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Warriors v Storm
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 2pm (NZ time); 12 noon (AEST)

It’s been a frustrating few weeks for the Warriors, with three consecutive losses plummeting them from home semi-final contention into the logjam of sides battling it out at the bottom of the top eight.

Last week’s 30-10 loss to the Cowboys leaves the NZers on 16 points, in seventh place on the NRL ladder, a mark shared by four sides and three wins adrift of the fifth-placed Broncos.

This week they brace for a visit by the table-topping Storm, who clinically wore down the perky Wests Tigers last Sunday – although Ivan Cleary’s charges will be buoyed with confidence taken from their stirring away win over the Storm in Round 7.

However, they have some injury worries and have copped a triple whammy with speedsters Kevin Locke (knee) and Glen Fisiiahi (groin) sidelined for a fortnight, while Krisnan Inu is out as well.

The Warriors were competitive against the Cowboys in Townsville, leading 10-8 at halftime and holding that advantage until midway through the second stanza before the home team accelerated away with the contest. It was the second successive week the side had folded after holding the ascendancy, having collapsed like a dried-out sand castle against the Wests Tigers in Round 14 when leading by 18 points with 20 minutes to play.

Meanwhile the Storm absorbed everything the Wests Tigers threw at them at Leichhardt Oval and know a win against the Warriors, with their second bye coming next week, would leave them perfectly positioned for a crack at the minor premiership nearing the home-straight run to the semi-finals.

The Warriors are poised to beat the Storm for the second time in a season for just the second time in their history; the only other time that happened was in 2008. In their favour is the fact they’ve held the Storm to a total score of six points or less in three of their past four games at Mt Smart Stadium. But on current form, and with a massive squad reshuffle, that might be a big ask.

Personnel-wise Ivan Cleary has named Lance Hohaia in the No.1 to cover for Locke, with Bill Tupou replacing Fisiiahi on the wing. The coach has opted for an all-new centres pairing in Lewis Brown and Shaun Berrigan, with skipper Simon Mannering shifting to the second row for Steve Rapira who moves to the bench.

Brett Seymour will start at halfback, pushing Shaun Johnson to the bench. Alehana Mara and Sione Lousi are the new faces on an extended interchange that numbers 19 at this stage.

In Storm team changes, Cameron Smith will start at hooker this week with Ryan Hinchcliffe benched; fellow Maroons representative Dane Nielsen returns at centre after a week’s rest, relegating Justin O’Neill to the pine; and Jesse Bromwich and Bryan Norrie will start at prop with Sika Manu and Adam Woolnough benched.

Expect huge games from Manu Vatuvei and Billy Slater, who have been try-scoring machines for their respective sides when opposing each other. ‘The Beast’ has nine four-pointers in eight games against the Storm, while Slater has 11 tries from 13 games against this week’s opponent.

Watch Out Warriors: Cooper Cronk nailed two 40/20s against the Tigers with little more than four minutes on the clock last week and if the Warriors’ back three aren’t wide awake to the ploy midway through the Storm tackle count, he’ll make them pay, too.

With Johnathan Thurston a lay-down misere to be suspended and out of the Queensland team for the Origin decider on July 6 (at least that’s our call) Cronk will be keen to show Maroons coach Mal Meninga there’s no need to look any further than him to redistribute the No.7 jersey.

Cronk took plenty of pressure off his skipper Cameron Smith last week, making 46 receives, 26 tackles, two offloads as well as kicking 12 times for 460 metres of valuable territory. He also gave the assist for Kevin Proctor’s try in a great all-round performance.

Cronk’s halves partner Gareth Widdop has maintained his good form from the start of the season – he set up Ryan Hinchcliffe’s first try for the Storm last week. Together the pair have tallied 19 try assists to date – the second most by any halves pairing (behind Tigers duo Benji Marshall and Robert Lui’s 22).

The Warriors will need to shut these guys down early; if they don’t they’ll need to pay attention to support runners both outside and inside.

Danger Sign: When Widdop gets the ball in two hands with some space he has the knack of making defenders either commit to him too soon, or else hang off him. Either way Widdop is a master at sizing up and selecting the best attacking option.

Watch Out Storm: He might be a tad suspect in defence but there’s no doubting Shaun Johnson has explosive speed to match the fastest players in the NRL. His 50-metre solo try last week, standing up two defenders and leaving chaser Matthew Bowen for dead to touch down without a hand laid on him, was simply jaw-dropping stuff.

Johnson made 160 metres in the No.7 last week, an NRL-high for a halfback, and made two offloads and two line busts. He was used like a third centre option and coming off the bench here that will be the plan again this week – although he could also be shifted into dummy-half where he might cause some havoc; the Storm will need to watch where he’s positioned on the field when the Warriors start set plays inside the Storm half.

Also, the Storm’s wingers should prepare for an aerial barrage – the Warriors have hoisted 44 bombs, the most by any side to date. Billy Slater has been up to the task so far, defusing 77 per cent of all bombs his way, but the flanks are a slight concern with their wingers safely dealing with just 64 per cent of cross-field bombs.

Danger Sign: If the Warriors set their scrum and Johnson is standing two men off the scrum base you’ll know he’s going to get quick ball. Watch out Dane Nielsen and Maurice Blair! And James Maloney is sure to kick for Manu Vatuvei’s left wing, where the Warriors have scored 22 tries (to 12 on the right).

Plays To Watch: Lance Hohaia out to prove he can still cut it; Shaun Johnson hitting the go button when injected off the bench; Manu Vatuvei on the receiving end of a sweep play or targeted with an attacking bomb; Feleti Mateo offloading like there’s a penalty for hanging on to the ball when caught in possession; Billy Slater sniffing around the ruck; Gareth Widdop’s precision-pass try assists (12 to date); Cameron Smith having a dig from dummy-half (Storm have six tries from dummy-half, most by any side).

Where It Will Be Won: In the battle to make, and stop, offloads.

In this stats category the Warriors are ranked a close second in the comp behind the Dragons, averaging 14 a game. Their massive second-phase attack is spearheaded by second-rower Feleti Mateo, who has made an NRL-high 42 offloads to date.

This week he’s joined in the back row by skipper Mannering, who has thrown 18 offloads. This provides the Warriors with some serious attacking weaponry through the centre of the ruck.

Meanwhile out wide Manu Vatuvei (15 offloads) is a speed merchant who is still dangerous even when (if) collared.

Last week the Cowboys managed to restrict the Warriors to just nine offloads in 80 minutes – a huge effort – and it helped keep them off the scoresheet in the second half.

Meanwhile the Storm concede the fewest offloads by any side, allowing just 8.6 on average. However, they couldn’t stop the livewire Wests Tigers from making a damaging 14 last week and it was only an inspirational scrambling defence that saw them home with the win.

It could all boil down to how many offloads the Warriors make – or instead, perhaps how many the Storm permit them to make.

The History: Played 27; Storm 13, Warriors 12, drawn 2. These sides have won four games apiece from their past eight match-ups, although the Warriors have won the past two including a stunning 18-14 victory at AAMI Park in Round 7.

Conclusion: The Warriors can’t rely on their offloading game to supply them with the platform for victory here. Their forwards will need to muscle up and provide more grunt than they have to date, or else Melbourne will shut them down and dominate through their superior backline attack.

To date jack-in-the-box second-rower Feleti Mateo is the only Warriors forward to average more than 100 metres each game. It’s time the rest of the pack rolled up their sleeves and took it to the opposition – in particular props Russell Packer (88 metres a game) and Jacob Lillyman (82 metres), whose numbers are way down near the bottom of the pecking order.

The Storm have finally climbed back to the summit they were thrown off when the salary cap scandal broke little over a year ago. Now they’re back, don’t expect too many lapses between now and September. And not this week.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Shane Rehm; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 12 noon (AEST).

* Stats: NRL Stats