conclusion: In an amazing turnaround since Round 21, the Broncos are conceding nearly 50 per cent fewer points (14.7 a game) while gaining 17 per cent more metres (1421.3 for 203-metre average gain) during their seven-game winning streak.

We suspect this game will boil down to tactics and stamina. Ivan Henjak out-foxed Wayne Bennett with some lovely variations last week, pumping inside runners at the Dragons’ defence. While Craig Bellamy will be ready for that ploy it will be interesting to see whether or not Henjak again has something up his sleeve.

It’s possible also much of the Broncos’ huge effort last week involved the ‘Dragons factor’ – Lagi Setu and Ashton Sims had huge games and both are ex-Dragons. Plus there was the incentive of beating ex-coach Wayne Bennett.

Having climbed that mountain, can the Broncos keep the frame of mind required for another tough game? Time will tell; although we think not. We’ll tip the Storm by 8.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jared Maxwell; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.
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