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Melbourne Storm v Wests Tigers
Friday 7.45pm

A fear of the unknown – both the rejigged Storm team unit plus a venue they’ve never played at before – are the greatest threats to the Wests Tigers extending their six-game winning streak in the Victorian capital on Friday night.

That – and the fact the Tigers are yet to win in Melbourne at all in nine attempts!

Meanwhile, having banked a bye in the lead-up to the first State of Origin encounter, Melbourne face their toughest test yet against the ferocious Tigers. They’ll need to find a way to keep the momentum of their campaign going without key men Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk who are all in camp with the Maroons preparing for Origin II.

The Tigers will be tested too, with captain Robbie Farah on duty with the Blues.

The Storm showed great fight to wear down the Warriors in Auckland last week, coming back from a 12-nil deficit to grab the lead early in the second half and then putting the game to bed with a daring try against the run of play inside the final 10 minutes.

The courageous 22-12 win reinforced their six-point buffer at the top of the NRL ladder rounding the midpoint of the 2012 season.

Meanwhile the Tigers’ sensible wet-weather football paid huge dividends last week when they piled on 40 points and kept the Raiders scoreless for only the second time in the Canberra club’s 30-year history. The Tigers’ win was built on old-fashioned muscle and pressure from 10 metres out, as well as a precise short-kicking game in and behind the opposition defence that yielded three smart tries.

The victory edged the gold-and-blacks to fifth on the ladder rounding the halfway mark. They look a light year away from the hesitant unit that bumbled through their opening month of football and are finally starting to resemble the team that was installed as premiership favourites before the season kick-off.

In Storm team changes, centre Will Chambers has been withdrawn from the team indefinitely after being diagnosed with a rare blood clotting disorder. Elsewhere, coach Craig Bellamy has opted to shift regular five-eighth Gareth Widdop to fullback to cover for Slater, with Maurice Blair to suit up in the No.6. Rory Kostjasyn – lock last week – assumes Cooper Cronk’s role at halfback, with Ryan Hinchcliffe starting at hooker for Cameron Smith.

In a selection bombshell, Bellamy has also named former representative winger Anthony Quinn in the second row, with Todd Lowrie reverting to lock to cover Rory Kostjasyn’s playmaking call-up.

Their seven-man bench comprises Luke Kelly, Michael Greenfield, Siosaia Vave, Jaiman Lowe, Sisa Waqa, Kenneath Bromwich and Mitch Garbutt.

Meanwhile Tigers coach Tim Sheens has called on Tom Humble to again fill Robbie Farah’s shoes at hooker this weekend, with Blake Ayshford added to a five-man interchange at this stage.

It’s a milestone week for Craig Bellamy, who will mark his 250th game as head coach of the Storm; during his tenure Bellamy has accrued 171 wins at a healthy 68.7 per cent success rate.

Meanwhile Lote Tuqiri needs just two line-breaks to notch 100 in his career (from 143 games). Also, should he take the field Joel Reddy will notch up his 100th NRL appearance.

Watch Out Storm: Dane Nielsen and Matt Duffie will need to be switched on when attempting to read Benji Marshall from close range – if they rush up to shut down his supports Marshall will simply dab the ball behind them into the in-goal for the likes of Beau Ryan, Lote Tuqiri, Chris Lawrence and Matt Utai to chase and score.

Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have kicked the ball to open space more than any other players in the league, helping Melbourne achieve an envied benchmark of 65 per cent. The pressure will be on their replacements to keep the ball away from Lote Tuqiri and Tim Moltzen this week.  

Prop Aaron Woods will be focused on sending a message to NSW coach Ricky Stuart after he was overlooked for Origin II. The 21-year-old has pounded out an average 16 hit-ups and 137 metres a game as well as 15 offloads so far. His unbridled enthusiasm will carry the Tigers a long way.  

In an ominous sign, the three Storm players with the most games under Bellamy have been unavailable at the same time just twice since 2006 (Smith 223, Slater 215, Cronk 196).

Danger Sign: Any time Marshall gets near the Steeden. The Kiwi superstar gets his chance to overtake Cronk for most try assists in the NRL this week. He has 19 so far, including three bottlers last outing.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Tigers need to prevent the Storm from getting the ball to their speedy wingers Matt Duffie and Justin O’Neill who have crossed for 14 tries between them. Once these guys are put into space it’s pretty much ‘shut the gate’.

Benji Marshall needs to be at his brilliant best if the Tigers are going to crack open the Storm and rack up the points required for victory. Although they ran in seven tries last week the Tigers have accrued the second-fewest line-breaks (just 3.5). Given the Storm miss the fewest tackles in the NRL (just 25 a game) the Tigers’ journey will be far from an armchair ride.

The Tigers players’ hands will need to be glue-like this week – Melbourne lead the league in tries scored this season via kicks, with 15 to date.  

Danger Sign: Expect Widdop to shoulder more responsibility with Cronk missing. The Englishman hasn’t needed to burn the candle in attack so far but that will change in this match as he takes control of some of the playmaking, including chiming in as a second five-eighth. Widdop has made eight try assists and nine line-break assists so far and centres Chambers and Nielsen (eight line-breaks), as well as wingers Duffie and O’Neill, will be sweating on his every move.

Where It Will Be Won: Attacking moves from 21-50 metres out. This clash pits two of the best sides at manufacturing points from long range against each other. If either unit offers a staggered defensive line just metres inside their own side of halfway, the other team will make them pay. The Bulldogs lead the way from this distance with 17 tries scored but the Storm (13) and Tigers (13) are close behind in the razzle-dazzle stakes.   

The History: Played 20; Storm 13, Wests Tigers 7. The Storm have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides.

The Last Time They Met: The Storm defeated the Wests Tigers 12-4 before a capacity crowd of 20,000 at Leichhardt Oval in Round 15 last season.

Melbourne drew first blood when Ryan Hinchcliffe crossed in the 17th minute after Cooper Cronk put Gareth Widdop into space with a lovely inside pass 40 metres out from the Tigers’ try line, before the five-eighth delivered to Hinchcliffe with an inside ball of his own.

Benji Marshall engineered the Wests Tigers’ first points with a breathtaking 30-metre cut-out pass to right winger Beau Ryan who scooted 12 metres to touch down unopposed in the 24th minute, before Kevin Proctor exposed some flimsy Tigers defence to crash over off a Cooper Cronk short ball nine minutes before halftime for a 12-4 lead at the break.

Scoring opportunities were limited in the second half as the game developed into an arm wrestle – although the Wests Tigers narrowly failed to add to their tally when Andrew Fifita’s grounding of a spilled Billy Slater bomb was rightly disallowed by the video referee.

Slater starred for the visitors with 141 metres and nine tackle busts while the Tigers were best served by back-rower Gareth Ellis (126 metres, 35 tackles) and lock Chris Heighington (16 hit-ups, 127 metres, 29 tackles).

The Storm were forced to make 50 more tackles than their opposition but managed three line-breaks to the Wests Tigers’ one.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Reid; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: This promises to be an attacking feast – Melbourne are averaging their most points in club history (29.3 per game), while the Tigers have averaged 30 points over the past month (conceding just 13.3). If those numbers stack up, does that mean the Tigers will be singing the team song in the sheds afterwards? With the Storm’s big three out, we’ll select the Sydneysiders to notch their first ever win in Melbourne. Wests Tigers by six points.   

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 10.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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