Storm v Sharks preview

Melbourne Storm v Cronulla Sharks
AAMI Park
Monday 7pm

The best has been saved until last this week. It was only a few rounds ago that both of these sides were reassessing their premiership credentials after injury and a post-Origin slump had seen both embark on worrying losing streaks, but it seems that with the finals looming they’ve well and truly turned it all around.

Melbourne’s five-match losing streak was particularly surprising – even with star fullback Billy Slater on the sidelines for much of the poor run. A 40-12 thrashing at home to Canberra and a 16-10 loss to last-placed Parramatta saw what once was a four-point lead at the top of the NRL ladder morph into a four-point deficit to current leaders Canterbury.

That much won’t change, with the Bulldogs almost certain to claim the minor premiership, however consecutive wins over Penrith, the Gold Coast and Brisbane have the Storm well and truly back on track and ready to launch yet another grand final assault.

No doubt their premiership rivals will have noticed that their big three are starting again to produce the plays that made them so dangerous for the first half of the season – particularly in the tries that Slater and Cooper Cronk scored shortly after half-time against the Titans two weeks ago. And they have proved over the past fortnight that when the game is on the line, they’ve got what it takes to come up with the goods.

Likewise, Cronulla appear to have rediscovered their mojo of late.

The 2012 season has proved to be somewhat of a breakthrough year for the Sharks after three forgettable seasons in the finals wilderness. And while they will be disappointed that the top-four berth they held for much of the year seems out of reach following a run of three losses and a draw in the wake of Origin, they have hit back strongly with huge wins over the Warriors and Souths in the past three weeks.

Crucially, they’ve welcomed back NSW duo Paul Gallen and Todd Carney in that time while key forwards Jeremy Smith, Anthony Tupou and Bryce Gibbs have all returned from stints on the sideline.

The Sharks will take plenty of heart from the fact that they were the first side to beat Melbourne in 2012 when they ended the Storm’s nine-match winning streak with a grinding 12-10 win in Round 10.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy has reshuffled his pack following last week’s one-point win over Brisbane, with Sika Manu returning to the starting side in the back row and Kevin Proctor dropping back to the bench. Jesse Bromwich is also into the starting side with Bryan Norrie coming off the bench.

Sharks prop Ben Ross is back from a hand injury, relegating Mark Taufua to the bench with Tyson Frizell 18th man.

Melbourne are set to become the first side this season to reach 100 tries for the year, with four needed in their remaining two games. They will rely heavily on captain Cameron Smith, who is not only poised to reach 800 tackles in a season for the ninth time in 10 years but needs just one more try assist to equal his season-best mark (10). Smith averages more touches per game than any other player in the NRL (115.2).

Only once has Cronulla defeated Melbourne twice in the same season (2005).

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne’s forward pack will have their work cut out for them this week. Cronulla lead the way for metres gained this season with 31,644 at 1438 per game and they rank second in the NRL – only just behind Canterbury – for offloads with 271. Paul Gallen has produced 47 offloads from 13 appearances this year while Anthony Tupou has added 28 from 10.

Danger Sign: The Storm boast one of the best kicking games in the NRL thanks to the Cooper Cronk-Cameron Smith combination; however they still have work to do when it comes to pinning the opposition deep inside their own territory. Notably, Melbourne have produced the most poor kick-chases of any side this season with 55 in their 22 outings. By comparison, Cronulla have produced just 19 poor chases.

Watch Out Sharks: The Storm are one of the few sides in the competition that heavily favour their right edge over their left. In fact, they have scored 47 tries on that side of the field in 2012 compared to 33 on the left. No other side has scored as many tries on either side of the field as Melbourne has on their right, so Cronulla’s left-edge defenders can expect a working over.

Danger Sign: Cronulla’s markers must work extra hard late in the tackle count to limit the opportunities Cameron Smith has to kick from dummy-half. No side kicks from dummy-half as often as the Storm with 65 kicks so far this season – 47 of them long kicks and 17 from close range (plus one bomb). Some 62 of those 65 kicks have come from the boot of Smith and he will no doubt again look to gain easy metres from the boot against the Sharks.

Gareth Widdop v Todd Carney: Gareth Widdop has spent much of his career at fullback and filled in admirably in the No.1 jersey in the absence of Billy Slater, however there is no doubt that the Storm look much more settled with Slater at the back and Widdop partnering Cooper Cronk in the halves. Widdop is the quiet achiever of the Storm’s playmakers although his mettle will be tested by Cronulla's Todd Carney this week, with Carney quickly rediscovering his best form after recovering from his first Origin series. Widdop made three bad tackle misses that led to tries last week; he’ll be keen to show he’s better than that.

Where It Will Be Won: In the forwards, where Cronulla boast an edge over most opponents in the NRL. Melbourne will again look to their big three to capitalise on any opportunities they create but if the Sharks’ forward pack can dominate it will be difficult for Slater, Smith and Cronk to find the room they need to work their magic.

The History: Played 24; Storm 15, Sharks 9. Cronulla are yet to win in two trips to AAMI Park and have lost six of their past eight clashes with the Storm; however they prevailed at Toyota Stadium earlier in the year.

The Last Time They Met: Cronulla overcame a big loss to South Sydney the previous Monday and also the loss of captain Paul Gallen to a knee injury to end Melbourne’s nine-match winning run with a hard-fought 12-10 victory at Toyota Stadium in Round 10.

It took them some time to find their feet, with the Storm drawing first blood 12 minutes in when Cooper Cronk hoisted a bomb into the swirling wind; Sharks winger Isaac Gordon couldn’t haul it in and Dane Nielsen pounced to make it 6-0.

However, Gordon quickly made amends and boosted his side’s confidence after finishing off a slick backline move just three minutes later to score on the right edge.

The Sharks produced some big hits in defence but they couldn’t stop Matt Duffie from scoring in the 26th-minute – Melbourne producing their own backline beauty for Slater to throw a perfectly timed pass and give his side a 10-6 half-time lead.

The second half was 14 minutes old when the decisive moment of the match occurred: attacking the Storm line, Cronulla halfback Jeff Robson put a speculative grubber in behind the line and when Slater barged him off the ball, referee Jason Robinson had no choice but to send the Storm fullback to the sin-bin.

Despite holding firm against a Sharks barrage in Slater’s absence, the weight of possession eventually told and Jeremy Smith leveled the scores when he barged over from close range with 10 minutes remaining. That gave Todd Carney the chance to put his side in front for the first time and he nailed the conversion from wide out, with Cronulla holding on for a crucial victory.

Very little separated the sides through the 80 minutes, however in the end Melbourne’s 44 missed tackles came back to bite them.

Cronulla prop Bryce Gibbs was superb for the home side, running for 174 metres and making 34 tackles, while Slater made 163 metres for Melbourne.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Dave Munro; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: This promises to be a blockbuster; however we’re always reluctant to tip against Melbourne at home and we can see them edging this one based on that home ground advantage. We do expect a high quality contest though with the finals just around the corner. Storm by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats