Storm v Knights
Statistically, the Knights don't stand a chance of winning this one. Their record against the Storm in Melbourne is woeful, as you can see from the history below. So that is the first thing Knights coach Wayne Bennett won't make a big deal of in the preparation for this game. He'll be talking to his players about what they have to do to give themselves the best chance of winning – whichever team they're playing and wherever the game is being played. The specifics of what the Knights need to do against this particular opponent will just be added on to that.
The Knights have lost both of their games against the Storm this season, but they were competitive each time. They led 14-10 at halftime of a 16-14 loss at AAMI Park in Round 14, and were also in front, 8-4, at halftime of a 23-10 loss at Hunter Stadium in Round 23. You don't have to be a genius to work out that the Knights have got to find a way to stay in the contest after halftime against the team that is their Kryptonite.
The great thing about the Storm is that, although they are renowned for having those three superstar players – Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith – who can cut you apart in attack, they are experts at grinding away and grinding away in games until they grind the opposition out of the game. The Knights have got to play smarter and fight harder to stay in the battle.
The Knights, who finished seventh in the regular season, go into the game off the back of three straight wins – 26-18 over the Broncos and 54-6 over the Eels in the last two rounds, and 22-6 over the Bulldogs in an elimination final. They have created some momentum, and will feel pretty good about their chances of competing in this game. The Storm, after a four-game winning streak from Rounds 21-24, finished off the regular season with a 28-8 loss to the Sea Eagles and a 23-22 extra-time win over the Titans. The Storm had finished fourth, and lost 20-10 to the Rabbitohs in the first week of the finals. They weren't at their best on the night, but they had a couple of close video refereeing calls go against them and could have taken the game down to the wire had just one of those calls gone their way. The Storm won't have lost confidence. They will know that if they just fix a few little things they can get back to their best in a hurry.
Both teams have named unchanged line-ups for this game.
Watch Out Storm: Knights centre Joseph Leilua must fancy his chances against the Storm. He has scored three tries against them in the two clashes this season, including a double in Melbourne. He's got the size and strength to give the Storm's wide defenders plenty of trouble again in this game.
Watch Out Knights: Ryan Hoffman has the potential to make something happen every time he plays, and the Storm second-rower was damaging when these two teams met in Melbourne midway through this season. Running wide of the ruck on the left as normal, Hoffman ran for 146 metres, made four offloads and had one try assist. The Knights can't afford to let him get into gear.
Plays To Watch: It's not like these two teams don't know how to defend. The Storm had the third-best defensive record in the regular season and the Knights the fifth-best. Because of that, there probably won't be a lot of big plays, which means the key men have got it all on their shoulders.
The combinations Slater, Cronk and Smith have worked out could be crucial to the result. We've all seen them do it before, but they do it so well that although the opposition knows it is coming they struggle to defend it.
For the Knights, the great passing game of Jarrod Mullen could result in Leilua and/or Dane Gagai being set loose at some stage. Knights fullback Darius Boyd has been dangerous sweeping around the outside in attack recently as well.
Key Match-Up: The battle of the veteran former Australian hooker, Danny Buderus, and his successor in that job, Cameron Smith, will be intriguing. Each game could be the last for the retiring Buderus, who is dragging every last bit of football know-how out of his body in a bid to help the Knights go deep into the finals series. Smith will be the Storm hooker we know for his ability to keep searching for avenues and eventually make a play that counts.
Where It Will Be Won: It's going to be physical, and is likely to be relatively low-scoring as a result. The first clash between the two teams this season produced just 30 points and the second 33. So the forwards are going to have a lot to do with setting up a win.
The Knights need big performances from Willie Mason and Jeremy Smith, who are real forward leaders, and the Storm the same from the much-younger but still-rugged Kevin Proctor and Jesse Bromwich.
The History: Played 30; Storm 18, Knights 12. The Storm have won eight of the past 10 clashes, including the past seven in a row. These two teams have met 10 times in Melbourne since the Knights last won there, in 2004 – and the Storm have won all 10 games.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Steve Clark & 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 Knights finals clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Unless the Storm open with a bang and put the Knights on the rack with a couple of early tries, which they're capable of doing, the Knights could be in this game for a long, long time. But the last 20 minutes will test them. They've got a few old forwards and if they've been made to work hard and are tired the Storm's gamebreakers could take advantage of them towards the end. The Knights will compete, but not quite well enough in the end. Storm by 10 points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats