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Storm v Eels
ANZ Stadium
Sunday 5.15pm

And then there were two: Sentimental favourites Parramatta, who needed to win seven straight from Round 19 to even guarantee even a place in the top eight; and Melbourne, the first side since Parramatta in 1981-84 to make four successive grand finals.

The Storm appear to be peaking at just the right time. They crafted a solid, consistent season through the 26 scheduled rounds, dipping no worse than eighth through Round 7, levelling out for a smooth ride in fourth place from Round 14 to Round 16.

They’ve disposed of 2008 premiers Manly and 2006 premiers Brisbane in successive outings (with a week’s breather in between) and have no injury concerns in their unchanged line-up.

Their strike weapons Billy Slater and Greg Inglis are in hot form, having bagged five of the Storm’s seven tries last week. And their defence remains the most effective in the league – their 337.6 tackles per game is the fewest of any side all year.

By comparison, Parramatta’s road has been paved with potholes… and gold. They looked goners when a lowly 14th through Round 18. But then they beat the Storm 18-16 in Round 19, and everything changed.

Jarryd Hayne turned in man-of-the-match performances seemingly every week, rookie Daniel Mortimer seized the headlines after shining at five-eighth in the absence of injured Feleti Mateo and the forwards, led by captain Nathan Cayless, Nathan Hindmarsh and the blockbusting Fuifui Moimoi, revealed that after some mushy early season displays, they in fact were made of stern stuff after all.

So dominant was Hayne that he pocketed the Dally M Player of the Year medal even before the points were allocated from Round 26 – that hasn’t happened for years.

But injury threatens Cayless’ premiership dream. The 233-game Eels stalwart is battling a hamstring tear picked up in the opening minutes of last week’s knock-out clash with the Bulldogs. Should he miss out it will be the second successive year a captain has missed a decider, with Melbourne’s Cameron Smith suspended last year. It will also place great pressure on the Eels prop rotation to lift, with Moimoi, Joe Galuvau and Tim Mannah burdened with more work.

On the coaching front Craig Bellamy is shooting for a second title since 2007; should the Storm lose he’ll be left with one trophy from four attempts.

Meanwhile Daniel Anderson has been to ANZ Stadium for the last game of the year once before with the Warriors in 2002. That day his side lost 30-8 to the Roosters. But he’s won a bunch of silverware with St Helens in the UK, so he knows all about the big games.

So, what can we expect?

Watch out Storm: Melbourne need to find a way to ram a cork on Parramatta’s vintage play. No side promotes second-phase action better than the Eels. Their 17.5 season average offloads rank them the clear leader in the NRL. And they really put the writing on the wall last week against the Bulldogs with a staggering 41 offloads.

It’s not just one or two players who are prolific. They all do it – leading the way is Feleti Mateo (3.1 a game), supported by Krisnan Inu (2.4), Hindmarsh (2.1), Cayless (1.6), Grothe (1.5) and Hayne (1.3)… it goes on.

While the Storm’s defence is the best in the business (88.3 per cent effective), that statistic will be rendered meaningless if they are unable to stop the Eels’ attackers from promoting play. The Bulldogs swamped the Eels in numbers last week but couldn’t stop the offloads – largely because they didn’t have defenders sweeping behind the player in possession looking to ‘seagull’ any ‘chips’ thrown out the back. The Storm should learn that lesson and be better prepared on Sunday.

Another potential area of concern for Craig Bellamy is some lethargy on the Storm kick-chase during the year. Their 13 ‘poor’ chases are the fifth most by sides in 2009. And waiting down the other end this week is Jarryd Hayne. (Meanwhile the Eels have registered just the one poor chase in 2009, so Slater won’t be handed much of a head start.)

Watch out Eels: Obviously offloads can be a risk and can lead to errors, which can lead to turnovers. If the Eels make more than their average nine errors, the Storm will make them pay. Just last week they scored three tries the set following a Brisbane error.

Also, expect Greg Inglis to reintroduce his towering torpedo punt bomb from long range, looking to get it to bobble in the stiff breezes that swirl at upper grandstand height at ANZ Stadium. It could be a particularly effective ploy, given the Eels defuse a lowly 66 per cent of bombs – and their vanquished opponents haven’t really tested them out in this regard over the past month.

Craig Bellamy knows the key to winning is to stop Jarryd Hayne: period. The Eels’ sole loss since Round 18 came when the Dragons hammered them 37-0 in Round 26. Hayne didn’t make a line break that day, for the first time since Round 14! That’s how you beat the Eels…

Where it will be won:
While most are billing this as a battle between the fullbacks Slater and Hayne, it’s unlikely they’ll go head to head other than when one is attempting a try-saving tackle on the other.
That said, like all Grand Finals in the modern era, this game will be won by limiting the impact and territorial gain of both sides’ stars. Keep the usual suspects quiet and the job is half-done.

The Eels will rely on Hayne (170 metres a game, 32 line breaks, 178 tackle breaks) plus Grothe (122 metres), Moimoi (120 metres in 42-minute average), Cayless (105 metres), Inu (103 metres, 47 offloads) and Hindmarsh (102 metres, plus team-high 51 offloads and 44 tackles).

The Storm will counter with Slater (123 metres, 22 line breaks including Finals Series-high 5), Inglis (122 metres), Steve Turner (110 metres), Jeff Lima (109 metres), Dane Nielsen (107 metres) and Ryan Hoffman (105 metres).

Both sides have massive stars in massive form. It just boils down to execution on the day – and who will conjure the moment(s) of magic that count.

Expect Cameron Smith to play a blinder, making up for lost time having been rubbed out of last year’s decider by the judiciary.

The history: Played 21, Storm 12, Eels 9. The sides have shared the spoils four games apiece over the past eight clashes. The Eels hold bragging rights, winning 18-16 in Round 19. This will be the first time they’ve met at ANZ Stadium.  

Conclusion: The Eels have been a stumbling block for the Storm in recent years. Their last four games, with each side winning twice, have had an average winning margin of just three points. In their past eight games (four apiece) the winners have posted an average 22 points, the losers 14.5 for an average winning margin of 7.5 points.

On face value that suggests there won’t be a blowout on Sunday.  

We’re full of admiration for the Eels, who keep turning up to play every week. We’ve been waiting for them to hit the wall with fatigue – they’ve been ‘up’ for a hell of a long time now – but they keep defying that. Still, the question has to be asked whether the enormity of last week’s Preliminary Final – a rousing, bruising encounter in front of a Grand Final-like crowd of 74,000 – could render this week a bridge too far for them.

That’s not to say the Eels can’t win. If they play like they did last week, they will, for no side can run with them when they apply themselves with such steely focus. But logic says the Storm will be the 2009 premiers, confirming themselves as the dominant NRL outfit of the decade.

Last, some predictions: Luke Burt for opening try-scorer. Should the Eels win, either Jarryd Hayne or Nathan Hindmarsh for the Churchill Medal. And if the Storm win, it will be either Hayne (yes, even in a losing side), Smith or Inglis who’ll be best on ground.

PS: no correspondence will be entered into!

Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Shayne Hayne; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David Abood; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – First Grade live from 5pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 8pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.
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