Storm v Warriors preview

Melbourne Storm v Warriors
AAMI Park
Wednesday 7pm

The high-flying Storm are off to the best start by any team in a season for 16 years – but if one team is capable of slamming them down to earth with a thud it’s the Warriors who kept their unbeaten record at AAMI Park alive when they knocked Melbourne out of last year’s premiership race.

Melbourne have been ruthless over the first seven weeks, offering few opportunities while grabbing everything thrown their way. They’re undefeated in four home games, the latest notch on their belt a clinical 12-6 defeat of the Bulldogs before the Representative Round. However, their Anzac Day opponents are unbeaten in two starts at AAMI Park.

After a tepid start to the year the Warriors gave their fans cause for celebration last round, cutting loose in attack to savage the Rabbitohs 44-22 at Mt Smart Stadium. Their second home victory for the season pushed them to ninth on the ladder, four wins adrift of the Storm. It featured eight sparkling tries and showed a dramatic improvement in their missed tackles and error rates – something they’ll need to replicate if they’re to have any chance against Melbourne.

Having scored exactly as many points as they’ve conceded (164) this could be the game that defines their season.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy has made a couple of changes to the side that accounted for the Bulldogs, with Kiwi debutant Jesse Bromwich to start at prop for Jason Ryles and Todd Lowrie to start at lock (for Ryan Hinchcliffe) after being a withdrawal last round. Both Ryles and Hinchcliffe revert to their extended interchange, with one member to be cut.

Meanwhile the Warriors’ camp have again named Kevin Locke, a late withdrawal last week, to return at fullback and are confident both Manu Vatuvei and Shaun Johnson will take their places after copping bumps in last Friday’s Test match.

Sione Lousi will start at prop with Russell Packer benched, and Feleti Mateo will start in the second row with Lewis Brown to warm the pine.

Pita Godinet and Glen Fisiiahi have been added as cover for Johnson and Vatuvei.

It’s a big week for Ryan Hoffman who plays his 178th game for the Storm, overtaking Scott Hill to become the franchise’s fifth-most capped player. He’ll be hoping to register a positive career record against the Warriors after winning half of his previous 14 encounters.

Watch Out Storm: Manu Vatuvei is a feared opponent: ‘The Beast’ has scored seven tries from only six appearances in the Victorian capital – and the only time he’s failed to trouble the scorer was in their finals win last September. One more try and Vatuvei will join ex-Dragon Nathan Blacklock as the most prolific tryscorer against the Storm in Melbourne. Vatuvei is in good if unspectacular form by his standards: he has scored three tires, made four line-breaks and offered five offloads. He’s making 10 metres in each of his average 10 hit-ups a game. Last Friday he topped all players for territory across Eden Park, with 173 metres gained.

Feleti Mateo is capable of tearing the Storm apart if the Warriors get plenty of time in the opposition 20-metre zone. Mateo leads all second-rowers for line-break assists (six) and has made 10 offloads. Melbourne will need to pay close quarter when he assumes control at first or second receiver heading back infield from the left edge – he’ll get his arms up high and look to pop a pass to a hard-running support like Ben Matulino or five-eighth James Maloney.

Danger Sign: Cross-field bombs loom as a definite threat for a seemingly otherwise impenetrable Storm. To date wingers Matt Duffie and Justin O’Neill are defusing kicks sent their way just 53 per cent of the time. The ploy worked a treat last time the sides met (see below). Also, Melbourne have conceded four tries adjacent to their right corner post, so expect James Maloney to send the ball skyward for Vatuvei.

Watch Out Warriors: The Storm’s ‘spine’ of Billy Slater, Gareth Widdop, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith are the best in rugby league and it will take a mighty defensive effort to counter their creativity. The quartet are responsible for 30 of the side’s total 35 line-break assists, with Widdop leading the way with nine. Cronk leads the NRL for try assists (14) while Slater leads the league for line-breaks (eight).  

The Warriors need to fix their defence 10 metres in from the left sideline – to date they’ve conceded 14 tries there (NRL-high) and the Storm have scored more often in that exact spot than any side (13).

Also, the Storm are the benchmark for utilising decoy runners and synchronising them with their backline sweeps. Three of the top 11 decoy runners are Storm members – Jesse Bromwich (37), Ryan Hinchcliffe (33) and Bryan Norrie (31). Any time they line up in the front line 20 metres out the Warriors had better be alert.  

Danger Sign: New Aussie skipper Cameron Smith is in career-best form. He leads all hookers for try assists and line-break assists and is far and away the most involved player in the NRL, his 773 receives a whopping 81 more than next best Matthew Keating.

Smith is relishing a more expansive role as playmaker – he’ll look to mix up the attack and hit a runner rather than just fire the ball out the back to Cronk and Slater. He did this to great effect last round against the Bulldogs, hitting ‘decoy’ Hinchcliffe with a short ball and sending him through a gap to score.  

Cooper Cronk v Shaun Johnson: A battle between the consummate team player and the sizzling solo performer. The pair meet for the second time in five days after Cronk earned a solid points decision over Johnson in the Anzac Test.

The Kangaroos halfback kicked strongly (341 metres), made a line-break and an offload as he pushed the Aussie players around Eden Park with skill.

However, Johnson was largely responsible for knocking the Storm out of the competition in last year’s grand final qualifier (see below) and he’s shown similar spark in several outings in 2012. In fact no halfback has tallied more line-breaks (six), while he ranks second behind Cronk for try assists (eight). He’s always a danger – as shown by his 70-metre intercept try (off a Cronk pass) for the Kiwis last Friday.

Where It Will Be Won: Respecting the footy. The Warriors have the job ahead of them given they rank worst for missing tackles (37.6) and make the second-most errors (13.6). Meanwhile the Storm don’t give much away: they average the second-fewest missed tackles (24) and commit the fewest errors (8.9).

The History: Played 29; Storm 14, Warriors 13, drawn 2. The honours are even four games apiece over the past eight clashes. The Warriors hold a 2-nil advantage at Skilled Park.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors knocked Melbourne out of the 2011 premiership race with an upset 20-12 win at AAMI Park in their grand final qualifier.

Sika Manu got the home side off to a great start when he charged onto a Gareth Widdop short ball to score in the fifth minute before the Warriors struck back when Bill Tupou crossed off a Shaun Johnson cross-field bomb with 11 minutes gone. The visitors went further ahead five minutes later when a Micheal Luck pass sent James Maloney over but Melbourne tied things up at 12-all when Billy Slater, acting as a second five-eighth, put centre Beau Champion through a gap for a 70-metre try.

A Maloney penalty goal on the stroke of halftime saw the Warriors hold a 14-12 lead at the break.

The second half provided arguably the closest contest of the season as the sides arm-wrestled for ascendancy – the Storm completed their sets at 89 per cent and made just one error, while the Warriors failed to finish just one of their 21 sets with the Steeden and made only four mistakes.

However, the game was blown apart with less than four minutes remaining when halfback Shaun Johnson bamboozled the Storm defence with a series of dummies and sidesteps down the left edge, eventually passing to Lewis Brown who scored the match-winner. It was one of the three best individual plays of the year.

Although defeated the Storm managed four line-breaks to their opponents’ two, and missed 12 tackles less.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: Despite the stats that show the Warriors are the Storm’s biggest adversary at home, and the fact seven of the past nine encounters between these sides have been decided by single figures, we can’t go past Melbourne. The Warriors will need to bring their A-Game in attack and defence – and still hope Melbourne’s star playmakers have an off evening. Storm by 10 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats