Take two of the hottest teams in the competition, throw them onto the playing surface at Toyota Stadium and prepare for one of the best games so far in 2012.
The Sharks are this season’s big surprise packets, winning six matches on the trot before succumbing to the Rabbitohs in a heart-stopping 34-28 loss last Monday night. So far in 2012, Cronulla have proven to be a damaging attacking team as well as strong defensively. Their new halves duo of Roosters discard Todd Carney and unwanted Eel Jeff Robson can rightly absorb most of the offensive accolades at the Sharks – their introduction has seen a more dynamic, more expansive and more exciting Cronulla team front up each round so far this season.
The Storm, meanwhile, are brewing nicely as expected. The NRL competition favourites are undefeated – a sign that, despite the much-publicised off-season loss of impact forward Adam Blair, the nucleus of the team is still as strong as ever. Last start, Melbourne looked set for a huge challenge at the foot of the mountains against the Panthers… until late in the first half and early in the second the club’s electric outside backs hit top speed and propelled the unit to a 44-10 victory. The club are enjoying their best-ever start to a season, and following nine consecutive victories need only a few more to rewrite the club’s 12-game winning-streak record. Can anyone beat them in 2012?
Following both clubs’ recent runs of good form, understandably there are few changes to both line-ups for this clash.
The Sharks are relieved to have their influential skipper Paul Gallen cleared of a knee injury and also escape suspension for accidentally kneeing Rabbitohs forward Dave Taylor. Gallen’s injury isn’t serious and he is rated a better than even-money chance of suiting up for this match – although he is on the record telling reporters it could take him a week to recover. In any event, impact forward Sam Tagataese, who was overlooked for the match against the Rabbitohs, has been added to a five-man bench as cover.
The Storm, meanwhile, have named an unchanged line-up to the one that smashed the Panthers. Utility Rory Kostjasyn has been added to form an extended bench.
Watch Out Sharks: Melbourne are at their most damaging at present – and the bad news for Cronulla is the attacking threats are positioned all over the park. Unlike most other teams in the NRL, the Storm have a willingness to shift the ball deep inside their own territory and have a knack of scoring from inside their own half – with the likes of Cooper Cronk, Gareth Widdop, Billy Slater and last-start’s three-try hero Justin O’Neill lurking in the backline, they’re a threat whenever they have the ball in hand. The Storm have scored a league-high 53 tries so far in 2009, and 16 have been scored from outside their opponents’ 20-metre zones. Keep focused at all times, Sharkies!
Danger Sign: When Billy’s on the boil, the Storm is almost always brewing. So far in 2012, Billy Slater has been in scintillating form and, unlike years past, he’s not just a destructive runner of the football. Slater circa 2012 is a three-dimensional multi-talented footballer – equally as likely to tear a team apart with a deft cut-out pass as he is with a carving run up-field after fielding a kick. This season, Slater’s scored nine times, ran for an average of 132 metres per game, made 44 tackle-breaks and 10 line-breaks – but it’s his playmaking record that’ll threaten opponents most. ‘The Kid’ has also recorded 13 offloads, 11 line-break assists and 11 try assists so far this season.
Watch Out Storm: Gone are the days when Cronulla were simply a solid defensive side with little to offer in attack. So far in 2012, outsiders have been most impressed with the Sharkies’ new-found attacking ability and willingness. Their never-say-die attitude with ball in hand was summed up by their last-start effort against the Rabbitohs – even with Paul Gallen sitting on the sidelines and trailing by 16 points, Cronulla threw caution to the wind and almost did the unexpected as they scored 10 points – and sent Rabbitohs fans’ hearts fluttering – in the final few minutes.
Danger Sign: Is there a more in-form halves partnership than new Sharks pairing Carney and Robson? The Cronulla half and five-eighth have gelled beautifully so far in 2012. A stoic defender, strong organiser and under-rated attacker, Robson has been happy, though, to play second fiddle to Carney in recent weeks. The Sharks’ No.6 was brilliant in a losing effort against the Rabbitohs – a near man-of-the-match performance with seven tackle-breaks, three line-breaks, a try and a hand in at least three other tries a sign the Sharks are as dangerous as they’ve ever been. Carney, a shoo-in for NSW No.6, has scored the most points (68) by any Cronulla five-eighth after nine rounds since Barry Andrews in 1978.
Isaac De Gois v Cameron Smith: The clash of the hookers sees one rising star up against the game’s best in his position. So far in seven matches this season, Cronulla’s No.9 has been more than competitive – a reason why some pundits have him in their NSW Origin side. De Gois’ stats don’t make for great reading – he averages 4.6 runs a game, has created just two tries and broken the line just twice – but it’s the one-percenters that make him an invaluable member of Cronulla’s side. Whenever the game’s on the line, De Gois’ imput increases – covering tackles; important support play; a willingness to do whatever the team needs. His counterpart in this game, Cameron Smith, is a different player altogether.
Smith loves sneaking out from dummy-half before providing service to his players – a few small steps that create more room and creative space for his team each play. ‘The Accountant’ mightn’t look like a rugby league superstar, but make no mistake – the Storm’s hooker is an all-round threat with a running, passing and kicking game better than any No.9. If the Cronulla rake does the unthinkable and manages to get one-up on the Queensland and Australian hooker, though, expect the Sharks to have a big chance in this one.
Where It Will Be Won: With some quality kickers in this game, their ability to find open spaces and, in attacking plays, their own players, will prove the difference. The Storm, on the back of Cronk, Smith and Widdop, are ranked first in the league for accurate kicks (64 per cent) and kicking metres (5879) and have scored 12 times from the boot. They have, however, defused a surprisingly average number of cross-field kicks (just 50 per cent), something the Sharks and their kickers Carney and Robson will be well aware of.
Expect Cronulla to be targeted by grubbers – they defuse the third fewest (60 per cent).
The importance of both teams placing pressure on the kickers – whether they’re going short, skyward or downtown – could not be greater. If one team does it significantly better than the other, expect them to dominate.
The History: Played 23: Storm 15, Sharks 8. The Storm have the wood over the Sharks, particularly in recent seasons – the past five matches have all been won by Melbourne. The last time the Sharks beat the Storm was in 2008, a 17-16 victory at Olympic Park.
The Last Time They Met: Cameron Smith won’t remember too much about his 200th game, the last time the Storm and the Sharks clashed in Round 12, 2011. The hooker copped a knock to the head shortly before halftime at AAMI Park, but returned to the field of play after tests and sparked a 14-8 victory.
Smith was awarded three Dally M points for his man-of-the-match effort, kicking three goals to give his team a six-point victory after the game was locked at nil-all at halftime.
It was a real team effort by the Storm, with just two players (Sika Manu, 109 metres, and Adam Woolnough, 108 metres) running for triple figures in the match.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins and Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner and David Abood; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins
The Way We See It: The Sharkies will find it tough going in this game, especially if Paul Gallen rules himself out in an attempt to recover from his knee injury for Origin. If ‘Gal’ doesn’t play, expect a big effort from likely stand-in captain Jeremy Smith, who still has yet to taste victory against his former team. The Storm, though, look unbeatable at the moment on the back of the red-hot form of Slater, Smith, Cronk and O’Neill… and they’d need to be off their game to allow the Sharks a chance at winning this one. With few injuries and nine consecutive victories, all signs point to another perfect Storm performance. Melbourne by seven points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats