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Wests Tigers v Storm
Leichhardt Oval
Sunday 3pm

The Wests Tigers return to Leichhardt Oval for the second time in 13 days clutching the lucky rabbit’s foot that has seen them sidestep disaster in each of their past two games. In Round 13 they escaped with the competition points courtesy of a Robbie Farah field-goal in extra time and last week pulled off the steal of the season, coming back from 22-4 down with 18 minutes to play to remarkably have the game in the bag with three minutes left on the clock!

That stunning win saw the gold-and-blacks leapfrog the Warriors into sixth place on the ladder on 16 competition points – but two wins away from the equal fourth-placed Broncos and Cowboys. Even just past the halfway stage of the season it’s obvious the Tigers need to roll the Storm if they are to keep their momentum and push for a coveted home semi-final.

While the Tigers have been hard-hit by injuries coach Tim Sheens would be alarmed at the lack of focus his side has delivered during the past fortnight – in particular their huge error counts and inferior completions. At home against the Knights they made a staggering 18 errors and through Round 14 they average just a 71.8 per cent completion rate, the lowest of any side in the top eight.

Meanwhile the Storm will be looking to consolidate their high ladder position (just one competition point off the pace-setting Dragons) with a rare win at Leichhardt Oval. It won’t be easy – they have just the one result at the ground from seven games. That’s a win percentage of just 22 per cent, easily their worst return anywhere. Still, negating that to some degree is the fact they’ve won eight of their past nine daytime games.

With four stars away on Origin duty, their bits-and-pieces unit got the job done against the Roosters last Monday in a game of only average quality. Coach Craig Bellamy will be sweating on the return of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Dane Nielsen after Wednesday night to rev up their motor.

He’s named all their rep players, prompting a major reshuffle from last week. Slater returns at fullback, pushing Justin O’Neill to a bench that numbers 21. Nielsen’s return pushes Matt Duffie to the wing, with Sisa Waqa on the bench. Cronk’s return at halfback sees Maurice Blair shift to the other centre position, in preference to Beau Champion who is benched. Cameron Smith pushes Ryan Hinchcliffe to the pine, while Todd Lowrie has been named to start at lock, with Sika Manu benched.

Tim Sheens has retained the squad of 17 that pulled off the great escape against the Warriors.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Coach Bellamy knows two areas where the Tigers are most vulnerable – defending their line in front of their goal posts, and outside their 20-metre zone.

The Tigers have conceded 13 tries in centre-field – the most by any side in 2011. You can bet Cameron Smith will relish having a crack from dummy-half, or else look to put a runner through one-off the ruck.

Grubber kicks and bombs near the goal posts – as well as out wide – should also feature, given the Tigers have leaked 12 tries from kicks, the third most by a side in 2011.

And Cooper Cronk, Gareth Widdop and Billy Slater will be licking their lips at the thought of getting a result from long range given the opposition have conceded an NRL-high 21 tries from 20 metres or more from their goal line. They’ll shift it wide, looking to catch out at-times suspect defenders Simon Dwyer and Blake Ayshford.

A month back from injury, Sika Manu is really lifting. His energy was outstanding last week; he made 20 runs for 176 metres with two offloads and will be a threat close to the Tigers’ line.

Danger Sign: If Cronk starts to go to the air out wide it’s because he knows Mitch Brown and Beau Ryan have each defused just 50 per cent of bombs sent their way – with Ryan making a mess of the only two cross-field bombs he’s had to contest.

Watch Out Storm: Speed and power are the keys to the Tigers. If not for their spectacular abilities to bust through tackles they would have lost their past two games.

Incredibly, the Tigers have made on average 51 tackle-breaks during the past month. Against the Warriors four players made four or more, with centre Blake Ayshford topping the count with eight. The week before, Ayshford impersonated ‘The Incredible Hulk’, making a career-high 13. Benji Marshall made 12, as did interchange forward Andrew Fifita – and he was on the field for just 46 minutes! 

The Tigers rank No.1 in the category and boast almost three tackle-breaks more per game than next-best North Queensland.

The Storm should learn from the Dragons; in their narrow Round 12 win they kept the damage to a minimum, restricting Marshall to just four line-breaks, Fifita to three (he has 68 for the year to rank second in the NRL) and Ayshford to two.

Danger Sign: If the Tigers are permitted to play with depth in their backline and are able to quickly shift the ball wide they could run the Storm ragged. It falls to halfback Cooper Cronk to keep them pinned within their half where they’ll be forced to concentrate on working their way down the field rather than ‘busting out’.

Plays To Watch: Benji looking to rekindle the form that saw him cross for his only career hat-trick of tries against the Storm at Leichhardt Oval in Round 25 last year; Gareth Ellis looking to combine with Marshall with another freakish flick pass close to the line; Robbie Farah drifting out of dummy-half, showing the ball on the inside before hitting Ellis, Dwyer or Fulton on the edge; Cameron Smith directing runners down the Tigers’ edges; Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater combining for a chip-and-regather raid from long range; Gareth Widdop’s lovely delayed passes for supports close to the Tigers’ tryline.  

Where It Will Be Won: It will surprise a few, given the attacking weaponry in both sides, but defence is the key. That’s because the stats show nothing splits these combatants with the ball in hand. Both sides share the No.1 rank for line-breaks with 5.2 made each game – and more significantly each side has made the most half-breaks, with 34 each.

Obviously both sides will set the Leichhardt Stadium turf alight at some stage but shutting down the plays will be imperative. That’s where the Storm hold the upper hand. While there’s just a conversion difference in average points scored (Storm 23.7 to Tigers 21.8), the visitors concede just 13 points a game compared to the Tigers’ 20 points. While that may not seem much, a nine-point margin is a decisive win in anyone’s book.

A lot depends on the efforts of the halves. The Tigers’ Robert Lui and Benji Marshall have missed a combined 76 tackles to date, while the Storm’s Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop have missed 59. In the Tigers’ pack, Simon Dwyer needs to start improving his missed tackle rate – he has fallen off 48 times, the sixth most in the comp. Adam Blair has missed the most in the Storm’s engine room, but a comparatively low 31.

The History: Played 19; Storm 12, Wests Tigers 7. These sides have won four games apiece from their past eight match-ups. Leichhardt Oval has been a miserable road trip for the Storm, who have just one win at the venue from seven attempts.

Conclusion: It’s a simple mission for the Storm: keep Benji quiet and they’ll be on their way to victory. Marshall’s hat-trick the last time these teams met was the first occasion in 10 games he’s scored against Melbourne; prior to that he’d been on the losing side in six of nine outings. But keeping him quiet will be tough – he leads the Tigers for tries scored (seven), including a double just last week.

A lot depends on the fatigue factor. Last week the Tigers showed how dangerous they are when they need to produce something special when behind on the scoreboard in the second half. Craig Bellamy will need to monitor the energy levels of his Origin foursome and make some astute calls, or else the Tigers will pounce.

All things considered, the Tigers have been lucky over the past few weeks, while the Storm haven’t been at their best but have still got the job done (conceding single points in a game for the third week in a row last week, the first time in three years). A healthy home-side victory would not be a surprise… but the head says Storm.   

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed – 6pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats