Bruised egos are the driving force behind Melbourne’s return to form, just in time for their Qualifying Finals clash with the ‘Storm-chasing’ South Sydney on Saturday night.
Just a half-a-dozen weeks ago the Storm were sliding down the competition ladder and in danger of missing a top-four position, following five losses in a row and an alarming pattern of ‘selfish’ individual play. Now, following five consecutive victories, the Storm’s confidence has returned, with the home side declaring they’re ready for their own version of ‘attack of the clones’.
The Rabbitohs might have a distinctly Melbourne flavour to their team – featuring no less than three former Storm stars and their former assistant coach – but hard-working Storm forward Ryan Hinchcliffe believes his side, after overcoming the late-season form slip, is more than ready for the ambush.
“We went through some pretty tough periods after Origin and we needed to take a step back and see how we were travelling,” Hinchcliffe tells NRL.com. “We realised we were struggling and needed to fix a few basic errors… our defence had dropped off.
“Our whole attitude to defence [was poor] – the strong point about our team was we always worked hard for one another; we’re certainly not a team of individuals, and we went away from that a bit. We started worrying about ourselves too much… and not our team… That [losing] streak did take it out of us – it did dent the confidence of a few of the boys and made us take a step back and take a good hard look at ourselves.
“Once we started working for ourselves and our team with and without the ball, we were able to rectify that and get back to the things we were doing well.”
Hinchcliffe – a key member of the Storm’s often under-rated forward pack – believes the Rabbitohs’ former Storm employees might have a tactical advantage in this crucial clash, but feels his team is well prepared to counter the intelligence. In particular, that of former assistant coach Michael Maguire, Souths head coach, who has brought a new professionalism to the club since his arrival at the start of the season. Coupled with former Melbourne players Greg Inglis, Michael Crocker and 2012 signing Matt King, and it’s obvious Maguire is trying to replicate and implement elements of the Storm’s successful systems.
“I wouldn’t say it’s flattering [Maguire’s Storm-style set-up at Souths]… but he’s got his own style and a fair bit of that is what he’s learnt in Melbourne,” Hinchcliffe agrees.
“I don’t know if [Maguire] will have a few tricks in his bag – he’s obviously a great friend of all of us at the Melbourne Storm. Whether he’s got inside knowledge I’m not sure – obviously he knows Craig and the boys well…”
A member of Melbourne’s squad since 2008, Hinchcliffe paid tribute to Maguire’s 2012 performance, revealing he expected nothing less – and that he anticipates an almighty challenge in the Second Qualifying Final at AAMI Park.
“I don’t think [Souths’ revival following Maguire’s appointment] was a coincidence at all – when he was here ‘Madge’ had a huge influence on the group,” Hinchcliffe reveals. “As an assistant coach he had some great ideas and the way he went about things and the way he spoke to players, you could see he was always going to be a good first grade coach himself. It was no surprise to see him do so well in the Super League in England, and there was no doubt he was going to make a great NRL coach.
“[Maguire’s got] a really dangerous team. They’re dangerous all over the field and they’ve got a lot of strikepower and some great players.”
Maguire and the Rabbitohs face an uphill battle in Melbourne, if recent records are anything to go by. Statistics show the Storm have dominated Souths in clashes at all venues, with the Rabbitohs winning just three of the teams’ 19 clashes, and just one of the past 10 meetings.
South Sydney co-captain Michael Crocker believes preparation – not past performances – will decide which team advances to the Preliminary Final.
“I’m not too worried about the records – I wasn’t aware of that [head-to-head stat],” Crocker admits. “We played down there earlier in the year and we didn’t play that great and we were still in the game for a long time. We’ve improved a lot since then… Of course it’s going to be tough. They’re a quality side and they’ve got so much class across the field but we’re looking forward to it.
“Preparation is important. ‘Madge’ is pretty good at that type of stuff, keeping everyone grounded, and looking after the processes and getting all the boxes ticked through the week.”
Rabbitohs five-eighth John Sutton predicted Maguire’s knowledge of this week’s opponents could be an integral part of what would be a famous South Sydney victory.
“[Maguire] knows them pretty well and he knows their structures defensively and in attack so hopefully he can teach us some stuff about how to go down there to exploit them,” Sutton says.
“He’ll prepare the video for us and show us where to attack, what’s their strong points and stuff like that… so hopefully we’ll [isolate a few] different areas.”
Hinchcliffe, however, isn’t overly bothered about threats of Maguire exploiting his inside knowledge. He believes his team-mates still haven’t hit their straps this season – a dangerous prospect considering Melbourne started the year with nine consecutive victories.
“I still don’t think we are at 100 per cent yet – there are a few areas I think still we can improve – but the good thing for us is we’re getting better every week,” the lock-forward says.
“Our completions in recent weeks [have been poor] – we’ve dropped a fair bit of cheap pill and you can’t do that in semi-finals. With so many good teams around, they’ll hurt you so if we pick up our completions and start working out a few things in attack I think we’ll give ourselves every chance.”