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Melbourne Storm v Manly Sea Eagles
Friday 7.45pm

Arguably the Telstra Premiership’s greatest rivalry of recent times inks another absorbing chapter when the Storm and Sea Eagles lock horns with a date with grand final destiny the coveted prize on offer.

The plotlines are compelling: emotional Melbourne, desperate to avenge the heartbreak of seeing their premiership achievements of 2007 (when they defeated Manly) and 2009 wiped from the history books due to salary cap rorting; and defending premiers Manly, keen to rub the Storm’s nose into the turf again after walloping the southerners 40-nil in the 2008 grand final. Not to mention last year’s explosive and controversial ‘Battle of Brookvale’ which elevated their feud to a whole different level of intensity.

The sides’ parallel form lines ensure this match will be a cracker. Melbourne’s haunting five-match losing streak post-Origin has faded fast on the back of six consecutive wins since Round 22, during which time they accounted for the likes of the accomplished Broncos, Sharks and Rabbitohs (and conceded just 11.7 points per game, the best in the league over that time). Meanwhile Manly showed consistency in racking up six straight wins from Round 21, overcoming in-form sides including the Cowboys, Rabbitohs and Broncos.

Melbourne have spent the past week resting up after mauling South Sydney 24-6 in their Week One semi-final; Manly fronted up again last week after losing their Week One clash to the Bulldogs, climbing over the Cowboys 22-12 in match dominated by video refereeing controversy.

Geoff Toovey knows his charges have a steep mountain to climb if they are to advance to the premiership decider on the last Sunday in September (and a possible tantalising fourth season meeting with former mentor Des Hasler’s Bulldogs): Melbourne have lost just 10 of their past 50 home games and worryingly Manly have a dismal 2-7 record in the Victorian capital. However, countering that, the maroon and white haven’t lost a grand final qualifier since 1975…

There’s welcome news for Storm coach Craig Bellamy this week, with centre Will Chambers returning from a hamstring injury and Sika Manu slated in the back row. Chambers’ return shifts Justin O’Neill to the wing, with Mahe Fonua relegated to the pine. Also, prop Jason Ryles has been named on the bench which numbers seven players at this stage.

Meanwhile Manly are boosted by the return of impact centre Steve Matai after his one-week suspension; his inclusion sees Dean Whare shift to the right wing replacing Michael Oldfield who drops out of the squad.

It’s a milestone week for back-rower Ryan Hinchcliffe who plays his 100th game for Melbourne.

Watch Out Storm: Is there a bigger left-side threat in rugby league than the one posed by Manly’s Jorge Taufua, Steve Matai and Tony Williams? Souths’ Adam Reynolds might even consider himself fortunate to have been named Rookie of the Year given Taufua’s form over the past month. The 20-year-old ripped the Cowboys to shreds last week, scoring a try and carving out 268 metres with 11 tackle-breaks and three line busts. Even in defeat to the Bulldogs he amassed 245 metres with 14 tackle busts and three line-breaks. Matai’s jolting sidestep has left plenty of opposition centres grasping at air in 2012 and his ability to set up supports will be relied on here; and Tony Williams will no doubt target Cooper Cronk with plenty of punishing runs in the opening 20 minutes. ‘T-Rex’ leads all back-rowers for tackle busts (94) – and from just 14 games!  

Brett Stewart’s love affair with finals footy continues – his try against the Cowboys last Friday saw him become the Sea Eagles’ most prolific try-scorer in play-off games (with 13 – level with Billy Slater and just four behind Dragons great Eddie Lumsden’s all-time record). The Melbourne ruck defence needs to be on full alert, particularly in the middle of each half when their bigger forwards might be feeling fatigued – Stewart will look to chime in on an inside pass and scoot clear.

Danger Sign: Any time a Sea Eagle doesn’t assume his rightful position. Back in Round 15 Melbourne paid the price when Kieran Foran ducked into halfback to feed a scrum – Foran passed to Jamie Lyon at five-eighth, who immediately grubber-kicked ahead in a surprise play that ended with Brett Stewart winning the race for the ball to score.

Another danger sign will be if Manly’s tall timber, including prop Jason King, and also the creative Glenn Stewart, ‘spot’ Storm five-eighth Gareth Widdop in defence. Widdop can be shaky defending close to his try-line. Widdop misses almost four tackles a match and his 66 misses for the year are the third most by a No.6.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Billy Slater loves placing the ball over the Manly try-line, something he’s done on 10 occasions from 16 career games. Canterbury’s Ben Barba may have stolen some of Slater’s thunder in 2012 but ‘The Kid’ remains an X-factor who can turn a game on its head at any given moment and from anywhere on the field. He’ll be particularly dangerous joining the backline as a second five-eighth within his own half, looking to take advantage of any disorganisation in the centre-field defence before capitalising on the overlap created by his incision.

