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Canterbury Bulldogs v Melbourne Storm
Virgin Australia Stadium, Mackay
Sunday 2pm

This week’s blockbuster pits first-placed Melbourne against second-placed Canterbury in a contest sure to answer a few questions as we move into the second half of the season. Alas, almost a week before the two top sides go head to head, controversy has already struck with the decision to move this blockbuster away from the huge expanses of ANZ Stadium to the 12,000-capacity Virgin Australia Stadium in Mackay drawing the ire of some Bulldogs fans.

In truth, this match was originally scheduled to be played in Adelaide for the third year running, but that deal fell through and so Mackay became the lucky recipient of an NRL clash – nobody knowing at the time that it would in fact loom as one of the games of the season.

It also makes this somewhat of a home game for the Storm’s Queensland connection of Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith, Dane Nielson and, had he been fit, Billy Slater. Given the passion of the Maroons fans and the fact that we have a State of Origin decider just weeks away, Melbourne can expect to garner plenty of support in this one.

Slater’s knee injury, which has already seen him ruled out of Origin III, is a significant blow to the Storm who rely heavily on his scything kick returns and general attack on the edges; however they showed in Monday night’s thrilling win over Manly that they can still beat the top sides with one of their big three missing.

The Storm now sit six points clear on the NRL ladder with another minor premiership firmly within their grasp.

For Canterbury, this clash is important on multiple counts. Most obvious is the fact that they are one of four teams locked on 20 competition points and just a single slip-up could see them slide two or three places down the ladder. However, they will also be keen to test themselves against the competition benchmark.

The Bulldogs battled hard before falling 12-6 the last time these two sides met in a tight contest in Melbourne in Round 7 (see below) and they will be keen to make amends. They will also be confident that they are now playing a far better brand of football as they grow accustomed to the style of coach Des Hasler – a fact highlighted by their four successive wins over the past month.

The Bulldogs have named Luke MacDougall on the wing once again after he was a late withdrawal from last week’s game with an elbow injury. Their six-man bench includes back-rower Josh Jackson, who has been a standout in NSW Cup this season, and Dale Finucane who debuted in the win over South Sydney three weeks ago.

Melbourne has named an identical side to the one that downed Manly on Monday night, with Cameron Smith to start at five-eighth and Gareth Widdop at fullback.

Speaking of Widdop, the battle of the Brits will be an interesting aside in this one. The 23-year-old has contributed eight try assists and nine line-break assists in 2012. He also boasts a perfect 4-0 winning record against the Bulldogs and has won four from five games he has played in Queensland.

Bulldogs prop James Graham has been similarly impressive and leads all NRL interchange players this season for minutes played (778), runs (225) and metres gained (1657).

Watch Out Bulldogs: Canterbury’s left-edge defence has been the side’s weakest link in 2012, conceding 17 tries (compared to 13 on the right) and they can expect to be tested this Sunday against a Storm side that love attacking that side of the field. Melbourne have scored a whopping 33 tries on their right side this season (10 more than on the left) which makes it the most lethal edge of any side in the Telstra Premiership.

Danger Sign: It is vital that the Bulldogs get up quickly on the last tackle and pressure the kicker because no side kicks with as much accuracy as the Melbourne Storm. Melbourne boast an impressive 64.1 per cent accuracy percentage in 2012 and have also made the second-most metres from kicks with 9235 at 660 per game (behind only Manly).

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne aren’t a side that clocks off too often but if there is one side that can make them pay for losing concentration it is Canterbury. The Bulldogs don’t need field position to score points, having crossed for a phenomenal 29 tries from beyond the 20-metre line this season, including nine from inside their own half. And although Ben Barba has again proved dangerous with seven tries from beyond the 20, he isn’t alone in 2012: Josh Morris has also scored seven long-range tries while Jonathan Wright has added five.

Danger Sign: Canterbury’s big, skillful forward pack has been a key reason for the side’s success so far in 2012 and Melbourne will need to limit their opportunities for second-phase play. The Bulldogs have offloaded more than any other side this year, 187 times, with Sam Kasiano (26), Josh Reynolds (22), Ben Barba (20) and Frank Pritchard (18) all threats.

Josh Morris v Justin O’Neill: What a season Josh Morris is having! Back to his blistering best on Canterbury’s left edge, he is enjoying the added space being provided by his forwards, scoring 11 tries and making as many line-breaks. He also showed his class with a huge performance for NSW in last week’s second State of Origin game in Sydney. There aren’t too many in the NRL that can match Morris for pace, however his opponent Justin O’Neill may just be one of them. Nicknamed ‘the Ferrari’, O’Neill has enjoyed a superb 2012 on the Storm’s right edge with six tries and an average 118 metres per game.

Where It Will Be Won: Awareness in defence is the key. With the game to be played in the Mackay sunshine we can expect both sides to promote the football and with so many attacking threats across the park, it will be the side that stays on the ball while defending that will have a huge advantage.

The History: Played 28; Bulldogs 14, Storm 14. The even record belies Melbourne’s dominance of late – they have won nine of their past 11 games against the Bulldogs.

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne came from behind to score a grinding 12-6 win in Round 7 this year to make it seven wins in a row. In what proved to be their toughest game of the season at the time, the Storm fell behind after 14 minutes when sustained pressure on the try line saw Greg Eastwood cross untouched from a clever Michael Ennis pass.

But their lead didn’t last long as Ryan Hinchcliffe poured through a gap off Cameron Smith’s short ball and stepped inside Ben Barba to level the scores at 6-all.

The second half saw Melbourne off to a lightning-fast start as Ryan Hoffman ran through a yawning gap to make it 12-6 but that was the last time either side would trouble the scorer. Canterbury spent much of the second half camped deep in Melbourne territory but couldn’t land a telling blow.

Ironically the Bulldogs ran for 1582 metres to just 1289 by Melbourne. Ben Barba, Jonathan Wright, Bryson Goodwin, Aiden Tolman and Sam Kasiano all ran for more than 140 metres while Jesse Bromwich added 144 metres and 18 tackles off the bench for the home side.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: This is a great opportunity for Canterbury to upset Melbourne and keep their minor premiership hopes alive. The absence of fullback Billy Slater is huge for the Storm and although their reshuffled line-up impressed in downing Manly at Brookvale on Monday night, there were certainly some moments where his loss was glaring. The Storm are never easy to beat, but with the Origin period reaching its peak and Canterbury growing in confidence, we can see them stealing the bickies in this one. Bulldogs by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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