Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos
AAMI Park
Friday 7.35pm

Even if you’re a fan based in Sydney you have got to be excited about this blockbuster to kick off the ‘Glory Bound’ rounds.

Rivalry Round may have come and gone but there is plenty of spice in every Storm-Broncos clash and with both sides flying in the top four, it’s definitely a finals preview.

This is the 30th clash between the two teams, who battled out a grand final in 2006 and who have always provided non-stop entertainment.

The Storm have won an impressive eight straight games to lead the NRL, while the Broncos sit in fourth spot on the ladder and are coming off the back of two straight wins. With the minor premiership still up for grabs both sides need to step up their intensity and make a statement.

The Storm were at their clinical best in smashing Canberra 26-0 last weekend. Perhaps more ominously though they were also aggressive and took the fight to the Raiders when things got heated.

Clearly this Melbourne side is prepared to get in amongst it when things get rough.

Cameron Smith (hooker) and Bryan Norrie (prop) have been named to run on again despite starting off the bench last week; Ryan Hinchcliffe and Todd Lowrie move back to the reserves list. Jaiman Lowe has been added to an extended bench.

Coming off their second bye the Broncos gave the Titans a 30-10 hiding last weekend, working out any rust just in time to line up against the current NRL benchmark.

Their only personnel change sees prop Scott Anderson return, with Mitchell Dodds heading back to an extended bench.

Watch Out Storm: The Broncos’ right-edge attack started to really heat up last week against the Titans. With Origin finished the Lockyer-Thaiday-Hodges combination is going to be crucial to the Broncos’ premiership hopes.

Last week Thaiday and Hodges both bagged tries while Lockyer made a long break before sending winger Jharal Yow Yeh over to score. Lockyer now has 14 try assists for the season; Thaiday is averaging 106 metres; and Hodges 122 metres with four line-breaks. Their numbers are low compared to other years, although now they have the premiership goal in sight with nothing in between – no injuries (knock on wood) and no rep season.

Danger Sign: Storm figureheads Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater will have warned their team-mates about the Broncos’ trio but they still need to execute defensively. Lockyer won’t be afraid to shift right on the last tackle, while it’s certain Hodges will be scouting for dummy-half runs.

Watch Out Broncos: NRL Stats has dug up some gold on Slater – if the Broncos’ didn’t fear him already they will certainly fear him after hearing these numbers. Slater has 15 tries from 19 career appearances to make him the most prolific try scorer against the Broncos in league history! If that’s not enough, Slater has also recorded the most line-breaks (19) and tackle-breaks (97) over his opponents and requires only 43 more to overtake Anthony Minichiello (2604) for the most metres ever gained by an individual against Brisbane.

Danger Sign: Slater is so good in so many ways… it really is hard to contain him. He supports up the middle brilliantly so the Broncos must limit offloads. He chimes into backlines seamlessly and his kick-returns can be deadly. They need to kick away from him.

Currently the Broncos have the third worst accuracy in kicking to open space – they kick direct to the opposition 52 per cent of the time. They need to do better than that here or Slater will burn them big time.

Plays To Watch: Peter Wallace and Cooper Cronk both having a crack alone from close range; Sam Thaiday’s belated offloads; Justin Hodges’ right-foot step; Cameron Smith’s scoots; Gareth Widdop’s support play.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Both teams have superstars with attacking skills galore but it’s the side that muscles up and gets dirty in defence that will come up trumps.

The Broncos are conceding 15.76 points per game this season (ranked 4th) while the Storm are the best in the NRL conceding just 11.65 points a game. The Broncos’ defence is 86.9 per cent effective, the Storm’s 88.7 per cent. Brisbane is missing 31.5 tackles a match (ranked fifth fewest), the Storm 26.8 (the fewest).

The Storm will be targeting the Brisbane halves in defence while the Broncos will be looking to spot the Melbourne No.6 and No.7 also.

Then there is the role of the dummy-halves, who need to exploit the tiring forwards. With this in mind the Storm have the edge with the world’s best, Cameron Smith. After two weeks of starting on the bench he is ready to get back to 80 minutes of game time. His counterpart Andrew McCullough needs to fire up for one of the games of his life.  

The History: Played 29; Storm 17, Broncos 11, drawn 1. Melbourne took care of business 29-22 against a weakened Broncos outfit in Round 9 to take the recent record to eight of the past 10 since the 2006 grand final. The Storm’s 62 per cent winning record over Brisbane is the best by any team against the Broncos. The two sides have met only once at AAMI Park – for it’s opening last year – when the Broncos destroyed the Storm 36-14.

Conclusion: The Storm have been flying and should only be better with Smith back starting. They are usually brilliant at home and this is the factor that gives them the edge.

But the Broncos will want to step up and make a statement in this match – and it is very rare a team wins nine in a row in today’s day and age, so don’t count them out.

The only genuine conclusion you can draw is the big names will be in for big games. And that means you’ll get your money’s worth!

If we have to jump off the fence we’ll opt for the Storm by four points.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ashley Klein; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm; (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am Saturday.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.