Storm v Knights preview

Melbourne Storm v Newcastle Knights
AAMI Park
Friday 7.30pm (AEDT)

The Melbourne juggernaut will be out to keep the momentum of their perfect start to 2012 hurtling along this week against a Knights side intent on arresting an alarming eight-game losing streak in the Victorian capital.

Melbourne have been irresistible over the first month of the new season with Billy Slater’s form and try-scoring feats (a record four successive doubles) seizing the headlines. But with victories over only moderate premiership threats in the Raiders, Rabbitohs, Titans and Roosters, coach Craig Bellamy knows the hard work begins now: especially given the clinical way Newcastle toppled former co-competition leaders Canterbury 20-6 last Sunday.

Still, the saying goes you can only beat what’s put in front of you – and Melbourne simply sizzled last week, making the Roosters look second-rate in their 44-4 drubbing. The Storm ran in eight dazzling tries and added 10 line-breaks, with their playmakers Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop laying on a combined six try assists. That’s a well-oiled machine.

Meanwhile Newcastle finally seemed to take on board the Wayne Bennett mantra last week: they defended stoutly (just 17 misses), respected the football (just seven errors) and completed their sets above the 80 per cent rate the supercoach deems a pass mark.

They received a huge boost with the early return from injury of captain Kurt Gidley – but that joy was dulled by the loss of flying winger Akuila Uate. The good news this week is that both have been named to take their places. In other team changes Adam Cuthbertson return from injury on the interchange bench, while Neville Costigan will start at lock, with Alex McKinnon reverting to the pine.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy has made just one change, with Ryan Hoffman to start in the second row and Kevin Proctor benched. Rory Kostjasyn has been added to the extended interchange that numbers five players at this stage.

However, news out of Melbourne suggests pivot Gareth Widdop may miss the clash with an ankle injury that has prevented him training during the week. Stay tuned to NRL.com for more developments...

In milestones, it’s a big week for Kurt Gidley who needs just 10 points for 1000 career points.

Watch Out Storm: Captain Gidley lifts a gear for matches in Melbourne. Last time they met he punished the Storm with some strong running at fullback, scoring a try with speed off the mark, running 180 metres and adding a game-high eight tackle busts. He played more of a distributor role in his return from injury last week, adding try assist and running just five times, but if he’s 80 per cent fit or better we expect him to cut loose.

Newcastle are one of the few sides that have the speed to run around the Storm defenders on the edges. In their semi-final last September wingers Uate and James McManus ran a combined 328 metres with Uate crossing for a try. McManus was strong against the Bulldogs last week, adding 137 metres.

Rejuvenated centre Timana Tahu has a rare excellent record against the Storm – the 31-year-old has faced Melbourne 14 times for nine wins and has crossed for 11 tries.

Danger Sign: If Gidley and Jarrod Mullen take to the air it’s because they’ve worked out the Storm have defused just 43 per cent of cross-field bombs. Winger Sisa Waqa is a prime target – he is yet to clean up any cross-field bombs or grubber kicks directed his way. Gidley and Mullen may opt to stab the ball behind the defensive line – all the time being mindful of a Billy Slater swoop and counter-attack.  

Watch Out Knights: Really, where do we start? Slater is in the form of his career – which is some statement. The mercurial No.1 leads the NRL for tries (eight), line-breaks (six), plus he’s ranked third for line-break assists (five), and third for try assists (four).

Cooper Cronk isn’t far behind his team-mate in the ‘dazzle’ stakes – he leads all-comers for try assists (eight), has added four line-break assists and has crossed for three tries himself.

Sika Manu was a wrecking ball last time the sides met, scoring a try, making 159 metres and adding eight tackle busts. He’s been a little quiet – although he hasn’t had to leave too much of a stamp given the backline’s spectacular form. Manu will lift here.

Ryan Hoffman is the Storm’s ‘lucky charm’ – he has an astounding record of 73 wins from 87 matches played in Victoria (84 per cent). His record against the Knights is even better, with eight victories and our tries from 10 games.

Danger Sign: Melbourne have scored eight of their 23 tries from kicks – that’s bad news for Knights wingers McManus and Uate who have defused just 55 per cent of cross-field bombs. But Cooper Cronk’s main target will be Timana Tahu – he has fumbled all four high kicks sent his way. Billy Slater will be licking his lips.   

Danny Buderus v Cameron Smith: Having gotten the better of Blues incumbent Michael Ennis last week Buderus meets the man who took his Kangaroos hooker jumper six years ago. Age (he’s 34) certainly hasn’t wearied Buderus and his direction and snappy service has played a huge role in Newcastle’s good start in 2012. But he has his work cut out for him this week, with Smith the benchmark No.9 to date – with an NRL-high four try assists and four line-break assists.

Where It Will Be Won: Breaking open the opposition line. Both sides are respecting the football – the Storm make the fewest errors (10.3 per game) with the Knights almost on par (10.5). But the Storm have tallied double the line-breaks that Newcastle make – six to three. Based on that statistic the Knights may rely on the boot more heavily this week.   

The History: Played 27; Storm 15, Knights 12. The Storm have won six of the past eight clashes between the sides. They are undefeated against the Novocastrians at AAMI Park, winning all three games played.

The Last Time They Met: The Storm knocked the Knights out of the 2011 premiership race with a hard-fought 18-8 win at AAMI Park in Week One of last year’s Finals Series.

The Storm raced to a 16-nil lead at halftime and appeared to have the contest in the bag when Cameron Smith potted a penalty goal for an 18-nil scoreline after 51 minutes. However, tries to Kurt Gidley and Akuila Uate in the 64th and 67th minute left the Newcastle faithful clinging to their premiership dream. The Knights threw everything at the Storm in the final minutes, with James McManus denied a try after a desperate Cooper Cronk save.

Melbourne’s first try came against the run of play when a pass rebounded off Neville Costigan’s chest into the hands of Storm winger Matt Duffie who sprinted 45 metres to score. Beau Champion crossed from a second-man, right-side sweep before Sika Manu added another four-pointer four minutes from halftime after stripping Adam MacDougall of possession on his try line.

Gareth Widdop was a standout for the Storm with 104 metres and eight tackle busts, while Kurt Gidley made 24 runs from fullback.   

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younnis & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: The Knights have shown flashes of form but it’s simply too hard to ignore the Storm’s claims given their stars’ whirlwind performances to start 2012. Melbourne by eight points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld); Fox Sports 2 – delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats