Storm v Raiders preview

Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders
AAMI Park
Saturday 5.30pm

Premiership pacesetters Melbourne will be wary of an ambush from the Jekyll-and-Hyde Raiders who monstered St George Illawarra in Canberra last Monday night, with the memory of their near-defeat to the Green Machine in their 2012 season opener still fresh in the players’ minds.

Melbourne suffered just their third defeat of the year when falling to the Bulldogs 20-4 a fortnight ago before the majority of their squad rested up with their second bye last weekend. Three of their number – Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Dane Nielsen – linked with the Maroons’ Origin camp and coach Craig Bellamy will have his fingers crossed the trio will be fit to back up from Wednesday night’s dramatic decider.  

The loss to the ’Dogs was their second in three games, following their 10-6 defeat to the Wests Tigers at home in Round 14. It’s far from panic stations for the premiership favourites but coach Bellamy would be all too aware how minor slumps can morph into something more serious and will be drilling his troops on the importance of a committed focus.

Meanwhile the Raiders frustrated the Dragons at the death yet again last Monday, keeping intact their impressive unbeaten record against the Red V at home which now dates back 12 years. Without skipper David Shillington, it was arguably their best performance of the season: for a side ranked rock bottom for line-breaks conceded (with 5.6 per match) they surrendered just four and their brittle left-edge defence, which has been cracked open 32 times so far, held firm. Their running game impressed too, with a high 1575 metres tallied (up from their season average of 1316 metres).

They’ll need all that and more if they’re to record their third win from their past six games – and notch just their third win ever in Melbourne.

Melbourne have retained the 17 defeated by the Bulldogs in Mackay a fortnight ago, adding Rory Kostjasyn, Jaiman Lowe and Sisa Waqa to form a seven-man bench at this stage.

The Raiders have just the one change, with Shillington named to start at prop, which bumps Tom Learoyd-Lahrs to an extended bench of five players.

It’s a big week for Storm winger Anthony Quinn who plays his 200th game and requires just two line-breaks for 100 in his career.

Watch Out Storm: Jarrod Croker has been an attacking spearhead on the Raiders’ left edge. No centre has made more line-breaks than Croker’s 12 so far and he’ll look to test out Justin O’Neill.

On the other edge of the field Blake Ferguson is proving a handful, with more than four tackle busts and 125 metres a match. If Dane Nielsen is even slightly jaded after Wednesday night Ferguson will find him out.

Melbourne players need to focus on their ball control when confronted one on one by a Raiders defender – they love to attempt a steal and have been successful on three occasions (ranking second in the comp).

Melbourne need to get their wrestle right or the Raiders can get on a roll with some fast play-the-balls. They love to get the ball wide as soon as they can and it proved decisive in their victory over the Dragons last week when they achieved 36 fast play-the-balls. Melbourne restricted the Bulldogs to just 17 fast ruck plays last outing but still lost by 16 points.

Danger Sign: The Raiders’ forwards are largely responsible for the team’s second-phase play, with quartet Bronson Harrison and Dane Tilse (16 each), David Shillington (14) and Shaun Fensom (12) all capable of keeping the play going with a belated hand-off close to the try-line.

Watch Out Raiders: Dummy-half Cameron Smith will ask plenty of questions of the Raiders’ mid-field defence. He combined with Cooper Cronk for a remarkable ‘I don’t want it, you have it’ type try in the season opener, passing inside to Cronk at first receiver, having the ball turned back to him whereupon he immediately passed inside again, this time picking up a flying Billy Slater. It was a stunning set play they may look to replicate down the right edge.

The Raiders are conceding more line-breaks than any team this year – which will be music to the ears of the Storm who rank third for line-breaks, with five per game.

Cooper Cronk has really got the ball on a string when he sends up attacking kicks – the Storm have scored more tries from kicks than all teams (18) while the Raiders have leaked 13 tries to the boot. In particular the Canberra back three are having massive problems with midfield bombs, defusing them at just 63 per cent (third worst).

Danger Sign: Canberra will be sweating every time the Storm make their way inside their 10-metre zone. The Raiders have by far the weakest goal-line defence in the competition, surrendering 45 tries from inside 10 metres – 15 tries more than the next worst Cowboys. They leaked two from dummy-half last week.   

Gareth Widdop v Reece Robinson: There’s a bit of Billy Slater about Widdop’s play – and that’s welcome relief for Craig Bellamy with the world’s best fullback still in the casualty ward. Widdop has excellent vision and awareness and knows just when to chime into the backline. A standout in a losing side against the Bulldogs with 18 runs for 145 metres, Widdop has so far tallied 10 line-break assists and eight try assists. Meanwhile Robinson continues to show why coach David Furner felt comfortable shifting Josh Dugan out of fullback a month ago. Robinson is really growing into the No.1 jersey and his timing and positional play to chime into the backline for three tries last Monday was textbook fullback stuff. His pace and swerve will be menacing on both sides of the field and he could be used as a strike weapon in midfield too, spotting makeshift five-eighth Maurice Blair who came up with six tackle misses against the ’Dogs.

Where It Will Be Won: Attitude. Canberra really are an unknown quantity week to week. They seem to rev themselves up for certain opponents, and sit back on their haunches against others. Which unit will turn up in Melbourne? Meanwhile you know what you’re going to get from the well-drilled and disciplined Storm.   

The History: Played 30; Storm 23, Raiders 7. The Storm have won six of the past eight clashes – although the Raiders did score a 20-12 upset at AAMI Park in Round 10 last year. The ledger at this week’s venue is one game apiece – however the Raiders have won just two of 15 games played in the Victorian capital.

The Last Time They Met: The Raiders gave the Storm an almighty shock at Canberra Stadium in Round 1 this year, taking control of the contest midway through the second half before a last-gasp Billy Slater try sealed a 24-19 victory for the visitors with five minutes remaining.

It looked like the Storm were set for a massive afternoon of scoring when Slater and Cooper Cronk crossed within the first seven minutes for a 12-nil lead. However, tries to Shaun Fensom and Josh McCrone evened things out, with just a Cameron Smith penalty goal separating the teams at halftime.

Melbourne grabbed an 18-12 lead 11 minutes after the break when Justin O’Neill fielded a Cronk chip kick on the right edge to touch down, before Glenn Buttriss locked up proceedings with a soft try from close range five minutes later.

When Josh Dugan piloted over a wonky field-goal that bounced off the crossbar to break the deadlock in the 73rd minute, the home fans were dreaming of an upset victory to kick off their season. That evaporated shortly after when Slater latched onto a Cronk mini-bomb besides the goalposts to secure the competition points.

The Raiders were a little unlucky in defeat – they defended stoutly, missing just 18 tackles, while the Storm missed 33. The Green Machine ploughed out almost 200 more metres across the soggy turf, making two line-breaks to Melbourne’s one. However, second-phase play kept Melbourne in the match – they promoted the ball on nine occasions to Canberra’s two.

Slater and Cronk saved the Storm, while Josh Dugan was the standout for the home side, making 21 runs for a staggering 257 metres. Shaun Fensom kicked off the year in fine style with 63 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: The Storm are candidates for the minor premiership, the Raiders outside chances of scraping into the top eight. Melbourne by plenty… we’ll say 12 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats