Schick Hydro Preview: Brisbane Broncos v Melbourne Storm
Football fans in Philadelphia garnered the reputation as the worst in American sports on the back of throwing snowballs and insults at Santa Claus way back in 1968 but this week the Broncos face the polar opposite problem: The captain of the opposition is a god to many of those who will fill the stands at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
Nine days will have passed between when Cameron Smith led the Maroons on a victory lap in front of 52,000 crazed Queensland fans and when he leads the Storm onto the field and there is every chance he and fellow Maroon Cooper Cronk will be greeted by cheers instead of jeers.
In Queensland the Storm are most people's second team because of the success their players have helped bring to the state and their record in Brisbane shows it, with 10 wins from their past 11 visits to Suncorp.
Also of concern to the Broncos faithful is a run of form that has seen them lose three of their past four games and a Storm team that has spent a decade systematically breaking down opposition teams not able to sustain the arm wrestle.
For 18 months that was a feature of Wayne Bennett's team but having conceded 30 points on more than three occasions in the past month the steel edge has been significantly blunted.
The return of Andrew McCullough at hooker is a welcome one for Brisbane as is Alex Glenn who will add firepower on the left edge.
The Storm look set to be without Cameron Munster and Blake Green yet again and giant prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona is due to miss eight weeks with a knee injury, coach Craig Bellamy naming a six-man bench that includes Ben Hampton, Curtis Scott and Slade Griffin.
Watch out Broncos: For a boy who grew up in Logan supporting the Broncos Cameron Smith sure has dished out some pain to Brisbane fans in recent years. The Storm skipper took four cracks at the Broncos before tasting his first victory but in the past 25 games has been a winner on 21 occasions. At the height of his powers having won a sixth man-of-the-match award for Queensland in Game Two of the Origin series, Smith is just as comfortable at Suncorp Stadium as he is at his home ground of AAMI Park. If the Broncos forwards can't limit his influence in the middle of the field he'll be leaving a winner again on Friday night.
Watch out Storm: In Andrew McCullough and Alex Glenn there are two significant inclusions for the Broncos that will help to bring the best out of five-eighth Anthony Milford. After a blistering start to the season Milford's influence has been limited during a tough period for the Broncos but with McCullough back at dummy-half and Glenn by his side on the left edge Milford should be afforded more time and space to weave his magic. With Kodi Nikorima on his outside in the centres he also has speed to burn on his shoulder which should also help to thin out the Melbourne defence. He combined with Ben Hunt for a brilliant try late against the Bulldogs; that may be the spark he needs to get back to his best.
Key match-up: Corey Oates v Suliasi Vunivalu. Sure, the Ben Hunt-Cooper Cronk match-up might have broader implications to the result of this fixture but every opportunity that is created needs someone to finish it off and there are few better currently in the NRL than this pair. Oates scored his maiden Origin try in Game Two to go with the 10 he has scored in 11 games this season while Vunivalu is incredibly the leading try-scorer in the competition with 13 from just nine games. Two supremely gifted athletes, watching them go head-to-head will be a highlight and his brief history shows that if Vunivalu gets at least one try, he always gets another.
History: Played 38; Broncos 12, Storm 25, Drawn 1. The Broncos have more wins against Illawarra than they do against Melbourne and the Steelers haven't been in the competition for almost 20 years! Far and away Brisbane's worst record is against the Storm against whom they have just five wins from their past 26 meetings dating back to the 2004 Qualifying Final. The Storm have no fear of Suncorp Stadium either, winning 10 of their past 11 including a one-point win over the Cowboys in Round 10.
What are the odds: Broncos $1.65, Storm $2.25. The money is running four-to-one in favour of Melbourne and expect their price with Sportsbet to firm as we get closer to kick-off. The flying Fijians Marika Koroibete and Suliasi Vunivalu have upstaged perennial favourite Corey Oates in the first try-scoring department although Oates remains the $7.50 favourite. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Matt Noyen; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Chris Butler; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Steve Chiddy; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7.30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7pm.
How we see it: The Storm are the only team in the Telstra Premiership who can put a winger at fullback and a second-rower at five-eighth and not look the least bit weakened. They boast an incredibly dominant record over the Broncos and seem to enjoy Suncorp Stadium as much as AAMI Park. Footy's a funny game but against a Brisbane team looking for a shot of confidence it's hard to see the Storm giving the home side enough opportunities to play their way back into form. Storm by 10 points.