Melbourne Storm v Parramatta Eels
It may be Heritage Round but there’s only one kind of history Parramatta will be worried about in Melbourne this Sunday – that of the 2009 grand final.
The Storm were too good for the Eels that day but as history shows the club was over their salary cap and were later stripped of the title. The Eels who played in that decider will forever be left asking “what if” and will take any opportunity they can against a legitimately assembled Storm outfit to try to extract some revenge.
That won’t be the only subplot at play on Sunday – Eels coach Stephen Kearney returns to Melbourne where he will be up against former mentor Craig Bellamy, as master and apprentice face off for the first time. And occasional Kangaroos teammates Billy Slater and Jarryd Hayne have a chance to renew their fierce rivalry that bubbled over in a club game last season.
Both these clubs rejoined the winner’s circle last week – the Eels did so against the Cowboys, who themselves demolished the Storm the week before. It may have been a tight win but it will have boosted their confidence after back-to-back losses.
Meanwhile the Storm were far too good for the previously unbeaten Bulldogs on Monday night, as they consigned their thrashing at the hands of the Cowboys to the dustbin. They are at home again this week and will go in with largely the same team that overpowered Canterbury last round.
Troy Thompson joins the starting side at prop, suggesting Craig Bellamy has no concerns over the hugely impressive shiner Thompson picked up in a head knock against the ’Dogs. That moves Kevin Proctor into the back row, Todd Lowrie to lock and Ryan Hinchcliffe to a six-man bench that also includes Anthony Quinn and Jaiman Lowe.
The Eels will go in with a bigger team this week as Fuifui Moimoi returns from a one-week suspension, Justin Horo moves from the bench to lock and Ben Smith goes to centre to cover for Ryan Morgan who is missing with an ankle injury.
Possibly the bigger news is the absence of hooker Matt Keating who suffered a compound fracture to his right index finger while wrestling his pet bulldog during the week. Luckily for the Eels Casey McGuire looks to have shaken off a calf injury in time to take his place, meaning promising youngster Anthony Mitchell again plays from the bench.
Watch Out Storm: While it may be a bit early to declare “the Eels are back!” there were plenty of positives to take out of their last-start win. Their seven errors were their lowest of the season, Carl Webb’s club debut showed plenty of promise and Joel Reddy earned a solid hit-out.
The performance of Webb is of particular significance given Moimoi’s return – it means the Eels go in with five props and the biggest side they’ve fielded this year, including Reddy and Smith back together in the centres. It’s not a foolproof plan but the signs are good: Webb ran 91 metres from 10 runs in just 26 minutes last week.
Tim Mannah has really lifted since the retirement of Nathan Cayless, averaging 129 metres per game, just behind Moimoi’s 130. The three big boppers are likely to be rotated in short explosive spells, meaning the men up front for the Storm will need to be ready for some serious collisions.
Danger Sign: It will be about quality rather than quantity for these three – rarely more than one hit-up per set but they will be running onto the ball at pace and looking to drag three or four defenders along with them. When you see them winding up, McGuire will float a short ball onto the runner’s chest – then bodies will fly!
Watch Out Eels: After an interrupted pre-season Storm fullback Billy Slater showed he is back to his best in a man-of-the-match performance, including a season-high 222 metres, as well as three line-breaks and six tackle-breaks.
Just as dangerous was youngster Matt Duffie, whose opening-minute try set the tone for the whole match. Duffie ran for 172 metres with two line-breaks, six tackle busts and two tries.
The Storm are equal competition leaders for scoring tries from within their own half, with five long-range efforts so far. The Eels are yet to concede a try from that range in 2011 but that clean sheet will be sorely tested in Storm territory on Sunday.
Danger Sign: Slater is one of the best broken play runners of the past decade, and the second he or Duffie catch a clearing kick on the full in any kind of space, the Eels’ chase will need to be a good one to contain them.
Plays To Watch: Big hits from Parramatta’s five-man prop rotation; Slater and Hayne trying to outdo each other with searching kick-returns; Nathan Hindmarsh tackling himself to a standstill (Hindy averages a scarcely believable 54.1 tackles in matches against the Storm over the past five seasons – Dream Teamers take note!); Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk launching 40/20 attempts any time the Storm are in trouble; Gareth Widdop slicing through the line while the Eels’ defence is focused on the “big three” of Slater, Cronk and Smith.
Where It Will Be Won: Kicks and kick defence. As mentioned above, the Storm are dangerous from long range and Eels pivot Daniel Mortimer has so far found space with just three of 13 long kicks – which will play right into the hands of Slater and Duffie.
But the Storm aren’t without their problems in that department – they are currently the worst side in the NRL at defending kicks, negotiating just 55 per cent successfully. In particular, Slater and Justin O’Neill have cleaned up just two grubbers from six attempts between them, so look for Hayne and Mortimer to go along the ground close to the Storm line to put pressure on the backs to clean up.
The History: Played 23; Melbourne 13, Parramatta 10. There’s not a great deal in it – Parramatta have won three of the past four (the exception being the 2009 grand final) but if you take it back further Melbourne have won five of the past eight.
These clubs have yet to meet at the Storm’s new home ground but AAMI Park is already becoming a fortress after the club’s 3-0 start to the year in home games.
Conclusion: Parramatta showed some promise and plenty of ticker in grabbing a late win last week but they will be right up against it to steal a victory down in Melbourne against a resurgent Storm.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.