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Storm v Knights
Sunday, 4pm

The weakening Storm will be hoping to arrest a worrying dip in their 2011 campaign with a convincing victory over the eighth-placed Knights who scraped into the eight via a scratchy win against the Rabbitohs at home last week.

After looking watertight all season the minor premiers have sprung a leak over the past fortnight, recording back-to-back losses to the Sea Eagles and Roosters. Whether that leak can be easily plugged, or whether it begins to gush, will be revealed this week. They’ve lost Adam Blair for the season through suspension, while last week rested stars Cameron Smith and Billy Slater watched in horror as their compadre in attack Gareth Widdop succumbed to an ankle injury that will see him sidelined for a few weeks. They also lost Jaiman Lowe as the Roosters carved them up 40-8. However, this week they get back Sika Manu and Sisa Waqa from suspension.

Meanwhile the Knights, like a racehorse that hits the lead in the straight 300 metres out from the winning post and then doesn’t know quite what to do, floundered when they rocketed to a 34-6 lead after 50 minutes. Some shoddy line defence allowed the bunnies back into the clash with a trio of too-easy tries – a major concern for coach Rick Stone as his charges regroup for a must-win encounter with the side that boasts the dynamic attack of the 2011 Dally M Medallist Billy Slater.

In Storm personnel changes Slater returns at fullback, with Beau Champion reverting to the centres. Maurice Blair fills in for Widdop in the No.6. Bryan Norrie returns to start at prop, alongside Jesse Bromwich, with Adam Woolnough hitting the pine. Cameron Smith wears the No.9, relegating Ryan Hinchcliffe to the interchange. Manu’s return sees Troy Thompson join the bench which numbers six players at this stage, including Waqa.

Meanwhile the Knights have been bolstered by the return of powerful left centre Junior Sa’u who replaces Siuatonga Likiliki. Matt Hilder’s head gash keeps him out of the contest, with Zane Tetevano named on the bench. Their only other change sees veteran Steve Southern replace Cameron Ciraldo on the interchange.

The omens aren’t good for the Knights – the Storm have won eight of their past 10 finals fixtures and are undefeated in their past five games at AAMI Park, conceding just 22 points.

Watch Out Knights: Expect Storm halfback Cooper Cronk to hit the ground running. He scored a hat-trick against the Titans in Round 23 and during that game he also offered a trademark inside ball for Billy Slater to scythe through the ruck and score. Memories of his two try assists in their Round 8 thrashing will still haunt the Knights’ players. His support play needs watching – he’s crossed for 12 tries in 2011, the most by any halfback (two more than Johnathan Thurston). Cronk is also a prolific kicker, putting boot to football a whopping 288 times so far (nearly 14 a game, second most by any player). Knights including Chris Houston (three charge-downs each) need to pressure him or they could find themselves on the back foot all night.

Danger Sign: No-one gets their pack rolling forward quite like Storm captain Cameron Smith. He also has an uncanny sense of taking the right option to catch an opponent napping. The Kangaroos’ hooker and Australian captain-in-waiting can be lethal setting up plays from dummy-half; he’s made 231 ruck runs and three busts from dummy-half, both stats the second most by any player. He loves to attack the blind side, picking up hard-hitting edge runners with flat passes at the line. Only Robbie Farah has touched the ball more than Smith, who has tallied 2506 receives (109 a game).  

Storm Plays To Watch: The Storm prefer to attack the right side of the field where they’ve crossed for 41 tries – the third most by any team in 2011. Kevin Proctor is a threat running angles close to the line, while Billy Slater is the master at chiming into the backline – he stood up the Knights with ease in Round 8 when providing Matt Duffie clear passage to the line for a clinical try. The Knights’ left-edge defenders need to muscle-up – they’ve conceded 35 tries down that side of the field. Meanwhile the Cronk/Slater combination is almost impossible to defend against; the pair have a telepathic connection.

Watch Out Storm: The Knights are the most powerful running team in the competition, leading the way for line-breaks (4.9 a game) and tackle-breaks (average 41). They have scored the second-most tries as a direct result of line-breaks (34). Winger Akuila Uate is their strike weapon; he leads all players for tackle-breaks (148) and has crossed for 19 tries – including four last week. He’s added 18 line-breaks and is good for an average 143 metres a game. The Storm marker defence needs to hustle up on Knights’ halfback Jarrod Mullen any time he’s standing off the ruck near his 40-metre line – Mullen always chances his arm at a 40/20 and he co-leads the NRL with four in 2011.  

Danger Sign: Although the Storm concede the sixth-fewest metres of all teams each game, here they’re up against a juggernaut that ranks second to only the Dragons for gaining territory. The Knights average 1396 metres a game, and they earn a lot of that out wide. They’re particularly strong in the centres where left-edge player Junior Sa’u has pumped out 58 tackle busts and 17 offloads, while evergreen Adam MacDougall has crossed for four tries in just eight games and is averaging almost five tackle busts each outing. (The last time MacDougall tasted victory in a finals clash though was way back in the 2001 grand final!)

Knights Plays To Watch: The Knights love an attacking kick to the flanks. They’ve booted 68 cross-field bombs to date, the most in the comp, and have come up with tries from kicks on 18 occasions. They are also right-side specialists, scoring 41 tries on that side of the field compared to just 23 on the left. They love to use the full width of the field and will involve more than just one second-man decoy as they spread it wide. Uate will also leave his left wing and go looking for work, adding extra punch in centre-field and confusing opposition defences. Richie Fa’aoso’s sneaky offloads (23 to date) must be contained.

Billy Slater v Kurt Gidley: They might be small in stature but boy do these guys pack some attacking punch! Both are dynamite runners of the football; they like to run with the ball in two hands, which puts defenders in two minds about their intentions. Dally M Medal winner Slater and Gidley both have devastating sidesteps, excellent vision and are capable of keeping plays going with late offloads. Both teams will need to make sure they provide a good kick chase, as each fullback can cause carnage with their returns. Slater ranks fourth for kick-return metres with 1283. He has scored 12 tries in 18 finals appearances (for 13 wins) and requires just one more to equal Anthony Minichiello for the most by any active player. Both Slater and Gidley are masters at sniffing out opportunities in centre-field and are vital cogs inside the opposition 20-metre line. Gidley has provided 10 try assists in just 17 games so far. Whoever wins this personal duel could lay the foundations for victory.

The History: Played 26; Storm 14, Knights 12. The Storm have won eight of the past 10 against the Knights, including two matches last season. Worrying for Newcastle fans is the fact the Knights haven’t won a game in Melbourne since Round 2, 2004! The Storm have won both games played at AAMI Park, including a 34-4 victory in Round 26 last year and a 42-12 thrashing in Round 8.

Last Time They Met: Melbourne led 18-12 in Round 8 when Knights’ captain Kurt Gidley exited the game with a shoulder dislocation two minutes before halftime. The Storm then piled on four unanswered tries in the second 40. The home team’s victory was achieved on the back of a massive 17 offloads to the Knights’ three, with a superior second-half completions rate (80 per cent to 63 per cent). The Knights dropped their defensive intensity in the second half, contributing 21 of their game-total 36 missed tackles. In a surprise, the Storm dominated line-breaks 8-5.

Conclusion: It’s a huge ask of the Knights to lance the Storm on their own patch. Too big, in fact. The Novocastrians should be preparing for Wayne Bennett’s arrival after this weekend. Storm by 10 points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Reid; Video Refs – Paul Simpkins & Phil Cooley.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 6pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats