Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos
Rugby league’s ‘mate against mate’ theme continues just two days after State of Origin when a host of Queensland stars lock horns in the most eagerly anticipated clash of the season.
However, it won’t feature all the stars we’d hoped it would. While Storm coach Craig Bellamy intends to go back to the well and invest in his Maroons trio of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith just 48 hours after Wednesday’s torrid State of Origin clash, Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin is set to rest captain Sam Thaiday, Petero Civoniceva and Justin Hodges, with only Matt Gillett and Ben Hannant to back up. But in a major boost, Peter Wallace will make his comeback from injury in the No.7.
Also, although Cameron Smith has been named for the Storm, there must be a huge question mark over his availability given his ’flu scare earlier this week.
While the Bulldogs v Sea Eagles match-up in Round 8 was pencilled in on all fans’ calendars for obvious reasons, for pure form and spectacle nothing holds a candle to this this top-of-the-table battle – irrespective of who does or doesn’t make it onto the field.
The Storm are in almost irrepressible form. They had their colours lowered for the first time when the Sharks out-muscled them in Round 10 but they’ll be keen to get back into their groove having rested up with the bye last weekend.
Meanwhile Brisbane need to get back on their horse after successive losses to the Warriors and Sea Eagles before their bye last week.
Coach Griffin will persist with the strategy he employed last year, easing the burden on his stars throughout the most intense period of the season. That approach took the Broncos to within a game of the Grand Final, so who’s to say it won’t pay dividends again?
Peter Wallace’s return bumps Ben Hunt to the bench. Into the pack come Scott Anderson and Josh McGuire (for props Hannant and Civoniceva) with Ben Te’o slotting into the second row for Thaiday. David Hala, Dunamis Lui and Mitchell Dodds are the new faces on their interchange.
Meanwhile Craig Bellamy has reshuffled his pack to cover for the injured Ryan Hoffman: Jesse Bromwich will start in the front row with Bryan Norrie dropping back to start in the second row. The coach has named a seven-man bench, with Michael Greenfield, Luke Kelly, Maurice Blair and Kenny Bromwich the news faces.
Should Ben Hannant be a late inclusion he’ll celebrate his 100th game in Broncos colours.
Watch Out Storm: Cronulla’s victory over the Storm a fortnight ago illustrated how a strong running game can ruffle the ladder leaders. The Sharks rank first for tackle busts in 2012 (38 a game) and they lifted against the Storm, making 44 tackle-breaks all night. The Broncos can take a leaf out of Cronulla’s book and unsettle the Storm the same way – the Broncos rank a close second behind the Sharks for tackle busts, averaging 37.8 a game. Their most damaging individuals include Josh Hoffman (46), Corey Norman (40) and Alex Glenn (32).
Corey Parker will lift after being overlooked for Origin. He loves playing the Storm and was a huge thorn last clash, making 16 hit-ups, five tackle-breaks and four offloads – plus a monumental 66 tackles (for just one missed tackle).
Danger Sign: Corey Norman has shown Darren Lockyer’s jersey is in capable hands going forward. The young No.6 is adding a running game not shown by Locky in his closing years, and this new dimension in attack is bearing plenty of fruit. Norman leads his side for line-breaks (eight) and try assists (10). He has the talent to create something from nothing and will need to be tailed wherever he goes.
Watch Out Broncos: The Storm score more tries 10 metres in from both the left and right sideline than any other side. They love to isolate opposition centres and it’s also a target area for Cooper Cronk’s bombs. So far they’ve scored 32 of their 55 tries there.
Gerard Beale and Dale Copley will need to be confident under the high ball – the Broncos are defusing cross-field bombs a low 53 per cent – and the Storm have scored 13 tries off kicks (third most).
Brisbane have to find ways to limit the time the Storm spend inside their 10-metre zone. Whenever Cooper Cronk gets the ball there he’ll be menacing – he is averaging 1.5 try assists every game! Also, Melbourne have crossed for the most tries from offloads (five), meaning supports will need to be watched should an attacker get his arms free close to the line.
With Cronk in stellar form Gareth Widdop has been a little overlooked in assessments so far – but that doesn’t mean he’s any less potent than he was last year. The No.6 has made eight try assists and eight line-break assists and will really come into his own down the left edge.
Danger Sign: The Storm’s kickers get better the deeper we get into the season – they are currently finding open space with their clearances 66 per cent of the time, a rate as good as it gets in rugby league. The Broncos need to advance on both sides of the ruck and put pressure on either left-footed Cameron Smith or right-footed Cooper Cronk and hope they can fluster them into some substandard kicks. Otherwise the Storm will maintain the good field position they’ve managed all year.
Billy Slater v Josh Hoffman: Two fullbacks that love to go hunting for the ball infield. Slater has cut a swathe through oppositions in 2012, adding 10 line-breaks (one per game) as well as nine tries. He has taken some of the playmaking pressure off five-eighth Gareth Widdop too, relishing the chance to duck in as a second pivot when the opportunity presents – it’s helped him tally 12 try assists and the same number of line-break assists for team-mates. Although he’s scored just one try in his past five games he may well add to his tally this week – Slater has an unrivalled personal record against Brisbane, with 15 tries from 20 appearances. Further breakdown reveals he’s made almost a line-break every clash against the Broncos, plus seven try assists. Overall in 2012 he ranks second for line-breaks, with one made every game so far (10). Meanwhile Hoffman is another Bronco who goes up a notch when playing Melbourne. Last encounter with them he gained 201 metres with five tackle-breaks plus a line-break. He’s a wind-up-and-go individual, with a tireless 177 hit-ups to his name (ranks 4th in the NRL).
Where It Will Be Won: Goal-kicking accuracy. Incredible as it sounds given their positions on the ladder, both sides are struggling to add points from conversions and penalty goals. Usually reliable Broncos kicker Corey Parker has really lost his compass – he has the worst success rate in the NRL (62 per cent) – with Storm kicker Cameron Smith the second worst at just 66 per cent. If the contest is close as expected it could all come down to whoever strikes form on the night. Certainly Parker’s four misses against the Sea Eagles a fortnight ago cost his side victory and he’ll be anxious to make amends.
The History: Played 30; Storm 18, Broncos 11, drawn 1. The Storm have won six of the past eight clashes, including both match-ups last season. The record at AAMI Park stands at one game all.
The Last Time They Met: The Storm defeated the Broncos 26-6 at AAMI Park in Round 20 last year.
Maurice Blair gave the home side the best possible start when he latched onto a Cooper Cronk assist to crash over on the right edge with just seven minutes on the clock.
A nail-biting tussle ensued before Jharal Yow-Yeh was controversially awarded a benefit-of-the-doubt try, grounding the spoils of Billy Slater’s spilled attempt at defusing a Darren Lockyer bomb. That sent the sides to the halftime break locked at 6-all.
A Cameron Smith penalty goal on the half hour gave the home side breathing space before three unanswered Storm tries closed out the contest. First Justin O’Neill was the beneficiary of a swift left-side sweep (57th minute); then Cronk dummied his way over from first receiver (69th minute); and lastly Blair was on the spot to take Billy Slater’s overhead assist after the No.1 had gathered in a deft Cronk chip kick (80th minute).
It was a high-quality game, with the Storm attack proving the difference on the night; they made five line-breaks to the Broncos’ one and turned the ball over just five times.
Cronk was a standout, contributing a try, two try assists and two line-breaks, while rookie Jesse Bromwich acquitted himself well in the front row with 133 metres up the guts.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Steve Clark.
The Way We See It: If it were any opponent other than Melbourne we’d be firmly in the Broncos’ camp. But the fatigue factor may prove too much for the visitors. Plus, we can’t overlook the fact that Melbourne have won 12 of their past 15 clashes against Brisbane. Storm by eight points.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am.
• Statistics: NRL Stats