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Storm v Warriors
AAMI Park, Melbourne
Saturday, 7.45pm

Rest assured that even the almighty Melbourne Storm squad members would have given one another a knowing look when the Warriors stormed home to upset Wests Tigers last Friday night. Of all the sides that could have worked their way through to a grand final qualifier against Melbourne, the Warriors provide the most intriguing of match-ups.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy noted this week that he didn’t know which Warriors side would turn up this weekend – the erratic problem child that conceded two insanely soft tries in their first 40 minutes against the Tigers… or the lethal and unpredictable attacking machine that made amends in the second 40 – but he certainly knows what the latter can do.

The Warriors did, after all, win their last encounter at AAMI Park with a gritty 18-14 result in Round 7. They also scored one of the great finals upsets with an18-15 win in a qualifying final in 2008. Overall Melbourne suffers a worse home record against the Warriors than any other side, with just a 50 per cent win rate. Still, Melbourne will start as deserved favourites. The minor premiers boast the most-feared spine of any side in the Telstra Premiership with Dally M Medallist Billy Slater always a threat and Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk orchestrating their side’s every move with precision. They are well-drilled, offer few weaknesses and will punish the slightest mistake.

All of that said, the continued absence of forward leader Adam Blair through suspension is a notable loss and the Warriors’ imposing pack will look to get on top early.

Melbourne’s weapons are there for all to see but the Warriors are no slouches themselves. In Kevin Locke, Shaun Johnson and James Maloney they have speed to burn around the ruck, while giant winger Manu Vatuvei always makes his presence felt. Both of these sides love kicking cross-field to their wingers, with Vatuvei one of the NRL’s best in the air, so his clash with Matt Duffie will be fascinating to watch. Similarly, the head-to-head battle between centres Dane Nielsen and Krisnan Inu looms as a highlight following Inu’s heroics against the Tigers last week.

The Storm will certainly be tough to beat. In five preliminary finals appearances they are yet to lose, while they have lost just two of 11 finals game over the past five seasons! Yet whatever happens, the signs all point to this being a close one – 18 of the 28 games between these combatants have been decided by single figures.

In personnel changes, utility Rory Kostjasyn, who was a late withdrawal from the Storm’s team that played Newcastle in a qualifying final due to a hamstring strain, returns for Atelea Vea. Meanwhile Warriors coach Ivan Cleary has recalled promising rookie Elijah Taylor for Ukuma Ta’ai.

Watch Out Warriors: Dally M Medallist Billy Slater will constantly test the Warriors’ defence with his incisive kick returns and steady support play. Slater is lethal in broken play situations or when a defensive line isn’t set. With 17 line-breaks in 2011, the Warriors must put in a good kick-chase to cut down on his opportunities. They will also need to be awake to one of Melbourne’s pet plays. Typically coming on the back of a quick play-the-ball, the Storm will go right to halfback Cooper Cronk who will turn a no-look ball back inside to a flying Slater. Slater scored a try in exactly this manner against the Gold Coast in Round 23.

Danger Sign: Melbourne’s kicking game is the best in the NRL and the Warriors must work hard to cut down the time halves Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop have to make metres with the boot. The Storm averaged a whopping 659 metres per game through kicks during the regular season and there is no doubt that the Warriors’ back three will be tested this Saturday. Two key kicks they must be wary of are the mid-field bomb and the cross-field kick. Melbourne’s 49 mid-field bombs during the regular season were easily the most by any side, with the Sydney Roosters next with 39. And they love kicking for their wingers, their 65 cross-field kicks bettered only by Newcastle.

Storm Plays To Watch: He might not provide the spectacular, like fellow stars Cronk and Slater, but captain Cameron Smith is the beating heart of Melbourne’s attack. No player in the Telstra Premiership marshals his side with such precision and much of the Storm’s go-forward stems from his crisp dummy-half passing. Smith is a master at getting his side going forward then shovelling the ball out to Cronk and co. when opportunity arises. In particular the Warriors must keep an eye on every player in motion when defending their line – Smith is superb at picking out the right man to isolate defenders and provide his side with close-range tries. The Storm’s 45 tries from within 10 metres of the line is fourth most in the NRL this season, with Smith providing nine try assists and nine line-break assists.

