Determination, aggression, efficiency, all-round improvement and a new X-factor – that’s just the short list of what Melbourne believe Manly will need to overcome when they meet at AAMI Park in the first Preliminary Final on Friday night.
The Melbourne Storm may have finished minor premiers last year, but this year’s second-ranked team believe they’re much improved from 2011, and, with a more dynamic, exciting and ‘motivated’ team, are determined to exorcise the demons from last year’s Finals Week Three loss when they ‘fell apart’ against the Warriors in the Victorian capital.
Melbourne Storm assistant coach Kevin Walters believes his team will present a far greater challenge for the opposition this week than they did a year ago in the grand final qualifier, when the Kiwi-based side sealed a 20-12 win in the final few minutes.
“I think the Storm are a little fresher this year than they were last year, and we’re looking forward to seeing how fresh they really are on Friday night,” Walters tells NRL.com.
“I’d like to think [the team has improved significantly] but the results will be shown. I think the team’s performed better this year at different stages, and I know some of the players who have come in again this year have improved in leaps and bounds.
“It’s great to get the opportunity again – I think this is the Storm’s sixth or seventh Preliminary Final so that’s a good achievement in itself – but you need to get through to that big one to keep the till ticking over. I know the players are focused not necessarily on the result on Friday night but just making sure they’re doing their jobs right, doing the things they do really well that’ll ultimately help [create] the result.”
The former Bronco, one of Craig Bellamy’s coaching apprentices in Melbourne, said the coaching staff were particularly happy with the side’s Finals Week One thumping of Souths, but warned Manly were potentially a much tougher challenge. Walters said the side not only needed to defend stoutly but also continue to challenge the Sea Eagles with ball in hand – a lesson his side learned late in their first finals match against the Rabbitohs.
“[It was a] great performance [against Souths], particularly in the first half… the boys were good enough to capitalise and, to go into the break with a pretty good margin, we were always going to be tough to beat in the second half, but our second half wasn’t great,” Walters admits.
“Souths did manage a bit of a fightback so that’s one area we need to be better at on Friday night… We need to keep playing footy – from a general point of view playing hard and keep doing our best through the second half. We know Manly are a very experienced team at this time of year and if we don’t do the things that got the Storm to where they are, things could fall away very quickly. We need to keep playing – and keep playing for 80 minutes.”
Walters said it was near impossible to find weaknesses in the Sea Eagles’ game, and revealed the key period of the match – the period his side is focused on – would be the final minutes of the match, when fatigue has set in and the match is expected to still hang in the balance.
“We need a lot of things to go right [to win], and hopefully a few refereeing decisions as well,” Walters says, referring to recent controversies.
“These types of these games are won in the second half of the second half, so we’re looking to be firing on all cylinders in that period because I’m sure the game will still be in the balance, and whoever finishes that period off best I think will be the winners.
“It’s been pretty hard [finding weaknesses in Manly’s team] – I’ve been scratching my head all week… With their defence and with their attack, they’ve got some quality players – and they’ve got Steve Matai back, who’s a very tough and experienced player at this time of year – so the week’s been more about getting the Storm right. We fell apart last year in this game and were very inefficient in a few areas. That’s what it’s been about this week – just trying to fix up our own game and trying to get that right, so we can meet Manly head on and go with them for 80 minutes.”
The former five-eighth paid tribute to the Storm’s lesser lights for their contribution in 2012, predicting it could be one of them – not the ‘big three’ of Billy Slater, Cameron Smith or Cooper Cronk – who could pull out a match-winning play for Melbourne in the dying minutes of the vital finals clash.
“They’re not so much newcomers to the team but certainly Todd Lowrie and Ryan Hinchcliffe (who is playing his 100th game in Melbourne colours) are unheralded players at the Storm performing well,” Walters says. “Justin O’Neill has come in for his first full year of first grade – he’s been outstanding – and probably for the past eight weeks Sisa Waqa has really come alive. We saw that play he pulled off against Cronulla (in Round 25) in the dying moments to win the Storm the game. He’s been in outstanding form for us… they’re the sort of players that have really come along this year and helped get the Storm to the position they are now.
“You’d like to think regardless of the situation they can perform… Sisa showed a cool head and we need him to show that again on Friday night. If the opportunity comes up for him to do something like that again, we’d like to think he’d be smart enough and strong enough for him to grab that opportunity. The opportunities will be few and far between in this match – we know how strong they are and how aggressive they are with their defence – and we need to capitalise on any opportunities we are given.”
Walters also credited his club’s loyal group of supporters – who have stuck by the team in the most difficult of times – for the team’s strong showing this season. He said their influence on the ‘home’ match for the Storm could have a huge impact on the result.
“The fans are the most important part of any club – without them supporting the club and coming through the turnstiles the game wouldn’t survive. They have been through some highs and some lows here, with some grand final wins and some disappointments we’re all aware of,” Walters admits.
“The big advantage for the Storm [in the first Preliminary Final] is having the game at home. I know ticket sales are going well but there are still tickets available. We need every Storm member and every Storm fan that’s in the vicinity of Victoria to get their bums to the game, show their support and help get us over the line in what will be a difficult match.”