Broncos v Storm preview
Brisbane Broncos v Melbourne Storm
A grudge match featuring plenty of big guns; two title contenders in an arm wrestle for the ages; no, this isn't a compilation of every Sylvester Stallone movie ever made but two great rivals jockeying for position in the Telstra Premiership top four.
Two teams with histories of peaking at the right time of the season meet in a final-round blockbuster that has the carrot of the minor premiership dangling before the Broncos and a top-four finish for the Storm that many doubted when the season began and blatantly wrote off when Billy Slater signed off for 2015 mid-season.
The Broncos bounced back from a gritty, grinding loss to the Roosters by blowing the defending premiers off the park last week while the Storm recovered from a shock loss to the Knights at home by showing the Cowboys what it takes to win big games in September.
Halfback Ben Hunt has been ruled out of the game with a cork picked up during a training drill and will be replaced by rookie Ashley Taylor. It is a massive out for the Brisbane side, especially after the form Hunt showed last week.
Alex Glenn's 'no contest' to a dangerous contact charge sees Jarrod Wallace come into the Broncos' forward pack with veteran David Stagg added to the bench a week after announcing his retirement at season's end.
Jordan Kahu has also been rested for the Broncos with Lachlan Maranta earning a recall on the wing.
The Storm have flown in behind enemy lines a la John Rambo to prepare for the big clash with a mini-camp on the Sunshine Coast where they will have a junior academy established from 2016.
Coach Craig Bellamy has named the same 17 that accounted for the Cowboys last weekend with Tim Glasby named to start at prop and Jordan McLean dropping back to the bench.
Although there will be finals football to come at Suncorp Stadium, Broncos captain Justin Hodges will receive his official farewell at the conclusion of his final regular season game in what will be his 189th game for the club.
It will also be a farewell of sorts for Super League-bound Storm forward Ryan Hinchcliffe who has played 171 games for Melbourne over the past seven seasons.
Watch Out Broncos: Don't be fooled Broncos fans by the lack of B. Slater at the top of the Storm team sheet, his understudy from central Queensland has been playing a starring role. Cameron Munster caught the eye of Storm officials as a teenager playing in the Intrust Super Cup and after two years down south has revelled in the chance to play fullback after the season-ending shoulder injury to Slater. Last week against the Cowboys he ran for 258 metres from 26 runs, made a line break and eight tackle busts, taking his tackle-busting tally to 62 from just 16 games. In a game where position will be paramount, Munster's kick returns are a significant part of the Storm's arsenal.
Watch Out Storm: Teammates and coaches joke that he doesn't much like to train and he is something of a throwback to a past era but if there is one thing Justin Hodges is known for it's saving his best for the big occasion. Hodgo's last official home game at Suncorp Stadium is set up perfectly for a man who had three try assists against South Sydney last week and who made 113 metres from just nine runs. Broncos players will want to win it for Hodgo but the more powerful force will come from Hodges himself who will want to do his best for the team while he still can.
Key Match-up: Anthony Milford v Cooper Cronk. The withdrawal of Ben Hunt means that Anthony Milford must now assume the key playmaking role for the Broncos and endeavour to outwit and outsmart one of the most polished No.7s in the game today. Milford was at his scintillating best last week against the Rabbitohs but will need to take on more of a game management role as he partners debutant Ashley Taylor in the Broncos halves. Milford has been responsible for just 13 per cent of all Brisbane kicks in general play this season while Cronk is the most astute tactical kicker in the game. Milford's magic against the clinical Cronk will be an intriguing aspect to this fixture.
History: Played 37; Broncos 12, Storm 24, Draw 1. It's been all purple pride in recent years between these two teams with the Storm winning 19 of the past 22 meetings. The Broncos produced arguably the defensive performance of the season to win 14-12 in Melbourne in June but the Storm travel to Suncorp having won seven of their past eight games at the venue.
Did You Know: In their esteemed history the Broncos have a losing record to just two teams and their 32 per cent winning record against the Storm is far and away their worst. Manly may have 21 wins from their 41 meetings but the Storm's dominance first emerged with a 48-6 thumping in 1999. The Broncos triumphed in the 2006 Grand Final but the Storm knocked Brisbane out of the finals race in both 2008 and 2009.
What Are The Odds: Broncos $1.57, Storm $2.40. Money is running three-to-one in favour of the Broncos with Sportsbet. Matt Gillett has proved to be a popular pick as a roughie for first try-scorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee: Grant Atkins; Touch Judges: Steve Carrall and Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm
How We See It: The loss of Hunt is a major blow to the Broncos who needed his kicking game at its best to match the chess-like style that the Storm brings. His absence puts further pressure on Anthony Milford who may not feel as free to produce the individual brilliance such that he displayed against South Sydney last week. A week out from finals football it might just be the cool heads that prevail. Storm by four points.