Watch Out Storm: Never mind his disastrous game against Brisbane two weeks ago – Manu Vatuvei remains one of the Warriors’ great weapons. The 112kg giant is a mountain of strength on the wing where he is the key target-man for halves James Maloney and Shaun Johnson. Like Melbourne themselves, the Warriors have hoisted 65 cross-field kicks this season and rank second for most tries from kicks with 24 (behind Brisbane’s 25). Vatuvei has scored 11 tries from 10 line-breaks in 2011 while his dummy-half scoots and ability to help out the forwards has seen him average 108 metres per game.

Danger Sign: The biggest threat the Warriors pose with the ball in hand is their ability to keep the ball alive and run the defence ragged. There is little doubt that Melbourne will focus much of their defensive techniques on trying to shut the ball down this week – but doing so is easier said than done. The Warriors ranked second for offloads during the regular season with 328 (behind Penrith’s 334), second for tries from offloads with 11 and third for line-break assists from offloads with 21. Notably, Melbourne have only conceded four tries from offloads in 2011.

Warriors Plays To Watch: Five-eighth James Maloney has become the Warriors’ chief playmaker this season and his impressive form over the back half of 2011 is a key reason why the Kiwi outfit is now one win away from their second grand final appearance. Maloney boasts 15 try assists and five line-break assists to date, while his running game has also been a feature with 13 line-breaks of his own. In particular he has formed a lethal combination around the rucks with Shaun Maloney and Kevin Locke, where their speed and quick passing makes life difficult for opposition forwards. Maloney and Locke combined to score a crucial try against Wests Tigers last week with a brilliant piece of improvised play. Not afraid to run the ball, Maloney has advanced 161 times in 2011.

Sika Manu v Feleti Mateo: These two left-edge back-rowers have little in common when it comes to the intricacies of their game yet there is no doubt that Melbourne’s Sika Manu and the Warriors’ Feleti Mateo will play key roles for their respective sides this Saturday night. Manu – a big, powerful, no-nonsense player with a penchant for running over the top of his opposite number – has enjoyed a strong return from injury in 2011 with 1566 metres and 62 tackle-breaks. Mateo offers a different set of skills – his running game highlighted by superb skill and the best offload in the NRL. In fact, he tops the NRL Telstra Premiership this season for offloads with 112.

The History: Played 28; Storm 14, Warriors 12, drawn 2. If there is one side that has the ability to take Melbourne out of their comfort zone, it’s the Warriors. And while the Storm deserve their strong favouritism after taking out the minor premiership, their daunting home record has never been one to worry the boys from New Zealand. In fact, it was only three years ago that the Warriors recorded one of their finest ever wins in Week One of the finals when Michael Witt’s late try secured an 18-15 win to keep their season alive. The Warriors will also be bolstered by the fact that they’ve already won at AAMI Park in 2011 – an 18-14 result in Round 7. Little separates these two sides over the years, with Melbourne leading the head-to-head count 14-12.

Last Time They Met: The Storm won a tough, grinding contest 16-8 on the back of two Billy Slater tries at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 16. With Cooper Cronk’s kicking game driving the Warriors bananas, Melbourne scored three tries to one with prop Adam Blair leading the way with 127 metres and 31 tackles. Despite the loss, Warriors back-rower Feleti Mateo gave the visitors a timely reminder of what he is capable of with a game-high 193 metres, including two line-breaks and five offloads. Lock Elijah Taylor notched a whopping 60 tackles in just 45 minutes of game-time.

Conclusion: The Warriors have the weapons to beat anyone on their day and Melbourne would be playing with fire if they had already mentally booked their flights to Sydney next week. But it’s hard to ignore the brilliance of this Storm outfit. They remain the toughest team in the Telstra Premiership to break down and despite some hiccups towards the end of the regular season there is little to suggest they will come into this one at anything other than 100 per cent.

There is certainly motivation for both sides, with Warriors coach Ivan Cleary and veteran utility Lance Hohaia among those on their way out, but the fire still burns inside Melbourne following last year’s salary cap saga.

It will take a Herculean effort for the visitors to cause another upset this time around.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dan Eastwood; Video Refs – Sean Hampstead & Chris Ward.

Televised: Live – Channel 9, 7.45pm; Delayed – Fox Sports, 10pm.