Manly need to shut down Melbourne’s selective offloads – the Storm rank seventh in the NRL for offloads with just 11 a game but they have registered 19 line-break assists from belated passes, the third-best conversion rate in the league. Their support play has the potential to run the Manly defence ragged too – their 750 supports are a whopping 250 more than Manly has offered to date.

Danger Sign: Anthony Watmough needs to stop giving away penalties and also stop making errors at crucial times. ‘Choc’ – who leads all players for conceding penalties with 24 so far – made a couple of clangers with the ball in hand last week plus he gifted the Cowboys three penalties, including two for lying all over the tackled player. Crucially, James Tamou scored from one of these shrills of the ref’s whistle. The Sea Eagles need to be squeaky clean with their discipline this week – especially given their poor record in Melbourne. (You have to scroll a long way down the list before you find Melbourne’s worst offender, Jason Ryles, with just 12 penalties conceded.)  

Cooper Cronk v Daly Cherry-Evans: No question the halfbacks hold the key. Cronk is the glue that binds the Storm’s attack, in particular through his combination with Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. He has speed off the mark, great vision and is pinpoint-accurate with his attacking kicks – something that will pose a huge threat to Manly given the premiers have conceded an NRL-high 29 tries to kicks so far. Also, Cronk has been responsible for more try assists than any No.7, making 29 to date. Meanwhile Cherry-Evans is at his most dangerous when he takes on the defensive line – something he hasn’t attempted very often in the back half of the season. Cherry-Evans leads all halfbacks for tackle busts in 2012 with 93 so far – but incredibly he’s racked up just three over the past fortnight. We’re guessing that’s as much a Geoff Toovey ploy as a form reversal; the Storm should prepare for greater involvement from DC-E here (he has 28 offloads to his name too).  

Where It Will Be Won: Flair from the big guns. When the premiership gets to this stage it’s simply not possible to keep all of the playmakers quiet all of the time. Consequently the team that advances to the grand final will do so on the back of one or more moments of dazzling brilliance from their superstars. Cooper Cronk… Billy Slater… Cameron Smith… Gareth Widdop… Daly Cherry-Evans… Brett Stewart… Jamie Lyon… Tony Williams – any of these guys, or indeed others, will write the headlines for their side. It’s interesting to note that Manly shade Melbourne as the team with the most experience at representative level: Manly boast 13 rep players, with nine Origin players and 10 Test players; Melbourne boast 12 rep players with seven playing Origin and 10 individuals with experience at international level.

The History: Played 22; Storm 12, Sea Eagles 10. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight clashes. Melbourne have won the only clash between the sides at AAMI Park.

The Last Time They Met: Goal-kicking proved the difference between the teams back in Round 15 when the Storm secured a 26-22 win in a pulsating, high-quality encounter at Brookvale Oval.

Despite missing Billy Slater to injury Melbourne shot out of the blocks to lead 12-nil inside the midpoint of the first stanza. Todd Lowrie finished off an 80-metre team raid to post first points with just seven minutes on the clock, before skipper Cameron Smith dummied his way over from first receiver in the 15th minute – a simple play that left Manly’s Anthony Watmough with egg on his face after the second-rower rushed up too quickly off his goal line.

That spurred the home side into action, with three tries inside 10 minutes catapulting them to an 18-12 lead on the stroke of halftime.

Daly Cherry-Evans’ opening try in the 28th minute had a lashing of irony to it; it started with hooker Matt Ballin passing to Kieran Foran who found Brett Stewart with a snappy inside pass that replicated Melbourne’s ultra-successful ploy so often triggered by Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater.

Stewart scored himself minutes later, winning the race to Jamie Lyon’s grubber kick behind the Storm defenders from a scrum 30 metres out, and when Jorge Taufua powered over the home side found themselves with a six-point advantage at the break.

The Storm hit back after halftime, with tries to Bryan Norrie and Matt Duffie handing them a 24-18 lead with 21 minutes remaining, before a Cameron Smith penalty goal following a Jamie Lyon foul edged them eight points clear with seven minutes left to play.

Manly had the best of the late exchanges, with winger Dean Whare crossing on the left edge seconds from fulltime.

The statistics sheets showed Manly were a little unlucky not to have won – they made six line-breaks to Melbourne’s two, clawed out almost 220 more metres in territory on the night, missed six fewer tackles and made four more offloads. Also, Manly completed their sets in possession at an excellent 86 per cent, which was marginally better than the Storm’s 84 per cent. Both sides made just six errors.

Prop Jessie Bromwich was a solid contributor for the Storm with 15 hit-ups and three offloads, while centre Justin O’Neill made 115 metres, five tackle busts and a line-break.

Manly were best served by powerhouse winger Jorge Taufua who made three line-breaks and racked up 230 metres.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Tony Archer; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Russell Smith & Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: Toss a coin! Given the evenly matched form lines the venue could prove the difference. Melbourne by a field-goal… either in the final 10 minutes of regular play or in golden point.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 10pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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