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Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers
Saturday 3.30pm

Melbourne’s players will be inhaling a double dose of the smelling salts in the dressing room before this week’s intriguing Close The Gap match-up with the Panthers, with five clumsy consecutive losses loosening their previously vice-like grip on a spot in the crucial top four.  

After a season full of damaging bluster the Storm are now becalmed, with their minor premiership dream seemingly in tatters. They need to breathe new life into their campaign pronto – a loss here and they could end up equal third alongside the winner of Saturday night’s clash between the Cowboys and Sea Eagles, as well as the Broncos should they account for the Raiders on Sunday. From there it’s a short drop to the bottom half of the finals zone.

Clearly coach Craig Bellamy will be looking for a slicker execution from his players after their rustiness cost them dearly against St George Illawarra last week, with Brett Morris scoring two crucial long-range tries against the run of play. But for an errant last pass on each occasion the Storm could have been celebrating four-pointers instead.

Meanwhile the Panthers, spurred on by returning representative star Michael Gordon, stole a controversial win over the Sharks last Saturday, proving they still have some spirit and purpose despite the fact they are dead and buried in the finals race. They’ll never get a better chance to take down the Storm and will delight in inflicting pain on another premiership heavyweight with a focused 80 minutes here.

They’ll also be mindful they are just a win ahead of the resurgent Eels in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon.

Craig Bellamy has invested in the same 17 players from last week’s defeat, adding Rory Kostjasyn and Todd Lowrie to form an extended bench.

Meanwhile Ivan Cleary has similarly named an unchanged 17 this week, with Danny Galea added to form a five-man interchange at this stage.

Watch Out Storm: Line-breaks and cheap metres out of dummy-half are a feature of the Panthers’ play. Penrith have made seven busts at the ruck so far (fifth most), led by Kevin Kingston with four (second most).

Luke Walsh is their creative ace – he may be way down on try assists in 2011 with just 10 so far compared to 20 last season but he did show renewed spark last week when he manufactured two tries. He needs to be pressured at first receiver.   

Lachlan Coote looked a ready-made running five-eighth when crossing for two tries against the Sharks; his energy will pose a threat when the Storm forwards tire late in each half. 

Josh Mansour has really kicked on since scoring against the Storm with his first touch in the NRL back in Round 9. The dynamic winger is averaging six tackle busts per game – a shade off the benchmark 6.6 set by Greg Inglis. Plus he’s good for an average 170 metres a match (third most in the comp). Cooper Cronk needs to get his clearance kicks right.

Danger Sign: If the Panthers’ outside men start to make inroads. Penrith average 31 tackle-breaks per game – last week their backline alone totalled 30, including 24 to their outside backs. David Simmons (eight) and Michael Jennings (seven) led the way.

Watch Out Panthers: Given the Storm rank fifth for offloads (10.5 per game) their support players will need to be shadowed all evening – in particular runners trailing off forwards Jesse Bromwich (24 offloads), Ryan Hoffman (22), Cameron Smith (18) and Jason Ryles (16).  

Josh Mansour and Michel Jennings can expect a torrid time attempting to repel waves of Storm attack on the Panthers’ left edge. That’s because the Storm have had more success with their right-edge attack than any team in the comp, crossing for 39 tries – including three last week. By comparison they’ve scored 28 on their left side.  

Cooper Cronk will be hoping for a more fluid combination with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater in the run to the finals. When they are in synch the trio can prise open even the toughest ruck defence with an interchange of passes ending in Slater streaking away into space. Cronk has 24 try assists so far, just two behind stats category leader Benji Marshall.

Expect left winger Anthony Quinn to be heavily involved – he needs 112 metres to top 20 kilometres of territory in his career.

Danger Sign: Although the Panthers are one of the league’s better sides at defusing attacking kicks (75 per cent overall) they’ll have their work cut out negating the threat posed by Cronk’s boot. Melbourne have scored 20 tries from kicks, the third most by any team.       

Billy Slater v Michael Gordon: The Panthers will still be having nightmares about Slater’s demolition effort from the back the last time these sides met (see below). That evening the reigning Dally M Medalist ran for 238 metres with the ball in hand, added two line busts and shrugged off 15 would-be Panthers tackle attempts. He also set up two tries with great vision – one after running the ball from a scrum 10 metres out from his goal line, then kicking deep with Justin O’Neill winning the race to score. After a month out with injury he hit the ground running against the Dragons, delivering the final pass for Will Chambers to score and running the ball 19 times. Meanwhile Michael Gordon picked up against Cronulla where he left off before his early season injury, running 18 times and making a line-break, 165 metres and five tackle busts to keep the Sharks back-pedalling. He’ll be better for that outing.   

Where It Will Be Won: Motivation. For the Storm it’s all about winning to build some much-needed momentum approaching the finals. Forget the minor premiership – Craig Bellamy will settle for a spot in the top four, a ranking that is more important this year than ever before in the NRL; given the changes to this year’s Finals Series following the abandonment of the McIntyre system, it would afford them a second bite at the cherry if they were to lose in the first week of the playoffs. Meanwhile the Panthers players will be keen to maintain their energy levels and commitment through the closing rounds to show coach Ivan Cleary they are the right men to wear their jersey number again in 2013.

The History: Played 24; Storm 18, Panthers 6. The Storm have won the past eight clashes between the sides and boast a 2-0 advantage at Skilled Park.  

The Last Time They Met: Melbourne dished out Penrith’s worst defeat in 2012 when they flogged the Panthers 44-10 at Centrebet Stadium in Round 9, recording their ninth-straight win for their best ever start to an NRL season.  

In windy conditions, Penrith started promisingly and actually led 10-4 after 17 minutes before Melbourne’s stars ignited to cross for three unanswered tries and a commanding 22-10 lead at halftime.

It was one-way traffic after the break, with Justin O’Neill completing a hat-trick of tries in the 70th minute and other four-pointers to Will Chambers and Ryan Hoffman doubling the Storm’s score in the second 40 minutes.

Defence told the story – Penrith tallied a whopping 44 missed tackles as the Storm ran riot with eight line busts throughout the 80 minutes. Meanwhile the Storm were efficient in defence across the park, missing only 15 tackle attempts.

Melbourne’s best included Billy Slater (238 metres and 15 tackle-breaks) and Justin O’Neill (three tries, 202 metres, two line-breaks).

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh & Brenden Wood; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: Melbourne aren’t playing badly enough to have their epitaph written just yet. However, they need to rid themselves of any self-doubt that may have crept in following five straight losses. Expect Penrith to offer some stubborn resistance but at home, with a top-four berth in the balance, we anticipate Melbourne to get back on track – and in stunning fashion. Storm by 14 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 3.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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