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Storm v Dragons
Friday 7.35pm

‘Wow’ – is there a better word to describe just how things have transpired for these two teams as they line up for what many had earmarked as the grand final warm-up just six weeks ago?

As the Origin series began the Dragons were flying so high one bookmaker paid out on them to win the minor premiership so he could entice people back into a new market. Oops.

Now, after another loss (they’ve won just two of their past 10 and lost four on the trot) the Dragons can actually miss the finals altogether!

It is an unlikely scenario but certainly possible if they fail to win another game. As it stands they are fifth and still can get back into the top four if they can leapfrog the Cowboys in the final three weeks.

On the other hand the Storm are in cruise control. They have lost just three games all season, are four points clear atop the table and are all but assured of a top-two finish. They enter this clash with 11 wins in a row to their name, gunning down a club record 12th – plus they have the wood on the Dragons, so confidence will be high.

Should they win they’d all-but be assured of the minor premiership, as only two heavy losses and two big Manly wins over the last two rounds (assuming Manly win this week) could stop them.

They do, however, have to line up without inspirational halfback Cooper Cronk after he succumbed to a foot injury. Cronk was the chief destroyer last week with a hat-trick of tries so he’ll be sorely missed here and over the next three weeks. His absence means Gareth Widdop will shift from five-eighth to half, Maurice Blair will come in from centre to play five-eighth and Beau Champion will return at centre.

In the other team changes Sisa Waqa comes on to the wing for Justin O’Neill and Ryan Hinchcliffe returns to the side on the bench.

Billy Slater celebrates his 200th game in the NRL, another reason for the Storm to party.

As for the Dragons, coach Bennett has resisted making big changes despite another ‘stinky’ performance against the Roosters. Their only change sees Mark Gasnier return, sending Kyle Stanley back to an extended bench.

Watch Out Storm: The Dragons are low on confidence so the Melbourne boys’ aim will be to keep them down in the dumps. But there are two sneaky little statistics that could derail the Storm and allow the Dragons to get back their groove.

First, it’s penalties. While the Dragons were on the end of a scrum penalty issue late last week that killed off any remote chance of a comeback, they are in fact the most disciplined team in the NRL. The Dragons have conceded just 95 penalties this season while the Storm are the second worst side in the league with 133 against. It might not seem like much but it equates to nearly two penalties more against them a game. If they give the Dragons early and easy field position they are inviting them to gain their confidence back with points. The good news is Cronk (with 13) is their most-penalised player – although Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Adam Blair have each been nabbed 12 times.

Second, the Dragons have scored the most tries this year directly off a turnover. With seven for the year it shows the Red V are ready to attack as soon as a mistake is made. The Storm can’t be dropping passes and assume one of their guys is going to get it. If a Dragon pounces they just may turn on the attack immediately. Again, this type of play is always a huge morale-lifter for one side, and a heart-breaker for the other.  

Danger Sign: The Dragons’ confidence can often be linked to their defence. If they aren’t defending well you’ll know they aren’t up for the game. If they are scrambling for each other and revving each other up, then that’s the Dragons of old.

Watch Out Dragons: The loss of Cronk is huge for the Storm but it’s not like Gareth Widdop has been playing poorly. Plus, in his 200th game, you can expect Slater to be out to scorch the turf.

Widdop has been a revelation for the Storm this season at five-eighth, grabbing 14 line-breaks, six line-break assists, two tries and 14 try assists. The latter stat alone should give his team-mates confidence about taking over for Cronk. But while they need to watch Widdop, the Dragons know without Cronk some playmaking will also fall to Cameron Smith. It’s important they are prepared for his sneaky attacking raids. As for Slater – well, the ultra-impressive custodian has tallied 15 line-breaks, 10 line-break assists, 11 tries, 14 try assists, 114 tackle-breaks and 30 offloads… you could say he’s in good form! He leads the league in support running and will want to outpoint fellow Queenslander Darius Boyd.

Danger Sign: If you see Widdop, Maurice Blair or Smith running to the line and Slater looming up on the inside shoulder then you know the side is ready to just continue their mojo. A Cronk/Slater pet play is to run to the line right and then turn back to the inside for the fullback. If they can still feed Slater formidable ball this way it will be a sign the substitute combinations are working just fine.

Plays To Watch: Dragons looking to isolate Anthony Quinn with kicks; Ben Creagh’s one-arm offloads, Cameron Smith’s dummy-half scoots, attacking a lumbering Michael Weyman.

Where It Will Be Won: The shift plays. Rugby league success in the past few seasons has been based on good ball-shifting plays. The Dragons are dynamite left, the Storm awesome going right. Both are adept attacking the corresponding opposite sides too, but they definitely prefer their strengths.

The Dragons have scored 22 tries on the left sideline and a further 17 on the left edge. The Storm have scored 14 tries on the right sideline and 26 on the right fringe.

For the Dragons, the halves shift left and then involve fullback Darius Boyd as the ‘sweep’ out the back, or Ben Creagh hitting the hard straight line. Matt Cooper and Brett Morris wait out wide.

The Storm shift right and have Slater ready to chime in out the back, and either Adam Blair or Kevin Proctor looking to run flat. Out wide this week will be Beau Champion and Sisa Waqa.

In terms of defence in 2011, the Storm have let just 15 tries by them on the left side, giving them steel-like confidence against the Dragons’ shift. The Dragons have leaked 24 tries on the right side so they’ll be hoping to stick solid.

Applying the flip-side in attack and defence, it is the same players involved defending as attacking: the Cooper/Morris and Champion/Waqa defence will be critical.

The History: Played 24; Storm 17, Dragons 6, drawn 1. Melbourne has had it all over the Dragons for some time. They have won 10 of the past 12 matches between the clubs. The two sides are yet to meet at AAMI Park – but the Dragons haven’t won in Melbourne since the first week of the 1999 finals. In the past four games at Melbourne venues the Storm have won 88-26, or 22-6 on average.

Conclusion: On form you can only pick one team: Melbourne. History also favours Melbourne. What we will get here is a real insight into the Dragons’ psyche. Without Cronk the Storm are a little vulnerable but the Dragons need to be up to the challenge. If they aim up, they’re not dead and buried in 2011. But if they roll over and die, as has been the case in most weeks recently (the Wests Tigers game excluded), you can just about stick the fork in them.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Touch Judges – Daniel Eastwood & Steve Carrall; Video Ref – Russel Smith.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.