Storm v Raiders preview

Storm v Raiders
AAMI Park
Saturday 5.30pm

This Super Saturday clash is shaping as the biggest David-and-Goliath battle of the year so far.

Nothing seems to be going right for the beleaguered Raiders, while the ever-consistent Storm have had few hiccups in a polished start to 2011, most recently prevailing in the backyard of fellow top-four club Brisbane.

This time last week the Raiders’ season was in a critical condition, but after a 20-nil whitewash at Brookvale, Canberra’s 2011 prospects are in the emergency room hooked up to a defibrillator and in danger of flat-lining.

It needs to happen now for the Raiders because it will all be too late by the time Terry Campese returns from a knee reconstruction in a few weeks if they don’t string a few wins together.

The task couldn’t possibly be tougher, with a trip to AAMI Park to face the in-form Storm, who despite a narrow loss to the Warriors in their last home game have looked otherwise unstoppable there this season.

To his credit, coach David Furner has stuck with the same squad that played last week and placed faith in them to turn it all around. The only change from the 17 that got shut out by Manly is the return of Josh Dugan at fullback for Nathan Massey, having missed the Manly game due to a boil under his arm. Sam Mataora plays his second game of the season due to the fractured eye socket sustained by Tom Learoyd-Lahrs.

The Storm will actually be bolstered by the return of two players who missed the Friday night classic against the Broncos last week. Matt Duffie comes back onto the wing, pushing Sisa Waqa out of the side, and Todd Lowrie also returns at lock, pushing Rory Kostjasyn back to a five-man bench.

Watch Out Storm: Things may look pretty bleak for the Raiders right now but they’ve got too much talent not to come good eventually, and there’s no way the Storm will want to take this game lightly.

The Raiders’ forwards are good enough to mix it with the Storm in the middle and if they manage to, this side has some talents in the backline who can really cut loose.

In particular, Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson have the potential to cause real trouble given an opportunity. The two lanky speedsters are both capable of breaking the line and scoring long-range tries. Ferguson started 2011 strongly while Dugan will be desperate to impress New South Wales selectors in his bid to earn first crack at the Blues’ No 1 jersey ahead of Jarryd Hayne.

They are the only two players at the club averaging more than 100 metres per game (Ferguson 130, Dugan 101) and the only two consistently finding their way over the tryline – Ferguson’s seven tries in nine games is equal second in the NRL after Bulldog Ben Barba, while Dugan has three tries in just four games. If the Raiders are to overcome the Melbourne juggernaut they will need something special from one, or both.

Danger Sign: Dugan’s best game of 2011 so far was in the pre-season All Stars game when he was virtually unstoppable. In full flight, his tall frame and massive stride causes huge problems for opposition defenders so if he starts breaking the first tackle on kick returns you’ll know he’s returning to the type of form that has him touted as an Origin hopeful.

Watch Out Raiders: It’s a case of the best attack in the league versus the worst defence in the competition. Melbourne’s 41 tries are well clear of second-best Manly and North Queensland, who each have 35, while the sieve-like Raiders’ defence has leaked 41 tries, well clear of the second-worst defensive team South Sydney with 37. It’s a telling stat and highlights the mammoth task Canberra will face to turn their season around here.

In particularly good form is Matt Duffie, who has six tries from just six games and also scored for New Zealand in last week’s one-off Test against Australia, while Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk each have five tries from nine appearances.

The avalanche of points from the Storm so far in 2011 sees goal-kicker Cameron Smith sitting on 78 points, the most ever by a Melbourne player after nine rounds.

Danger Sign: Despite the good form of Duffie and Melbourne’s strength right across the park, Billy Slater is the one to watch, and quite simply the best support player in the game. His brilliant try from a Ben Hannant offload in the Test match was a case in point, and long-term teammates Cronk and Smith both know exactly how to put him in space with a deft short ball.

Plays To Watch: Tireless tackling and pinpoint passing from Cameron Smith; searching kick returns from Dugan and Ferguson; more line-breaks from underrated Storm pivot Gareth Widdop (11 so far in 2011, equal most in NRL); deft short kicks from Josh McCrone; long-range kicks to the corner from Cronk.

Where It Will Be Won: The mental game. As well as a well-oiled Storm outfit the Raiders need to overcome the huge mental hurdle that eight straight losses can bring, particularly when paying a visit to the competition’s best attacking team.

They need to clean the slate, go back to basics and remember that for 80 minutes, it’s 17 footy players against 17 other footy players and whoever scores the most points will win.

Stats and reputations don’t win footy games and Canberra need to put everything else out of their minds and get out there and play the footy they are capable of if they are to have even half a chance.

The History: Played 27, Melbourne 21, Canberra 6. It’s not just the 2011 stats that fall in the Storm’s favour – they’ve had the wood over the Green Machine since entering the competition.

The last meeting between these sides was the only one played so far at AAMI Park, when the Storm gutted Canberra 36-12 last year. Canberra have won only one of the past eight against the Storm, which came in 2009 at Canberra Stadium.

The Raiders haven’t won a game in Melbourne since 2000 – and skipper Alan Tongue is the only Raider left standing from that game.

Conclusion: If the Raiders win this one it may not be the strangest thing that’s ever happened in rugby league… but it would definitely be the biggest upset of this season so far – all signs point to Melbourne.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Chris James; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

 * Statistics: NRL Stats

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