Storm v Bulldogs
AAMI Park
Monday 7pm

The ’Dogs are barking again and ride into Melbourne on top of the Telstra Premiership table and ready to continue their assault on this year’s title. But the Storm take pride in their southern fortress and are ready to turn the Bulldog bark into a whimper, despite the fact they were shot to pieces by the Cowboys last Monday night. 

The Melbourne boys might have gone down 34-6 to North Queensland for their first loss of the year, dropping them to seventh on the ladder, but it’s worth noting they have bounced back to win on the past seven occasions the week after conceding 30 or more points.

This will be a tougher ask though, as the Canterbury boys have won three on the trot against the Wests Tigers, Rabbitohs and the Roosters to become the only undefeated side remaining in the NRL. 

They have been forced into some minor changes, with Sika Manu ruled out injured. Todd Lowrie moves to the second row and Ryan Hinchcliffe comes into the starting side at lock forward. Adam Woolnough is the new man on the bench.

For the Bulldogs it is business as usual. They have the same 17 who disposed of the Roosters last week but have added Chris Armit as an 18th man.

While most clubs dread the trip south, the Bulldogs are a win away from being the best-performed club (other than Melbourne) when it comes to wins in Victoria. 

Watch Out Storm: The Melbourne boys have to really ensure they are switched on approaching halftime. The Bulldogs have made real inroads in their matches by being able to score three tries so far this year in the final five minutes before the break. And they haven’t conceded any in the same time period, giving them serious momentum after 40 minutes. 

The Storm will also obviously have to keep an eye on former team-mate, now Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman, who has been massive so far in 2011. He’s averaging an astonishing 21 runs for 160 metres, 37 tackles and 66 minutes played. If he was able to maintain those averages throughout what is, granted, a very long season, he will smash every statistical record for a prop in NRL history! 

Danger Sign: If Tolman’s blond hair is prominent in the opening exchanges he could be in for another huge tally. Count how many runs he makes in the opening three sets – if it is four or more… look out.

Watch Out Bulldogs: A weakness for the side has been masked by victories – but it will eventually bite the ’Dogs on the bum if they don’t rectify the situation. So far this season oppositions have averaged 1368 metres gained against them, the second most metres conceded in the NRL. They have managed to get by with scrambling defence and some great tries but if they keep inviting teams into prime field position, they’ll eventually crack. 

The Bulldogs must also watch Beau Champion. During his six seasons with Souths, Champion played the Bulldogs five times for three wins and was able to score a total of four tries in the past three matches. Melbourne centres have actually crossed for 25 out of the 87 tries scored against the Bulldogs (29 per cent). 

Danger Sign: If the Storm appear to be attacking the Bulldogs’ line early in the match it could spell trouble for the ’Dogs. Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk don’t need much of an invitation.

Plays To Watch: Michael Ennis niggling Cameron Smith; Ben Barba sniffing out offloads up the middle of the ruck; Gareth Widdop’s show-and-go; Slater sweeping wide into the backline; Frank Pritchard standing tall on the left edge.

Where It Will Be Won: This game is all about the match-ups in the spine of the teams: No.1 v 1, 6 v 6, 7 v 7 and 9 v 9. 

The fullback and halfback battle is one of experience against youth. The Bulldogs boast in-form youngsters Ben Barba and Trent Hodkinson, while the Storm have Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk. Can Barba continue his trend of scorching up the turf from clever offloads? Or perhaps Slater will give him a lesson in both support running and ball playing – something he has really mastered in recent times. Barba is averaging 117 metres, has three line-breaks, a line-break assist, two tries and two try assists. Slater averages 124 metres and has two line-breaks, two line-break assists, two tries and two try assists. 

Cooper Cronk is the incumbent Test halfback (although Thurston may be recalled against the Kiwis in May) and he’d love nothing more than to show Hodkinson it takes time to become a really good No.7. If Cronk can take control and direct this game he might be able to help his side to victory. He has a line-break assist, a try assist and a try so far this year. Hodkinson has one line-break and two try assists.

At five-eighth it will be two young guns, with Kris Keating for the ’Dogs and Gareth Widdop for the Storm. Keating has started the year with one line-break, two tries and a try assist while Widdop has three line-breaks, two line-break assists, a try and three-try assists. 

Last but not least is the Origin hooker battle between Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis. The winner of this duel could easily influence the entire outcome. Gritty Ennis has two line-break assists, a try and two try assists this season, while Smith has a line-break and a try.

The History: Played 25; Storm 11, Bulldogs 14. The Storm have won six of the past eight between these two clubs, although the two Bulldogs victories have come in the past three encounters. 

There has only been one game at AAMI Park – it resulted in a 23-12 Melbourne win last season. The Bulldogs haven’t beaten Melbourne in Melbourne since 2005 and haven’t won their opening four matches of a season since 1993.

Conclusion: This shapes as a great clash to finish off the round. We should also get some entertainment, with both teams having scored four tries from over halfway this season. 
The Bulldogs have form on the board, but a wounded Storm outfit is always dangerous. Don’t be afraid to give either team your support here.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Chris Ward. 

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

Are you tipping the Bulldogs or the Storm?  Over $20,000 in prizes to be won in the Bundaberg NRL Tipping competition.  

* Statistics: NRL Stats.