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Storm v Sharks
Sunday 2pm

Lightning couldn’t strike the Storm twice, could it? Seemingly on cruise control in second place on the ladder Melbourne suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of cellar-dwellers Canberra in their last game on home turf a fortnight ago. Now they suit up against a Sharks outfit down on form and confidence after a 40-6 thrashing dished out by the Eels last Monday night.

Despite their glitch, the Storm have retained second place on the ladder, holding off the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Broncos courtesy of a superior points differential. Meanwhile the Sharks’ latest loss sees them plummet to 15th spot and in a world of pain approaching the midpoint of the season.

The home side will be sweating on Billy Slater, Dane Nielsen, Cooper Cronk and captain Cameron Smith to emerge from Origin unscathed. Should he take the field Smith will achieve the personal milestone of 200 NRL games, ranking him behind only Matt Geyer’s 262 club games.

Winger Anthony Quinn is back, displacing ‘find’ Dane Chisholm who ran for a 136 metres in a beaten side last start. Todd Lowrie will lock the scrum, with Ryan Hinchcliffe reverting to the bench, while Sika Manu, Jaiman Lowe and Adam Woolnough are retained on the bench.

For the Sharks, Kade Snowden and Paul Gallen will be asked to back up from Origin, pushing prop Josh Cordoba and last week’s lock Taulima Tautai onto the bench.

The Sharks haven’t beaten the Storm in Melbourne since March 2008 – in that time the Storm have racked up a staggering 24-3 record against NSW-based clubs.

And for the first time in four years, coach Craig Bellamy has been on hand to guide the Storm side in the week leading up to an Origin clash. It doesn’t look good, Shire fans…

Watch Out Storm: Complacency and fatigue loom as the only obstacles for the Storm – that and the possible absences of their Origin stars.

That said, the Storm need to place a heavy watch on Sharks skipper Paul Gallen who remains a standout every week. To date the tungsten-tough lock leads the NRL for most hit-ups with 202. With two games before the halfway point he’s pretty much on track to get close to last year’s phenomenal category-topping 505 runs.

Danger Sign: The forwards laid the platform for the Raiders’ upset win over the Storm two weeks ago. Four Raiders made more than 100 metres of territory, while restricting just Storm prop Bryan Norrie to triple figures. If Gallen (average 185 metres – yes, you read correctly), Snowden (120 metres) and Douglas (107 metres) can lead the way, maybe the Sharks have a shot.

Watch Out Sharks: Seriously though, that Raiders loss just had to be an anomaly. The Storm are the benchmark NRL side for tries and points scored per game (4.3 and 25.4 respectively). They average the most line-breaks (5.5) and churn out the third most metres (1368.4).

They give away nothing, too. While the Sharks are averaging more than 13 offloads a game the Storm have successfully limited all oppositions to just seven a game to date – so Anthony Tupou (26 offloads) and Paul Gallen (23) will need to provide super efforts to keep the second-phase play going.

The Sharks’ centres and halves need to be ready for plenty of attack to head their way, especially from close range. Analysis shows the Sharks are conceding more than 50 per cent of their tries one man in from the sideline on both sides of the field (10 tries left, 11 tries right). Expect Billy Slater to be the man to chime in here.

Danger Sign: Bodies in motion can confuse the Sharks’ outside defenders. The ball will either end up in the hands of a Storm player running an inside line (like Kevin Proctor), or be shifted wide where finishers Slater, Quinn and Duffie will bag the points.

Gareth Widdop has been an outstanding support playmaker for Cooper Cronk; in fact he’s outshining Cronk, having made 10 try assists to the No.7’s six. When Widdop gets the ball close to the Sharks’ line he’ll either have a go himself or look to passage a team-mate through. And he does it effortlessly.

Plays To Watch: Cronk chipping for himself or Billy Slater; Gareth Widdop taking on the Sharks, especially on the left edge; Cameron Smith directing forwards down a short blind; Kevin Proctor charging on the angle; John Morris’ tireless play; the Sharks’ forwards looking to unsettle the Storm, like they did the Dragons in their heroic Round 2 upset win.

Where It Will Be Won: From the opening whistle. The Sharks simply can’t afford to get off to another poor start or the Storm have the firepower to embarrass them even more than Parramatta did last week. The Sharks were never likely against the Eels; when they trailed 22-nil at halftime they’d been forced to make a whopping 112 tackles inside their own half, compared to the Eels’ 37.

The big worry for coach Shane Flanagan is that when he looks at the stats sheet from last week, his side didn’t do a lot wrong. They completed their sets at 86 per cent – up from their season average 78 per cent. They missed just 20 tackles to the Eels’ 33, offloaded 16 times to the Eels’ six and made a not-significant eight errors.

Getting over the line remains their problem – despite ranking third for tackle-breaks (average 40.6) and middle of the road for line-breaks (4.1) the Sharks rank a lowly 13th for points scored (17 a game). They’ve got to find points from somewhere.

The History: Played 22, Melbourne 14, Sharks 8. The Storm have won six of the past eight clashes. The Sharks haven’t won in Melbourne since their 17-16 win at Olympic Park in 2007. The Storm have won the only game between the two sides played at AAMI Park.

Conclusion: It would take a brave fan to tip the Sharks to topple the Storm in Melbourne, especially given the way both sides are travelling. Good luck if that sounds like you!

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Jason Walsh; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

• Statistics: NRL Stats.