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Brisbane Broncos v Melbourne Storm
Suncorp Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

While it is certainly a shame the representative fixtures will take some of the shine off this massive top-three clash between the in-form Broncos and Storm, it still promises to be an absorbing battle.

The Broncos have ‘shown their hand’ (or have they?) by not naming their players on Test duty for Australia and New Zealand the night before.

Having won seven straight games they are sitting pretty in equal first on the NRL ladder, second on percentages with a 7-1 record; regardless of the result, ultimately they feel player welfare should be the winner this weekend.

They can perhaps blood a few rookies, and if they do happen to jag a win against the odds – what a bonus! (If they win it will be the first time since 2005 they have won eight successive matches…)

Justin Hodges, Jharal Yow Yeh, Darren Lockyer, Ben Hannant and Sam Thaiday have all been given this game off, forcing several changes to the side that beat Canterbury last weekend. (It should be mentioned, however, that plenty of their replacements have also been named in Toyota and Queensland Cups, leaving it open for last-minute changes.)

Corey Norman comes in at fullback; Dale Copley, named in the centres, will shift back to the wing now Gerard Beale (not named) is not required for Test duty. Dane Gagai is likely to beat out Shea Molan on the other wing.

Ben Hunt moves to five-eighth for Lockyer while Nick Kenny and Mitchell Dodds are the new starting props, allowing Dane Carlaw to shift to the second row to cover for Thaiday.

Josh McGuire is also out of last week’s side, forming a completely new bench of Kurt Baptiste, Scott Anderson, Dunamis Lui, David Hala and Justin Hunt.

The Storm, sitting third on the ladder with a healthy 6-2 record, have named all of their seven players who will be in the Test or City-Country fixtures – although obviously their involvement won’t be confirmed until hours before kick-off.

Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Matt Duffie and Adam Blair are expected to suit up for the Storm after the Test match, while Beau Champion and Ryan Hinchcliffe need to make a mad dash up from Albury to take their place.

After hammering the Knights last week the Storm know a win here will see them leapfrog the Broncos into second place and potentially get them to first if the Dragons lose to the Cowboys.

Their only change from last week at this early stage is that Jesse Bromwich will start at prop and Adam Woolnough reverts to the bench.

Watch Out Broncos: Over the past month the Storm have recorded more tries (20) and line- breaks (26) than any team. They have found a rhythm and are attacking with gusto – it’s almost as if they never lost half their squad last year. With 213 points scored at an average of 26.6 a game for the entire season, they are the number one attacking team in the NRL.

Their defence isn’t too shabby either, ranked third in the NRL with an average 13.5 points conceded. The Broncos might be slightly better defensively, letting in an average 10 points per game but they have been much less threatening in attack, with just 19.8 points scored each week.

In other words the Storm are scoring a little over a converted try more than the Broncos each week. With youth might come exuberance and a chance to throw the ball around for the Broncos, but they must remain true to their defensive values and limit the Storm.

Danger Sign: Watch for Cooper Cronk, providing he gets through the Test unscathed, to have a big game. As a bench player with the Kangaroos his game time could be limited on Friday night so he’ll be fresh enough to give Cameron Smith some breathing space.

Watch Out Storm: The Broncos might be only one of two teams that have failed to score a try from inside their own half (the other is the struggling Eels) but they have had some success having a crack from between 21-50 metres. With nine tries registered this season they are behind only the Titans at scoring from this range, proving they aren’t afraid to have a go from distance rather than just kick the ball high and hope for the best.

Yow Yeh (three tries) and Steve Michaels (two) have been the main scorers from this far out, showing the team likes to send it wide.

Danger Sign: Don’t assume the Broncos will kick the ball on the last tackle. They love to go for the ‘power play’ and run the ball if a defensive line retreats.

Plays To Watch: Smith’s no-look ruck short balls to charging forwards near the line; Peter Wallace’s grubber and chase; Beau Champion hitting the inside shoulder line on a right shift; something new and exciting from any one of the young Broncos!

Where It Will Be Won: Can we say Friday night? Basically this match will come down to who does back up… and who doesn’t.

If the Broncos really rest everyone then they are seriously up against it, especially if the Storm play their big guns. But perhaps it is a case of ducks and drakes; if Darren Lockyer tells coach Griffin he is ready to go on Saturday morning, do you think ‘Hook’ will stop him? He is getting ever so close to the most games of all time… maybe he doesn’t want to miss any. Without their big guns the Brisbane juggernaut looks set to slow down but what if Smith, Cronk and Slater don’t front? Then all of a sudden they don’t look as flash either.

Smith is a huge part of the Storm and if they were without him and Cronk you’d swing your money back towards the Broncos. This is definitely a match where you’ll want to wait and see who plays before you enter your tips… if that’s possible!

The History: Played 28; Broncos 11, Storm 16, drawn 1. The Storm has won seven of the past nine matches against Brisbane, although it was the Broncs who prevailed 36-14 in the last encounter exactly one year ago. The two teams have played eight games at Suncorp Stadium with Melbourne leading the count 5-3. The last two times the teams met here the score was just 16-14, with each team having a win.

Meanwhile no team has recorded a better winning percentage against the Broncos than Melbourne (57 per cent).

Conclusion: Right now it’s a toss of the coin because of unknown quantities. But if the teams line up as named, put your money on Melbourne. If things change, the home side might just notch up win number eight on the trot – but don’t count on it.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Tony De Las Heras; Touch Judges – Jeff Younis & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.