Their form has come into question following consecutive losses to end the regular season and a slow finish against Newcastle last week, but former Melbourne halfback Brett Kimmorley is adamant that the Storm remain clear favourites to win this year’s grand final.
Despite big wins by fellow top-four sides Manly and Brisbane and the Tigers’ impressive second-half demolition of reigning premiers St George Illawarra, Kimmorley believes Melbourne were by far the most impressive of the remaining contenders in Week One of the finals and said it will take a special effort to beat them to the premiership.
“I thought they still showed in the first 40 minutes last week that they’re the best side in the competition,” the recently retired veteran said. “They execute their plays better than anyone in the NRL when they’re given a chance to put all their attacking plays together.
“They’ve still got the best kicking game in the competition; they’ve got the best catcher of the ball at the back so they don’t really give you anything.
“People say that their forward pack is a little bit lost but Jesse Bromwich and Sika Manu were outstanding against Newcastle. They’re two fairly large-framed players that led by example.
“I think with Melbourne, if you give them chances they will beat you on any given day. The side that wins the competition is going to have to play perfect football on grand final day and they’ll certainly have to do so to beat Melbourne.”
While observers were widely glowing in their praise of Brisbane, the Tigers and Manly, Kimmorley, who won a premiership with Melbourne in 1999, has offered a different perspective – insisting that there were some worrying signs in the slow starts of the latter two.
“The dominance I saw from those two sides in the second half shows that when they get a side on the ropes they’re good enough to blow them away, but in my mind those sides looked a bit nervous for the first 40 minutes,” he said.
“I mean, there were two big errors from Johnathan Thurston that you wouldn’t usually see that got Manly into the game and then once that happened they seemed to find their rhythm.
“A similar thing happened to the Tigers. The Dragons gifted them a few mistakes and that got them into the game and eased the pressure they were under. After that they relaxed and started to play a bit of football.”
While Kimmorley said it would be premature to write off any of the top-four sides, he was quick to dismiss the chances of St George Illawarra who have struggled to find their usual ruthlessness during the second half of the season – although his comments were written off by Dragons back-rower Beau Scott who told NRL.com today that the premiers could still defend their title.
Kimmorley said that the departure of forwards Jeremy Smith and Neville Costigan after last year’s grand final win had had a significant impact on the club.
“I don’t know if they have the punch to win it anymore,” he observed. “I think the loss of those two, it doesn’t allow them to take the two points on offer and then wear sides down anymore. They don’t have that physicality in the forwards anymore.”
But Scott said it was premature to write off the Dragons given their dominance over the past three years.
“I think the last couple of games we’ve played against the Tigers have all been pretty tight so I’m not sure [last week’s loss] is cause for any concern,” Scott said. “There are no easy games at this time of year and every side is in the top eight because they’ve earned it.
“Everyone has their structures in place at this end of the season. We showed in the first 40 minutes last week what we’re capable of so it’s just a matter of doing it for 80 minutes.”
Kimmorley noted that all six remaining sides had major motivating factors to go all the way this year including Darren Lockyer’s departure from Brisbane, Wayne Bennett’s final season at the Dragons and similar scenarios at the Tigers and Warriors but said the Craig Bellamy factor at Melbourne was significant.
“There are some outstanding coaches still left in the competition but I think that if you look at any game plan you can see that Craig identifies where the weaknesses are and that’s where he targets a lot,” he said. “His players stay on the job more than any other side. They stay on their game plan and rarely go away from it.
“So I wasn’t overly concerned by those losses heading into the finals and was given confidence by their first 40 minutes last week that the two weeks prior had done nothing to affect their preparation.”