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Storm v Bulldogs
Thursday, 8.05pm

The Bulldogs are in damage control in the lead-up to this Thursday’s grand final rematch with premiers Melbourne – not because of off-field indiscretions or internal disharmony but rather the daunting prospect of matching motors with a Storm side that has made an irrefutable statement of intent over the opening fortnight of the 2013 premiership.

Last Saturday’s clash between Melbourne and North Queensland in Townsville was supposed to provide a gripping contest between two closely matched units, with the Cowboys tipped by many as potential grand finallists even at this early stage. But the Storm bucketed down on their parade, emerging with an almost effortless 32-10 victory that sent shivers down the spines of the 14 other NRL coaches.

And with Ben Barba’s return reportedly at least another week away, Bulldogs coach Des Hasler knows his side will need to produce something special if they are to gain a much-needed psychological advantage over a Storm team they will meet at least twice this season, with a return ‘bout’ scheduled in Round 18 before any semi-finals action.

Of particular concern for Hasler as he preps his squad is the fact this week’s opponent North Queensland didn’t do a whole heap wrong on the stats sheet last week, yet emerged way off the mark on the scoresheet. Each side completed at roughly 70 per cent; made six line-breaks; shared 12 errors apiece as well as 29 missed tackles. The Cowboys seemingly were more creative, winning the offloads 15-9. Yet Melbourne was a 22-point better side at fulltime. Yikes.

Meanwhile Canterbury got on the board in 2013 with a hard-fought 20-16 win over a Parramatta side that bore little resemblance to the inept unit lumped with the wooden spoon last year. It was very much a tale of two halves – both sides failed to trouble the scoreboard attendant in the second 40 – and ultimately it was the Bulldogs’ ability to break the defensive line (four line busts to two) that proved the difference.

In team news, Melbourne will be sweating on the fitness of star fullback Billy Slater after he suffered a hamstring twinge in the win over the Cowboys. Slater has been named but will be monitored in the lead-up.

Nevertheless the Storm have two forced changes: Ex-Knight Junior Sa’u comes in at left centre for the injured Justin O’Neill, while Junior Moors joins the interchange to cover for the suspended Siosaia Vave who will miss one week.
Bulldogs coach Des Hasler has named an unchanged line-up, with Tim Lafai the extra man in jersey No.19.

Watch Out Storm: Despite dominating over the opening fortnight Melbourne have racked up a worrying error count – last season they tallied the third fewest errors overall but in 2013 they are the fourth worst in the league, dropping the Steeden 13.5 times a match so far. On the plus side they have plenty of improvement in them – on the minus side they could keep dropping the ball but not gain the positive results they have achieved.

Also, Melbourne need to wrap up the ball-carrier quickly and not give the Bulldogs’ talented offloaders a sniff of keeping the play going. Worryingly the Storm are ranked sixth worst for offloads conceded, with an average of 11 delivered against them.

Second-rower Josh Jackson (average 13 runs, 90 metres, a try, line-break assist and try assist) has shown a lot of quality over the past fortnight and he could provide some headaches down the right edge, particularly teaming with Reynolds and Inu. 

Watch Out Bulldogs: Cooper Cronk will direct plenty of attack down the right edge targeting the Bulldogs’ left-side defence which has offered indifferent resistance over the opening fortnight. Canterbury have conceded five of seven tries down their left side, including all three to the Eels last week. Cronk already has three line-break assists and two try assists, plus he has broken defences open himself on two occasions and also scored two tries. Another huge year looms.

Without Ben Barba the Bulldogs are struggling to cut through the opposition – last season they tallied the fourth-most line-breaks in the NRL but to date rank a lowly 13th with just 2.5 per game. Also, at the end of 2012 they ranked fourth for tackle-breaks with 34.5 per game; this year they sit 14th with just 19.5 per game! Clearly they are missing the likes of Barba (171 tackle-breaks in 2012), Sam Kasiano (51) and Frank Pritchard (41). Josh Reynolds is doing his bit but he can’t do it all; centres Josh Morris and Krisnan Inu, as well as Tony Williams (no line-breaks and just two tackle-breaks so far – after making 102 tackle-breaks in 16 games for Manly last season) need to provide more potency.  

Plays To Watch: Storm newcomer Tohu Harris charging straight and hard and getting through a mountain of defence (32 tackles last week); Billy Slater (11 tackle-breaks) scheming and stepping on the right edge, especially at close range; Cameron Smith (95 receives last week) looking to advance his forwards quickly at the ruck, trying to catch out the Bulldogs marker defenders; Krisnan Inu baring his fangs in broad smile before booting for goal; workhorse Aiden Tolman getting his name in front of Blues coach Laurie Daley with some repetitive charges – already he’s averaging 18.5 hit-ups and 132 metres a game, second most behind Paul Gallen; Tony Williams and Krisnan Inu setting up second phase on different sides of the field (three offloads apiece). 

Key Match-Up: Gareth Widdop v Josh Reynolds. Widdop isn’t exactly the forgotten man at the Storm but he’s often overlooked in the star stakes given the presence of Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. But low-key is just the way Widdop likes it – it allows him to be selective with his contributions, which are all quality as a result. The No.6 has two line-break assists, a try and a line-break to his credit already. 

Meanwhile Reynolds has taken on more responsibility given Ben Barba’s absence and he really delivered last week, scoring a brilliant 75-metre try that featured a dummy to slice through the line and a second dummy to outwit opposition fullback Jarryd Hayne. Reynolds also laid on a try for Sam Perrett with a pinpoint cross-field kick. 

Expect both Widdop and Reynolds to figure prominently, with the individual who is able to keep the ball alive (they both have two offloads to date) bound to generate discussions post-match.

Where It Will Be Won: The speed of the play-the-ball. This clash brings together two sides that thrive on an up-tempo pace of play – in fact no teams have tallied more fast play-the-balls over the opening two weeks than the Storm and the Bulldogs. 

The Bulldogs managed to keep the Eels at bay with 29 fast play-the-balls; however they will have their work cut out for them stopping the Storm juggernaut after Melbourne amassed a whopping 41 fast play-the-balls against the Cowboys – themselves more than handy at the tactic – last Saturday. 

Clearly whichever team sets the agenda and is able to maintain good completions into the mix will gain the advantage.

The History: Played 30; Storm 15, Bulldogs 15. The Bulldogs have one of the best head-to-head records against Melbourne; however they have just the three wins over the Storm since 2007. Of more concern is the fact Canterbury have managed only one win in Melbourne over the past decade (back to 2005).

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Adam Gee.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 8.05pm AEDT (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports 1HD – Delayed 10pm. 

The Way We See It: Canterbury have an abysmal recent record in Melbourne; without Barba, Kasiano, Pritchard and Graham we can’t see them getting one back over the Storm this week. Maybe down the track. Melbourne by eight points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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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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