Melbourne Storm v Sydney Roosters
Sunday 2pm (AEDT)
Storm fans will be eyeing this as an easy kill given the Roosters’ lacklustre win over a Raiders side decimated by injuries last Sunday – but such is the competitive nature of the NRL you can guarantee coach Craig Bellamy won’t be lulled into any false sense of security.
The Storm ran over the top of a gallant Titans outfit last Sunday, morphing a modest 4-nil halftime lead into a 36-10 rout, with Billy Slater contributing two jaw-dropping tries.
Their third successive win, following victories over the Raiders and Rabbitohs, leaves the Storm one of just two undefeated sides in 2012, trailing the Bulldogs by a mere five points differential. Once again defence is the backbone of their campaign, with the side conceding the fewest points and tries per game, while missing the second-fewest tackles. That solid platform continues to wear down opponents, leaving them vulnerable to the venomous strikes of Cooper Cronk and Slater.
Meanwhile the Roosters are lucky to have escaped with the win last week after doing everything they could to surrender the advantage to the Raiders. After being one of the better-disciplined teams over the opening fortnight and squandering possession just 23 times in two games the tricolours made a whopping 21 errors against the Raiders. Their 51 per cent completion rate was a new low and you just know Brian Smith would have stripped the paint from the dressing room walls with his post-match spray.
The Roosters’ ineptitude gifted their battling opposition seven full sets of six tackles more – if they offer that to the Storm this week it will be a cricket score.
Craig Bellamy has rushed Origin centre Dane Nielsen back into the team after his recovery from injury. Neilsen replaces Maurice Blair in an otherwise unchanged line-up.
Meanwhile, Roosters coach Brian Smith has made just one forced change, recalling Boyd Cordner into the second row for the injured Aidan Guerra, whose ankle injury is expected to keep him sidelined for a fortnight.
The Roosters will need to be well in the match by halftime – stats show the Storm have conceded just four second-half tries in their past eight games.
Watch Out Storm: Shaun Kenny-Dowall’s 2012 debut augured well for the coming months with his contribution a highlight on an otherwise dim afternoon. In his first game back after recovering from a lacerated kidney suffered in February, the Kiwis international appeared confident and ran with menace down the right edge. He set up Daniel Mortimer’s try with a typical bullocking run, adding 134 metres. His seven tackle busts were the most by any player on the field.
SK-D’s return allowed Mitchell Aubusson to revert back to his preferred position in the second row where he was allowed to inject himself selectively down the right edge. The benefits were there to see with Aubusson chiming in for two impressive line-breaks.
On the other side of the field centre BJ Leilua is proving adept at keeping the ball alive and creating opportunities. He made five against the Raiders and his never-say-die attitude allowed him to slip a dream ball to Anasta for a crucial try. Also, Leilua ran riot the last time these sides met, scoring a hat-trick of tries and making a game-high two line-breaks.
Danger Sign: The Storm can’t allow fullback Anthony Minichiello and right winger Sam Perrett any latitude carting the ball up. Minichiello is the Roosters’ go-to man on kick returns, adding 140 metres fielding punts just last week; he leads the league with 271 kick-return metres overall, plus he ranks second behind Paul Gallen for total territory (544 metres).
Perrett is a specialist at clawing out territory from dummy-half – he has 23 marker runs to date and ranks fifth for total hit-ups (with 56).
Prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will be psyched for a huge performance against a favourite foe – injected off the bench last meeting the Kiwi representative really stuck it to the Storm with 19 hit-ups for 172 metres and 22 tackles. You can bet he’ll relish going up against Jason Ryles, who the Roosters dumped from their roster at the end of last season.
Watch Out Roosters: No side converts chances into points more than the Storm. This is borne out by the statistics: Melbourne rank 6th for line-breaks, 12th for tackle busts and 12th for offloads – yet their five tries a game are the most in the NRL. Of course, creativity and execution are the keys, with the spine of Billy Slater, Gareth Widdop, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith seemingly sharing a telepathic connection on the football field.
Cronk clearly has his eyes on the Maroons’ No.7 jersey and isn’t about to give his nearest contender Daly Cherry-Evans any leeway in the run-up to selection. So far Cronk has engineered five try assists, the most by any player, and he set up his side’s opening two tries last week.
Captain Cameron Smith has the most try assists from a hooker – including the last touches on both of Billy Slater’s tries against the Titans – while Slater has notched doubles in each of his first three outings in 2011 and is equal leader for most line-breaks (with four).
Danger Sign: It doesn’t matter whether they go left, right, through the hands or revert to the boot – the Storm are a threat from all areas of the park.
Cooper Cronk v Mitchell Pearce: This shapes as a warm-up for State of Origin with Cronk out to let Pearce know what he’s in for when Game One kicks off in late May. Cronk’s all-round game management will again be a highlight, including his probing kicking game – his 1481 metres off the boot are the most by any player. Meanwhile Pearce will be looking to take on the Storm line to add to his two line-break assists, try assist and line-break in 2012. Pearce had a dominant game the last time these sides met, albeit with Cronk missing (see below); he looked sharp running the ball and finished with 93 metres, a try and a try assist.
Where It Will Be Won: Completions and building pressure. To date the Storm are getting through their sets without too many hiccups, completing at 76 per cent and making the fifth-fewest errors 11.3. But all it will take is a dip in those returns to give the Roosters a sniff. Meanwhile Brian Smith’s charges are completing at an unprofessional 65 per cent. Anything less than 75 per cent this week and they can forget about singing the team song in the sheds afterwards.
The History: Played 23; Storm 12, Roosters 11. The honours are even four wins apiece over the past eight clashes. The teams share a victory each at AAMI Park. Significantly, the past six games between the sides have been decided by 10 or more points.
The Last Time They Met: With Billy Slater and Cameron Smith rested and watching from the sidelines, the Roosters put a huge dent in the Storm’s semi-finals preparations with a rousing 40-8 upset victory at Allianz Stadium in Round 26 last year. The home side ran in four first-half tries for a 22-4 halftime lead. BJ Leilua, playing on the wing, opened and closed the scoring in the first 40 before adding his third try of the evening in the 46th minute with one of the most skilful finishes of the season. The game also featured a wonderful try to Justin Carney after Braith Anasta batted back a Phil Graham chip kick that looked like it was soaring over the dead-ball line. Anthony Minichiello ended 2011 on a high with two try assists, a try and 182 metres while Anasta chimed in with two deft try assists. The Storm missed 34 tackles – their most all season – and yielded six unanswered line-breaks as the tricolours ran amok.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Gavin West; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence.
The Way We See It: If you’re playing Bundy Tipping ‘Eliminator’ (like we are) might we suggest the Storm as your ‘lock’ this week? The Roosters’ engine is making noises like they’re trying to change gears without depressing the clutch, while the turbocharger is resonating sweetly when the Storm have the ball in hand. Melbourne by 10 points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats