Wests Tigers v Melbourne Storm
If we’re getting technical, Wests Tigers’ season isn’t over just yet. Come Saturday night, the Tigers will know whether a win over Melbourne will be enough to get them through… or whether they will need to notch a cricket score to claim one of the few spots still up for grabs.
The maths is simple – if they beat Melbourne and either the Broncos or Raiders lose, they’re in. If Brisbane and Canberra win, the Tigers need to not only do the same but pile on enough points to make up the points differential to Canberra (who are currently 14 points better off on for-and-against). Brisbane are 52 ahead, so that’s a lost cause.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First thing’s first and that means getting the win against a Melbourne side riding high on the back of four straight victories and their stunning comeback effort against Cronulla on Monday night.
In that pursuit, the Tigers don’t fill you with a lot of confidence.
One of the pre-season premiership favourites, they have struggled for consistency all year and while they were desperately unlucky not to beat Canterbury a fortnight ago, last week’s dismal performance against the Roosters must cast a pall over whether they could cause any real finals damage even if they managed to get there.
The loss of captain Robbie Farah with a broken hand has been a devastating blow for Tim Sheens’ men. He was sorely missed last week and although he remains confident of returning for Week One of the finals, he won’t be there when they need him most this weekend.
The positive for the Tigers is that they are playing at their favourite venue Leichhardt Oval, where they are always tough to beat, and are in the process of farewelling back-rower Gareth Ellis. They will no doubt be keen to extend his stay by a few more weeks.
Melbourne, on the other hand, secured a top-two finish with their amazing win on Monday night, so the pressure is off them.
Coach Craig Bellamy has even hinted at resting players although he will be reluctant to miss one final hit-out before the finals campaign gets underway given the impact the side’s poor finish to the 2011 season had on their title push.
He will also be well aware that although the Storm have now won four in a row, only their 46-6 trouncing of Penrith in Round 22 was convincing. Their wins over the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Cronulla have all required significant comebacks after worryingly slow starts, so there remains plenty of room for improvement if they hope to go all the way.
Tigers coach Tim Sheens has shuffled his backline again this week with Tim Moltzen returning to fullback, Chris Lawrence moving to five-eighth and Beau Ryan into the centres.
Masada Iosefa replaces the injured Liam Fulton at hooker with Tom Humble coming into the squad on the bench.
Bellamy has named an unchanged line-up although it will be interesting to see if he makes any late changes.
Tigers forward Chris Heighington requires just 121 more metres to reach 20 kilometres of territory with the ball in hand throughout his career.
No doubt the home fans will be hoping for a repeat performance from Benji Marshall of his three-try effort against Melbourne at Leichhardt in Roud 25, 2010. Unfortunately, he has never scored a try in any of his 11 other clashes with the Storm!
Watch Out Tigers: The Tigers’ back three beware – Melbourne are the masters of the 40/20, with their six for the season more than any other side in 2012. Cooper Cronk is the main danger man, having kicked five, while Cameron Smith has added one.
Danger Sign: The Tigers are renowned for their attacking brilliance but they can leak points just as quickly – and it is their edge defence that is the worry. They have conceded just 14 tries up the middle this season but 41 on their right side and 35 on their left. They’ll need to tighten up to hold out the Storm.
Watch Out Storm: If there is one man who can hurt the Storm, it’s Benji Marshall who has notched some remarkable stats this season despite his side’s woes. In 2012 he has produced more try assists (36) and line-break assists (32) than any other player, as well as producing 65 tackle-breaks and scoring 161 points.
Danger Sign: Billy Slater can expect a working over when the Tigers are attacking the line with a few grubbers certain to come his way. The Tigers have produced a massive 121 grubber kicks in 2012 – 24 grubbers more than any other side.
Benji Marshall v Cooper Cronk: The New Zealand Test captain against the Australian No.7… they don’t come any bigger than this. And while their sides have enjoyed vastly different fortunes in 2012, there is no doubting the brilliant form of both Marshall and Cronk who have toyed with opposition defensive lines all year. No doubt they will both be keen to put on a show at Leichhardt this week: Marshall has made the most try assists in the comp (36) with Cronk ranked second (28).
Where It Will Be Won: The kicking games – both long and short – of these sides will go a long way towards determining the outcome. Melbourne lead the way when it comes to the long kick. They have made more metres from the boot than any other side in 2012 with 635 metres per game and are one of only three teams to boast an accuracy percentage greater than 60 per cent when it comes to finding open space. Meanwhile, the Tigers love the attacking kick – ranking first for total grubbers and second for cross-field kicks.
The History: Played 21; Storm 13, Tigers 8. The Tigers hold a dominant 6-2 record against Melbourne at Leichhardt and have won four of their past seven encounters against the Storm at all venues.
The Last Time They Met: Wests Tigers took advantage of the rep period – which saw Melbourne’s big three away on Origin duty – to score a hard-fought 10-6 win at AAMI Park in Round 14.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the visitors, who lost their own fullback Tim Moltzen to a hip injury suffered in the warm-up, but they got off to a great start in the driving rain when Benji Marshall produced an early 40/20. From the ensuing set, the Tigers earned a penalty and Marshall slotted the goal for a 2-0 lead.
Only some desperate Melbourne defence in coach Craig Bellamy’s 250th game in charge prevented the Tigers crossing the stripe in the opening half and they were rewarded for their resolve in the final seconds when Rory Kostjasyn darted from dummy-half and the Tigers were found to be well offside in their attempts to hold him up. Gareth Widdop took the penalty and scores were locked 2-2 at the break.
However, the Tigers took less than three minutes to score after the resumption – a slick backline move allowing Lote Tuqiri to crash over out wide. Minutes later they were in again on the opposite side of the field as Blake Ayshford shrugged off a tackle and sent Matt Utai over.
Dane Nielsen set up a thrilling finish when he crashed over with 10 minutes remaining but the Tigers survived some close calls to take the two competition points.
Incredibly, the Tigers missed 35 tackles to the Storm’s 16 and made 12 tackles more, while Melbourne completed 90 per cent of their sets in the pouring rain.
Utai was particularly strong for the visitors with 187 metres from 18 runs and six tackle-breaks. Ryan Hinchcliffe made 40 tackles for the Storm.
Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Jeff Younis; Video Referee – Paul Simpkins.
The Way We See It: Much will depend on whether Storm coach Craig Bellamy rests any of his key players, which will open the door for a Tigers side that always plays their best football at Leichhardt Oval. The continued absence of Robbie Farah makes the home side’s task much tougher and if Melbourne is at full strength we think they will take the points. If not, the Tigers could well surprise. Storm by eight points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.
*Statistics: NRL Stats