Roosters v Storm
Sydney Football Stadium
Sunday 7pm

The very last match of the regular NRL season will no doubt see a switched on Melbourne Storm desperate to make amends after being humbled by the Sea Eagles at Brookvale amid a hail of fists and fury.

The spectacular sideline brawl that saw players come running from both sides, including some involvement from the interchange benches, resulted in the Storm’s Adam Blair and Sea Eagles’ Glenn Stewart sent off and likely to miss the rest of the season.

For the Storm the damage doesn’t end there: Sika Manu, Sisa Waqa, Bryan Norrie and Jaiman Lowe have all taken the early guilty plea to detrimental conduct charges, but only Manu and Waqa will miss this game due to Manu’s carry-over points and Waqa’s higher charge grading.

By the time kick-off rolls around the Storm will know exactly what they have to do – if anything – to ensure the minor premiership heads south. Manly will travel to Brisbane with a squad hit hard by injuries and suspensions and will need to not only win but also make up a 30-point differential on the Storm if they are to challenge for the minor prize.

But regardless of the calculations at the top of the ladder you can be sure Storm coach Craig Bellamy will have ripped into his charges after their record 12-match winning run came shuddering to a halt. It may or may not have been “the loss they had to have” – but they’ve had it now and there will be no excuses for not turning out a polished performance this week.

Bellamy will be relieved to welcome back star halfback Cooper Cronk, especially given the suspension-enforced reshuffle in the forward pack. Cronk pushes Widdop back to five-eighth and Rory Kostjasyn to the bench. Jesse Bromwich rejoins the side at starting prop and Atelea Vea joins the bench as the third new name.

The reshuffle also sees Jaiman Lowe revert to the bench, Kevin Proctor move from lock to second row, Ryan Hinchcliffe move from the bench to the second row, and Todd Lowrie move from second row to lock.

The Roosters have lost centre Shaun Kenny-Dowall to a groin injury; Sam Perrett rejoins the squad on the wing, pushing Joseph 'BJ' Leilua into the centres. Back from a one-match suspension, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves has also been added to a five-man bench.

Watch Out Roosters: You can guarantee the Storm will be focused after the events of the past week. They will be bitterly disappointed to have lost the match so convincingly and will no doubt be frustrated to be again on the wrong end of some discipline from the NRL, no matter how deserving.
(In addition to the individual player charges the club was also fined $50,000). You can expect some extra sting in the tackles this week from the likes of Proctor, Hinchcliffe, Norrie and Bromwich.

The Storm are also boosted by the return of Cronk, who they have clearly missed in attack, to the halves. Cronk has taken more than half of Melbourne’s kicks this year and with the Storm gaining the third most metres from kicks (665 metres per game), that’s a crucial element in winning the territorial arm wrestle. Given he also leads the club for tries (12, equal with Billy Slater) try assists (15, equal with Gareth Widdop) and line-break assists (12), that’s a massive attacking contribution to try to compensate for in his absence.

Danger Sign: If the Storm start the game with a typical Melbourne set of six – five solid hit-ups followed by a kick to the corner by Cronk, backed up by a great chase and tackle – the Storm are back on song and the Roosters will have a massive job to hold them out over the 80 minutes.

Watch Out Storm: The Roosters will be hoping to fly under the radar and capitalise on the recent good form they have shown in winning their past three games.

Encouragingly some of their senior players have really stood up to be counted: in those three matches fullback Anthony Minichiello has averaged 173 running metres and prop Jason Ryles has averaged 19 runs for 152 metres (and even scored twice, including last week). Jake Friend has shown some of the best form of his career, contributing four try assists and two tries whilst averaging 47 tackles, and Braith Anasta has set up three tries as well as putting in a huge contribution with the boot, kicking 10 goals from 12 attempts while also slotting the match-winning field-goal last week.

It’s the type of play coach Brian Smith would have hoped to be seeing all year, but even though the finals are now out of reach he will be looking to those players to continue that form and finish the season on a high.

Danger Sign: Anasta is the one that really needs to lead by example. He is one of those players who is capable of pulling out a massive play when it is needed (who will ever forget his miracle field-goal against Wests Tigers in their qualifying final last year?). If the Roosters are within touching distance late in the piece Anasta will want the ball in his hands and it would take a brave man to bet against him pulling off something special.

Plays To Watch: Cooper Cronk’s miracle no-look inside ball for a Billy Slater line-break (although it probably doesn’t qualify as a miracle given how often they pull it off); plenty of dummy-half runs from Sam Perrett early in the tackle count as the Roosters work it out of their half; Widdop to revert to his more traditional 2011 role supporting Cronk and focusing on his running game; Jason Ryles to continue winding back the clock with tireless runs whenever he’s on the park.

Where It Will Be Won: Although the Storm look a stronger side on paper the mental game will be extra important here. Will the Roosters be able to maintain the rage in their last game of 2011, knowing that no matter what happens in this game they will finish 11th or 12th? In the entirely possible scenario that the Storm have the minor premiership wrapped up before the game starts, will they be able to get up for this one, with the finals just a week away? And will they be able to channel the events of the past week rather than letting it derail them?

The key individuals here will be the senior players on both teams – the Roosters’ players mentioned above as well as halfback Mitchell Pearce; and for the Storm Cronk, Slater and Cameron Smith will need to keep everybody around them focused on the task at hand and direct their sides effectively.

The History: Played 22; Storm 12, Roosters 10. The Roosters have a fair record against the Storm and have beaten them in five of the seven matches at the SFS. In fact Melbourne have won just three of their 13 matches at the ground. Melbourne have a slight edge in recent history, winning five of their past eight against the Roosters including a 21-4 victory at AAMI Park in Round 14.

Conclusion: Melbourne ought to be hungry after their disappointing loss last week and potentially could still be playing for the minor premiership. The Roosters are playing for nothing but pride. The Storm have a stronger side even with two forwards suspended, especially with Cronk back. Leading into a finals campaign the Storm should be too strong.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
 
*Statistics: NRL Stats.