Storm v Sharks preview

Storm v Sharks
AAMI Park
Sunday 6.30pm

What a shame NSW captain Paul Gallen isn’t available for Round 2 against Melbourne’s Queensland connection in this Sunday night thriller at AAMI Park. After Gallen’s Blues went one-up in this year’s State of Origin series on Wednesday night, it would have been riveting to see not only how Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater responded but whether or not Gallen himself could lift to make it two from two against his old rivals.

As it stands, the inspirational Sharks leader has been suspended for a week for his one-two punch on Maroons enforcer Nate Myles although the Origin sideshow still has some legs with Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita no doubt keen to cap a tremendous week.

The real questions though will centre on Smith, Slater and Cronk. Although Smith and Slater in particular were two of Queensland’s better players on Wednesday night, the past month or so as a whole hasn’t been their greatest with Melbourne still trying to claw their way out of a minor slump.

A last-start win over Sydney Roosters was promising but before that they had suffered consecutive losses to Canberra and Penrith and played out a 10-all draw with Manly. The Raiders and Sea Eagles games were even on home soil.

Not that Cronulla will take those results as any sort of indication of what they might expect down south. Melbourne have long been the benchmark side in the NRL and any trip to AAMI is a daunting task. 

For the Sharks, this game will be about building on the giant strides they have made of late. Weighed down during the opening rounds by the ongoing ASADA investigation, they appear to have found a way to deal with the distractions having lifted themselves off the canvas with four wins in a row including a stunning upset of competition leaders South Sydney last start.

The result of that nice little run is that they now sit in sixth spot on the ladder and can potentially move within reach of a top-four position with another win this weekend.

That they have been winning without Gallen during that period can only come as a huge positive given his absence again this week; coach Shane Flanagan took early precautions for such a scenario, having named a six-man bench earlier in the week. Fullback Michael Gordon is also back from a calf strain, replacing Nathan Gardner.

Storm coach Craig Bellamy has also named an extended squad with Brett Finch, Tim Glasby and Kenny Bromwich the extra men.

Storm captain Smith is poised to join Matt Geyer (262) as the only men to make 250 appearances for the club. 

Watch Out Storm: Paul Gallen might not be playing but Andrew Fifita is. The Sharks tyro has been spectacular for the club in 2013, averaging 152 metres per game and leading the club for tackle-breaks with 41 (ninth in the NRL). But it is over the past month that Fifita has really shone, having run for 210, 204, 189 and 251 metres in his past four outings.

Watch Out Sharks: He might have been quiet by his usually lofty standards on Wednesday night but Cooper Cronk remains the most prolific halfback in the NRL this season when it comes to putting his teammates across the tryline. Cronk has produced 13 try assists in 2013 – two more than his nearest opponents Robbie Farah and Adam Reynolds.

Plays To Watch: The Cooper Cronk inside ball to a flying Billy Slater. It’s a very well-known move but that doesn’t mean opposition sides have been particularly successful in stopping it. It goes a little something like this: Cameron Smith comes into dummy-half and fires a quick pass to Cronk on the right who flashes a short inside ball to Slater who is running at full pace on his inside. NSW was up to the challenge when the Storm trio tried it on in Origin this week but will the Sharks be?

Key Match-Up: Billy Slater v Michael Gordon. The world’s best fullback continues to set the standard in the NRL and although his Queensland side couldn’t get the job done against NSW on Wednesday, Slater responded to the challenge being laid down by Greg Inglis this season with 204 metres for the Maroons. That sort of performance would come in handy again this week up against Cronulla custodian Michael Gordon who has really given his side plenty of impetus since arriving from Penrith in the off-season. Gordon is a dynamic kick-returner who will gain his side plenty of momentum if allowed even half a chance.

Where It Will Be Won: Around the ruck, which has typically been the domain of Cameron Smith. The Storm captain is the master of controlling the tempo of games and he will test the awareness of the Sharks markers with his clever dummy-half probes; but then again Cronulla love nothing more than getting into the grind and their physical approach will no doubt ask questions of the Storm.

The History: Played 25; Storm 16, Sharks 9. Six of the past nine games between these two sides have been decided by six points or less although Melbourne have won seven of those. Cronulla needs to score 13 points to reach 500 scored against the Storm. 

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Storm v Sharks clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 6.30pm.

The Way We See It: Another intriguing contest – particularly given the Sharks’ hot form over the past month and Melbourne’s stumbles of late. The State of Origin factor is also to be considered – Melbourne has four players backing up while Cronulla has two and will be missing captain Paul Gallen. The Storm haven’t won at AAMI Park since Round 7 but there is a reason they are the most feared side in the NRL and in a desperately tight contest we can see them scraping home here. And of course, how much will last year’s devastating loss – when Melbourne scored two tries in the final few minutes to steal victory – play on Cronulla’s mind? Storm by four points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats