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Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
Saturday 5.30pm

It’s a case of mate v mate in Melbourne this weekend as the core of Queensland’s triumphant State of Origin squad go head to head. And there will be plenty of attacking talent on show with the Storm’s Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Dane Nielsen taking on their Maroons team-mates Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Scott and Brent Tate.

Truth be told, this has long been one of the showpiece clashes of the Telstra Premiership and even with Melbourne fullback Billy Slater on the sidelines it promises to be quite a spectacle.

In fact, Slater’s absence will give North Queensland plenty of confidence given his importance to the home side and the fact that Melbourne have struggled in his absence over the past month. It’s fair to say that the Origin period hasn’t been particularly kind to the Storm. Having won nine from 10 heading into the representative season, they have since lost three of six – including last week’s shock 40-12 thrashing at the hands of Canberra – to see their grip on the minor premiership dramatically loosened.

That said, they will be heartened by the return of captain Cameron Smith who was rested against the Raiders, while the end of the Origin period means they can finally focus once more on the run home to the finals.

They also hold considerable bragging rights over this week’s opponent, having scored an emphatic 42-18 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 6.

For the Cowboys, this week not only presents an opportunity to upset the competition favourites but to shore up their position in the top eight. Currently sitting alone in seventh spot, they remain just two competition points behind Brisbane, Manly and South Sydney in the race for a top-four spot.

North Queensland enjoyed a well-earned rest last weekend after falling to the Warriors the week before and with Thurston and co. back on board they’ll be primed to ensure a strong finish to the regular season.

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy has named the same side that went down to Canterbury three weeks ago, with Origin stars Smith, Cronk and Nielsen returning and Rory Kostjasyn, Jaiman Lowe and Sisa Waqa added to an extended bench.

The Cowboys have named all four Origin reps – Thurston, Tate, Scott and James Tamou – in the starting side with Ashton Sims and Ricky Thorby dropping back to the bench and Kalifa Faifai Loa and Joel Riethmuller dropping out altogether.

Halfback Ray Thompson is expected to be fit after recovering from a shoulder injury suffered in the loss to the Warriors two weeks ago although Michael Morgan has been named on an extended bench as back-up.

It’s a big night for Cronk who becomes just the fourth player to reach 200 games for the Storm. Since debuting in 2004 he has missed just 20 games and has amassed 157 try assists, 103 line-break assists and 54 tries for 139 wins.

Meanwhile, Melbourne has proven to be an unhappy hunting ground for Johnathan Thurston. Having won his first six games against the Storm, he has tasted victory just once in their past 10 clashes and has never won in Victoria at club level.

Notably, Melbourne have only lost three consecutive games once in the past decade.

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne’s inside and cover defenders must make sure they remain on the ball for the full 80 minutes because North Queensland is the best team in the NRL when it comes to support play. In 2012 they have supported the ball-runner a whopping 708 times (97 times more than next-best Cronulla) with Matt Bowen (139), Johnathan Thurston (97) and Ray Thompson (82) leading the way.

Danger Sign: Bowen presents plenty of threat for the Storm and is renowned for his ability to capitalise on broken-play situations. It’s an area Melbourne should be wary of too, given their own flaws in that area: they have produced more poor kick chases than any other side in 2012, with 43.

Watch Out Cowboys: It is vital that the visitors pressure the Storm kickers because they are the most accurate in the NRL when it comes to finding open space. In 2012, Melbourne have found the grass 92 times from 144 kicks, at an excellent 63.9 per cent success rate.

Danger Sign: Melbourne are renowned for their superb structures and ability to pierce the defensive line with a well-rehearsed play; however they would be well advised to revert to the good old-fashioned bomb this weekend. The Cowboys have defused just 25 of 36 bombs this season at 69 per cent – the worst percentage in the Telstra Premiership under the high ball.

Dane Nielsen v Brent Tate: Queensland’s centre pairing last week, opposite numbers this week. Nielsen has emerged as one of the game’s finest centres in recent seasons with the ability to find the tryline and a strong defensive game. He’ll need all of those skills and more this week, however, against veteran Tate who again showed his class after earning a recall to the Maroons squad this year. North Queensland heavily favour their right edge, so expect these two to come into contact throughout.

Where It Will Be Won: In the spine. It’s fair to say that at full strength, these two sides boast the most-feared key-position players in the NRL but even in the absence of Billy Slater the Storm remain ominous. North Queensland rely heavily on the Bowen-Thurston combination, while hooker Aaron Payne has long provided a steadying influence and young half Ray Thompson continues to grow into the No.7 jersey.

The History: Played 24; Storm 18, Cowboys 6. A 34-6 win to the Cowboys last season is the only joy they’ve had against Melbourne in recent times. In fact, they have only ever defeated Melbourne once south of the border, way back in 2001.

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne made it six wins from six starts with a comprehensive 42-18 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 6.

In Aaron Payne’s 200th game, the Cowboys shot out of the blocks with the veteran hooker instigating a superb set play inside two minutes for Matt Bowen to score between the sticks. But Melbourne hit back almost immediately with a swift backline move sending Matt Duffie over on the left edge. A poor kick-chase then gifted the Storm great field position and Kevin Proctor capitalised at the end of the set to crash over and make it 12-6.

A bombed try from the Cowboys midway through the opening half proved crucial with the Storm travelling back down the other end for Cronk and Slater to combine for Ryan Hinchcliffe to score. However, when Gavin Cooper crashed through three defenders to score out wide the home side was right back in the contest, down just 16-12 at the break.

Shortly after halftime Slater broke through and although Bowen hauled him in before the line, the Cowboys couldn’t stop Jason Ryles from crashing over for a 22-12 scoreline. When Will Chambers pushed his way over out wide the Storm were well on their way to a resounding win.

Proctor added a second in the 54th minute, Chambers another in the 69th and Matt Duffie in the 74th to round out the victory.

The Storm completed 84 per cent of their sets and ran for 1637 metres to North Queensland’s 1055.

Cronk finished the game with five try assists and Gareth Widdop ran for 168 metres, while James Tamou impressed for the home side with 166 metres and 28 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Gavin West; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: This promises to be a thriller. The absence of Slater for the Storm is a factor that will bolster the Cowboys’ confidence and now is as good as ever for them to score a win in Melbourne. Still, the return of Cameron Smith is huge for the home side and with the home ground advantage we’re tipping them to squeak home in a tight one. Storm by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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