Bulldogs v Storm
Nine games out from the regular season this could be the clash that determines the minor premiership – while the badly out-of-sorts Bulldogs will be praying a trip to the City of Churches can get their finals campaign back on track.
The blue-and-whites buckled badly away to the Panthers last week, recording their sixth loss from their past eight games to plummet outside the finals zone. Meanwhile losses by the Dragons and Broncos left the Sea Eagles as the nearest challenger to the Storm’s quest for top billing through Round 26 – but they’re just two points back and ready to swoop should Melbourne falter.
It all adds up to a clash of maximum intensity and one that should test the reserves of Melbourne’s Origin back-up contingent in particular – in the corresponding clash at Adelaide Oval last year the Bulldogs prevailed 20-18.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy would have had a small grin on his face as his troops rested up with the bye last week while the Dragons and Broncos battled on without their Origin players. They enter this clash on a five-game wining streak, losing just one of their past eight games. Despite shedding a wealth of talent to get back under the salary cap in the off-season they have maintained their reputation as a team that has few weaknesses in defence and plenty of spark in attack.
Meanwhile the Bulldogs are in danger of dropping out of the finals equation altogether. They currently sit 10th on the ladder, with the worst points differential of the four sides equal on 18 competition points. A loss here would see them overtaken by the Sharks should they beat the Raiders at home, dropping them to 11th, with a tough away game against the Warriors in New Zealand next week. Clearly it’s time they stood up and they won’t get a better opportunity against the Storm than the week after Origin when Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk’s energy stocks are low.
In team changes, the Bulldogs have shifted Kris Keating back to five-eighth after he covered at hooker for the absent Michael Ennis last week. But the big news is that Ennis is out of this clash after he worryingly started coughing up blood in the first 20 minutes of Wednesday night’s Origin decider; his unavailability sees Ben Roberts rejoin the squad.
Elsewhere, big Sam Kasiano has been named to start at prop with David Stagg promoted from the bench to start at lock and Dene Halatau relegated to the pine (Halatau plays his 150th NRL game).
Martin Talapau and Greg Eastwood, who missed last week’s game with the Panthers, are the new faces on the bench.
Meanwhile the Storm welcome back Bryan Norrie at prop, which pushes Sika Manu to the bench. Ryan Hinchcliffe will start at lock for Todd Lowrie who has a calf injury that will sideline him for one more week. Anthony Quinn, Justin O’Neill and Beau Champion are the new faces on an extended bench that numbers seven at this stage.
Watch Out Bulldogs: Storm halfback Cooper Cronk loves games against the Bulldogs more than other sides – he’s sung the Storm victory song on seven of the nine occasions the teams have met. And he’s been a huge contributor to those wins, amassing 11 try assists – the third most by any active player in the NRL behind thirtysomethings Matt Orford and Darren Lockyer.
Cronk and five-eighth Gareth Widdop team as the most potent halves combination in the competition, tallying 21 try assists to date plus seven tries. Widdop is proving a handful to contain, with 14 line-breaks ranking him second to the Bulldogs’ Ben Barba, while he’s registered 56 tackle-breaks – on a level with the sort of dynamic impact Benji Marshall (59 tackle-breaks) gives the Tigers in the No.6 jersey.
Ben Barba had an uncharacteristically poor game fielding kicks last weekend against the Panthers, coughing up two tries. Of particular concern was the fact he let a bomb bounce, conceding a soft try to Travis Burns. First grade footballers don’t do that. The query is whether or not Barba will rebound favourably from such a confidence-sapping ordeal.
You can bet Cronk will test him out again here – and early.
Danger Sign: When Widdop and Cronk run the ball they can makes things happen – the Storm have made the most half-breaks in the comp (36). They also have the best support player in the NRL in fullback Billy Slater (98 supports, average 15 runs for 135 metres), meaning the slightest opportunity can result in points.
Watch Out Storm: Although the Bulldogs are currently averaging their fewest points per game since 1990 (just 17.7) the danger this week is they grow another leg in Adelaide, where they have scored 14 tries from just three appearances.
The Storm needs to round up Ben Barba early after their clearing kicks or he’ll create havoc. Via Barba the Dogs have registered the most line-breaks from kick-returns by any team (seven). Somewhat surprisingly the Storm have offered the second-most poor chases in the comp (28), which may account for the high number of kick-return line-breaks they’ve conceded.
Despite his wobbly effort under kicks last week Barba still made an impact in attack, making game highs in line-breaks (two), tackle-breaks (nine) and offloads (three). He’ll relish the chance to punish any lazy chasers and will target winger Matt Duffie (three poor chases).
Danger Sign: If Barba makes a couple of half-breaks inside the opening 20 minutes he’ll grow in confidence and it will lift the whole team. Expect Jamal Idris to follow the example on the right fringe where he just might run amok.
Plays To Watch: Ben Barba and Jamal Idris busting loose – their 78 and 76 tackle-breaks respectively are the fourth and fifth most in the NRL; Trent Hodkinson stepping it up a notch against Cooper Cronk; Cameron Smith ruling the ruck in Ennis’ absence; Gareth Widdop using his speed and deception to get around Idris; Kevin Proctor running inside lines from close range; Billy Slater contributing at least one off-the-cuff moment of magic or try saver.
Where It Will Be Won: Dictating the ruck. With Ennis out the Storm will be red-hot favourites here.
Cameron Smith gets his hands on the football more than any player in the NRL (1632 receives). He loves to create opportunities out of dummy-half where he has made 49 tackle-breaks and averages 13 runs a game.
There’s every chance he’ll sit out the first period of the game, as he did after Origin II, which will make him even more dangerous when he looks to target some tired Bulldogs.
The History: Played 26; Bulldogs 14, Storm 12. The Storm have won six of the past eight games between the sides, including a 30-16 victory in Round 4. The Bulldogs beat the Storm in the only game played at Adelaide Oval (last year).
Conclusion: If the Storm’s defence holds tight like it has to date they’ll get the competition points. So far Melbourne are the benchmark defensive unit, conceding just 12 points and 2.1 tries per game. They miss the fewest tackles (just 27), concede the third-fewest metres (1268) and the second-fewest line-breaks and offloads (2.7 and 9 respectively).
On top of that, the Bulldogs back-pedal more than any other side, conceding the most territory in the league every game (1448 metres).
Given their precarious position on the ladder, and recent talk surrounding the possible axing of coach Kevin Moore, even before season’s end, there’s every chance we’ll see a more spirited Bulldogs team this weekend. But an in-form team 1 versus a spluttering team 10? It’s a no-brainer – Storm by six points.
Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Stats: NRL Stats