Storm v Bulldogs preview

Melbourne Storm v Canterbury Bulldogs
AAMI Park
Saturday 5.30pm

Can anyone stop the Melbourne Storm juggernaut? Having already accounted for all before them over the opening five rounds, last week’s trip to Townsville was supposed to provide their sternest test yet. Eighty minutes and eight tries later the Storm had demolished North Queensland 42-18 to make it six from six and send a clear message to the rest of the competition that Melbourne are still the dominant presence in the Telstra Premiership.

Across the board, Melbourne has functioned like well-oiled machine. In 2012 they lead the NRL for tries scored, points scored, line-breaks, tries conceded and least errors while they rank in the top three for points conceded, metres conceded and fewest missed tackles.

Only in their opening round clash with Canberra – when it took a late Billy Slater try to steal victory – have they looked even remotely like losing, and their big three appear to have hit new heights in individual brilliance with Slater (nine tries) and Cooper Cronk (14 try assists) in irresistible form.

It really is quite a remarkable start to the season and doesn’t bode well for Canterbury this Saturday.

The Bulldogs, for their part, haven’t been too shabby either under new coach Des Hasler with four wins from six enough to have them sitting in third spot on the NRL ladder. However, having fallen 20-10 to a resurgent South Sydney last outing, they suddenly find themselves staring down the barrel of consecutive losses with fourth-placed Cronulla and fifth-placed Sydney Roosters ready to move past them – and no less than six more teams loitering just two competition points behind.

Canterbury boast plenty of point-scoring potential of their own with fullback Ben Barba simply brilliant during the early rounds and Josh Morris impressing on his way to five tries from six games. However, the real battle will be limiting the damage Melbourne does with the ball in hand.

At the very least the Bulldogs won’t want another Storm points-scoring spree to ruin the momentum they’ve built. This is their chance to make a statement.

The Bulldogs have named an unchanged line-up from the side that went down to Souths last week, while Melbourne have shuffled their run-on side with Kevin Proctor starting in the second row ahead of Ryan Hinchcliffe.

Winger Anthony Quinn has been named on a five-man bench after serving his one-week suspension for a high tackle on Newcastle’s Junior Sa’u in Round 5.

Melbourne’s 37 tries so far are the seventh most by any side in premiership history at this stage of a season; however big men Jesse Bromwich, Bryan Norrie and Siosaia Vave, as well as captain Cameron Smith, are yet to cross the stripe in 2012.

Watch Out Storm: If there is one man who can punch holes in Melbourne’s rock solid defence it is Canterbury fullback Ben Barba. The NRL’s equal top tryscorer in 2011 with 23, Barba has addressed his defensive shortcomings this season as well as sparking a rejuvenated Bulldogs attack with his unique ability to leave defenders stranded. The 22-year-old is particularly adept at creating and scoring tries from long range. The Bulldogs scored 27 tries from beyond halfway last season – easily the best in the NRL – with Barba scoring 13 of them. They lead the way this season too with three so far.

Danger Sign: Melbourne will need to pay close attention to holding their positions in the defensive line because the Bulldogs can break the line anytime, anywhere. Canterbury’s 13 line-breaks from general play are the most by any side in the competition in 2012 and they don’t just cause problems close to the try line. Of their 23 tries this season, eight have come from close range, four from between the 10- and 20-metre lines, eight from beyond the 20 and three more from beyond halfway.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Pre-season pontifications that Manly’s Daly Cherry-Evans might challenge Cooper Cronk for the Queensland No.7 jersey this year have very quickly been put to bed, with Cronk out-pointing all before him over the opening six rounds. The Melbourne star was particularly devastating against Johnathan Thurston’s Cowboys last Saturday night, setting up five tries and seemingly having the ball on a string in yet another dominant display. After just six rounds this year Cronk has amassed 14 try assists, eight line-break assists, three line-breaks and three tries as well as kicking for an NRL-best 2583 metres.

Danger Sign: Across the park, Melbourne’s kicking game is the cream of the NRL crop. No side has made as many metres from kicks this season as the Storm’s 3399 but their short kicking game is just as effective – Melbourne lead the league for kick-back percentage with 27.6 (being first to their own kick) as well as tries scored from kicks (10).

Billy Slater v Ben Barba: Sure to be one of the most highly anticipated individual clashes of the season, this game pits arguably the two most devastating attacking fullbacks in the NRL against one another. Slater was Dally M medalist only seven months back and has already taken his game to another level in 2012, while Barba has been similarly destructive at the back for the Bulldogs.

Where It Will Be Won: The Bulldogs must produce a top-notch defensive display if they are to give themselves a chance. Not only do Melbourne boast the big three of Slater, Smith and Cronk to guide their fearsome attack, they are renowned for their highly structured play and the relentless questions they ask of the opposition defence. The potential for another blowout is there, but if Canterbury can stand firm they have the weapons in their own armory to spring an upset.

The History: Played 27; Storm 13, Bulldogs 14. The Bulldogs are one of the few sides to hold a positive win-loss record against the Storm; however, there have been lean times of late with just two wins since 2007. Tellingly, Canterbury have managed only one win in Melbourne over the past decade (2005).

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne made it six wins in a row and hammered another nail into Canterbury’s finals coffin with a 28-18 victory in Adelaide in Round 18 last season.

It was a sloppy and error-riddled Bulldogs outfit that slumped to their seventh win in nine outings – their ailing confidence highlighted early when fullback Ben Barba let a high ball bounce and Jesse Bromwich capitalised to score for the visiting Storm.

Barba made amends soon after when he latched onto a short ball and had too much pace for the defence. But Melbourne had soon regained the ascendency with Cooper Cronk stepping through to score and Sisa Waqa adding another to make it 16-6 at half-time.

A rare period of sustained pressure straight after the break saw the gap reduced to four when David Stagg crossed, however the result was soon decided when Cronk sent a well-placed kick to the corner for Matt Duffie to score in the 60th minute. The classy halfback then added a second try of his own six minutes later to seal the deal.

Canterbury winger Steve Turner scored a consolation try with minutes remaining to make the scoreline somewhat respectable.

Melbourne completed 35 of their 40 sets (88 per cent) and ran for 1571 metres to the Bulldogs’ 1308, with Billy Slater among the standouts (197 metres, seven tackle-breaks and a line-break).

Andrew Ryan made 51 tackles and David Stagg 46 for the Bulldogs.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Russell Turner; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: Tipping against Melbourne at home should come with health warnings. Sure, stranger things have happened, but given the form Melbourne have shown so far this season and their brutal thrashing of North Queensland last week, this looks like being a long night for the visitors.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats