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Are the Warriors slowly but surely emerging from their 2011 grand final hangover… and capable of springing an upset against the Storm? After a highly disappointing start to the season, all signs now point to ‘yes’, with the Warriors winning three of their past five matches against some of the competition’s strongest teams to rise to ninth on the ladder with 12 competition points.

While the Storm juggernaut rolls forward – Melbourne have only lost one match all season to sit in first place on 22 competition points – their opponents this week started 2012 in poor fashion. With new coach Brian McClennan at the helm and an emphasis on ‘fun’ football, the rebuilt Warriors were having anything but, winning just two of their opening six matches of the season. Now, however, hope flickers on the horizon, with the Warriors starting to show signs they’re still a finals-bound force to be reckoned with. In the past five matches the Warriors have smashed South Sydney, beaten the Broncos, pipped the Roosters and almost upset the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt. 

The Storm, on the other hand, would have reason to be disappointed with their efforts in recent weeks. Despite strong victories over the Broncos and Panthers, Melbourne recorded their first loss of the season against the Sharks at Toyota Stadium in Round 10. It no doubt would be a bitter pill for perfection-seeking coach Craig Bellamy who admitted his side just didn’t play good football on the day. Whatever the case, the Sharks’ victory serves as a blueprint for other teams to plot against the most dangerous team in the competition.

The Warriors and Storm both enter this clash with the same line-ups that last met the Wests Tigers in Round 11 and the Broncos in Round 12 respectively. The Warriors are still without the services of star fullback Kevin Locke, who has played very little football over the past two months with leg and sternum injuries. Warriors sources tell he’s close to a comeback, but his progress is being monitored closely. Sika Manu and Kevin Proctor are also close to making comebacks for the Storm.

Watch Out Warriors: The Storm are the most damaging attacking side in the competition, period. It’s going to take an immense effort to stop them in their tracks. They have already scored 61 tries this season – almost double the scoring rates of half-a-dozen NRL sides. They are threats across the park, and particularly in the backline with the likes of Billy Slater, Dane Nielsen, Will Chambers and Cooper Cronk regularly crossing the stripe. Take your eyes off them at your peril – they can and will score when you give even the smallest inkling of an opportunity, especially at distance where they score the second-most number of tries (eight, one behind category leader the Bulldogs) from 51 metres and beyond.

Danger Sign: The Warriors went toe-to-toe with the Storm in their ANZAC Day clash earlier this season in Melbourne. The teams traded blows in the first half, with both backlines causing damage, with the home side enjoying a slender 10-6 lead at halftime. It remained tight until midway through the second half when the Warriors lost concentration and dropped their bundle with just a dozen minutes to go. The Storm piled on three tries in the final minutes, stretched their lead to 18 and showed they can’t be taken for granted at any time.

Watch Out Storm: The Warriors are warming nicely and proving very difficult to stop, particularly at Mt Smart. McClennan’s men have lost just one match at the venue, to the Bulldogs in Round 3 (they also lost in Round 1 at Eden Park against the Sea Eagles). In their past four matches on home turf, they’ve beaten the Titans, Rabbitohs, Broncos and Roosters, scoring an impressive haul of 26, 44, 30 and 30 points respectively. At home, they’re a much tougher opponent… and a more dynamic attacking side, too.

Danger Sign: McClennan and his team would’ve learned plenty about Melbourne’s deficiencies from the video of the Storm’s loss to the Paul Gallen-less Sharks. No doubt the Warriors’ coach will be instilling belief in his players, and instructing them to follow the lead of Cronulla. The Sharks’ victory came from a foundation of ball control, aggressive up-and-in defence and old-fashioned desire – a game plan the home side can easily implement. If they do that effectively, dominate the ruck with plenty of dominant tackles and stifle the momentum of key playmaker Cronk and his key ball-runners like Slater, an upset could be on the cards. Especially with playmakers like James Maloney and Shaun Johnson taking the reins.

Glen Fisiiahi v Billy Slater: Here’s a case of little ‘Fish’ in a big pond: the Warriors fill-in fullback versus arguably the game’s best ever No.1. Can Fisiiahi, a replacement for the injured Kevin Locke (who incidentally was once nicknamed ‘The Kiwi Billy Slater’), control the Storm’s most damaging attacking player? While it won’t all fall down to the Warriors No.1, ‘Fish’ has a key role to play in co-ordinating his team’s defence from the back. If he does a good job, the holes for Slater to target disappear – and his chances of adding to his already impressive tally of 11 tries, 11 line-breaks and 12 assists diminish. Fisiiahi has only played a handful of games himself this season, but last year announced his arrival with two tries and three line-breaks in just four games.

Where It Will Be Won: The outside backs will create – and kill – the attacking movements for both teams. In the Round 8 clash between the teams, quick hands and fluent passing movements stretched both teams’ defences, before ultimately a series of errors and defensively lapses handed the Storm a comprehensive victory. The backs will have so much say in this clash because, the forward packs and benches combined are very even – the Warriors’ explosive and hard-running front- and second-rowers are equally as dangerous as their rugged, uber-competitive and aggressive Storm counterparts. Which team creates the overlaps out wide – or makes the defensive-read errors – will decide the outcome of this match.

The History:  Played 30; Storm 15, Warriors 13, drawn 2. The evenly matched history is even tighter in NZ – matches at Mt Smart Stadium are split seven apiece.

The Last Time They Met: As mentioned above, the Storm beat the Warriors 32-14 on ANZAC Day at AAMI Park in Round 8 earlier this season. It was a very tight affair until late in the match, when Warriors errors handed the Storm the ascendancy. Both teams enjoyed high completion rates (80 per cent Melbourne, 82 per cent Warriors) but the penalties (7-4 Melbourne) and line-breaks (4-2 Melbourne) stats proved most telling.

The two sides also played out a thrilling and memorable Preliminary Final last year, which the Warriors won in a 20-12 upset at AAMI Park.

Most experts believed Melbourne would breeze past their cross-Tasman rivals and march into the grand final… but the Warriors would not be denied. Shaun Johnson starred for the visitors in what then-coach Ivan Cleary described as a “special” effort. The Warriors won on the back of three tries to two, and a 4-1 penalty count.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam Gee; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: The Warriors are on a roll and, with confidence returning to their young stars, have a big chance to win this match… but it won’t be easy against the best side in the competition. So much of this clash boils down to attitude – will the Warriors be ‘up’ for a battle with a team that is always motivated? We’re going to go out on a limb and say the Warriors will be ready and will spring an upset – the home side by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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