Storm v Rabbitohs preview

Melbourne Storm v South Sydney Rabbitohs
AAMI Park
Sunday 7pm

It took just three minutes for Michael Maguire to find out the hard way just how unforgiving this NRL coaching game can be. In his first game in charge of South Sydney in Round 1, he was sitting pretty as the clock wound down with his side leading 20-12 and two points seemingly in the bag. Then the Roosters produced the greatest of Houdini tricks to score two quick tries and snatch the win from right under his nose.

The result is that Maguire’s Rabbitohs now find themselves still searching for their first win and facing one of the NRL’s most daunting road trips this Sunday night.

Despite this, Maguire must be pleased with much of what he saw from his players. Sure, they fell sleep, but until they learnt that valuable lesson they had managed to wear down a spirited opposition with their high-profile forward pack living up to reputation. They earned 52 per cent of possession, hit the ball up 175 times to 158, ran 1388 metres to 1235 and limited the Roosters’ try-scoring opportunities.

Certainly Maguire has plenty to work with this year. Yet, having worked as assistant to Melbourne head coach Craig Bellamy before heading to Wigan in 2009, he knows exactly what he is coming up against this weekend.

While the Storm weren’t quite at their brilliant best against Canberra on Saturday night – perhaps due to the driving rain they played in – they again proved that they have what it takes to pull out the big play when it matters most, with Billy Slater leaping high to gather in a Cooper Cronk kick and score the match-winning try.

The Storm’s star-studded spine is still the key to the side’s success and Slater, Cronk and Cameron Smith will inevitably test South Sydney’s resolve in better conditions on Sunday. Notably, the Storm only lost two regular season home games in 2011 and they’ll be keen to make it a similar fortress over the coming months.

Coach Bellamy has retained the side that won last week, with Michael Greenfield the extra man on a five-man bench.

For South Sydney, Issac Luke returns from his suspension for pushing referee Jason Robinson in the Charity Shield and has been named on a six-man bench.

Clashes between these two sides have been tight in recent times, with five of the past seven games decided by a converted try or less. The Rabbitohs boast a shocking record in Melbourne however: they have lost all eight matches played down south by a combined score of 304-58!

Watch Out Rabbitohs: South Sydney’s marker play needs to be spot on against the Storm, who made a heap of metres against Canberra from dummy-half scoots. In fact, their three top metre-gainers were all outside backs, with Justin O’Neill making 109 metres, Anthony Quinn 123 and Matt Duffie 135. Similarly, pressuring Cooper Cronk on the kick will be important after he kicked 20 times last weekend – more than any other player – for a gain of 590 metres. Those yards proved crucial in the end.

Danger Sign: Three of the four tries the Rabbitohs conceded on Monday night were through the middle of the field and coach Michael Maguire must be concerned by how soft at least two of them were. Most worrying is the fact that two big forwards managed to score under the posts from almost 10 metres out with relative ease. Lama Tasi’s sixth-minute effort was particularly embarrassing, while Jared Waerea-Hargreaves didn’t have too many problems pushing his way through four defenders either with three minutes remaining.

Watch Out Storm: The performance of five-eighth John Sutton last Monday night suggests he is ready to become the dominant playmaker he has always promised to be. At his best when taking on the line, Sutton scored a brilliant solo try shortly after half-time, made two line-breaks and ran for 148 metres. He will be looking for a similar effort against the Storm.

Danger Sign: Melbourne’s forward pack will need to show considerable improvement if they are to match it with this big Rabbitohs side. While Souths muscled up against the Roosters, the Storm’s big men were comprehensively beaten by Canberra up front – running for just 1232 metres to the Raiders’ 1427 and earning just 47 per cent of possession. Sika Manu was the only Storm forward to make 100 metres or more.

Sika Manu v Dave Taylor: Talk about a heavyweight match-up – this one truly is a clash of the titans. Manu is a brute of a man on Melbourne’s right edge – his powerful charges and bone-jarring defence a feature of the Storm’s pack over the past five seasons. He impressed by running for 100 metres in appalling conditions in Canberra but his task will be particularly tough against Taylor this weekend. South Sydney’s attacking back-rower is not only a ball of strength with the ability to burst through the tackle, he is also extremely skilful with a wonderful offload and quality passing game. Expect some big hits between the pair.

Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle will be fascinating – particularly in the back row where the vastly experienced trio of Manu, Ryan Hoffman and Todd Lowrie face off against the size and power of Taylor, Eddy Pettybourne and Michael Crocker. It will be a particularly physical contest with two competition points the prize for whoever gets on top.

The History: Played 18; Storm 15, Rabbitohs 3. Melbourne have completely dominated Souths over the years, having lost just three times in 18 clashes and boasting a perfect record at home. The Storm’s 83.3 per cent win rate is better than against any other club. South Sydney’s last win over Melbourne was a 16-14 win victory in Perth in Round 16, 2010.

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne ground out a tough 16-6 win at ANZ Stadium thanks to a superb defensive display. South Sydney dominated possession and enjoyed the superior field position but they couldn’t break their opposition down. Ironically, they led 6-0 after just nine minutes through a Dave Taylor try but two tries to Maurice Blair and Jesse Bromwich gave Melbourne a 10-6 half-time lead before Cameron Smith sealed the deal in the dying minutes.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Adam Gee & Clayton Sharp; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: Ignore the fact that Souths were dramatically run down on Monday night – they showed enough across most of the 80 minutes to suggest they have the talent to go a long way in 2012. However, tipping against Melbourne at home is sheer madness. They lost just two games at AAMI Park during the regular season last year on their way to the minor premiership and boast a similar squad this time around. Their spine of Slater, Smith, Cronk and Gareth Widdop remains their trump card and should be enough to get them home. Storm by four points.

Televised:  Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.