Monday Morning Halfback: Raiders v Storm
The Raiders and the Storm both head into Monday night's blockbuster clash on the back of six-match winning streaks with everything to play for.
A Raiders win would secure a top-four berth, while a Storm victory would all but ensure the minor premiership and JJ Giltinan Shield heads to Melbourne again.
It is a classic contrast of styles with the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
The Raiders have the best attack in the competition, amassing a whopping 542 points at an average of 27.1 a game, while the Storm have by far the best defence, conceding a miserly 230 points at an incredible average of just 11.5 per game.
Something has to give at GIO Stadium on Monday night.
The middle of the field is where the Storm defence has proved almost unbreakable in 2016, conceding just five tries over the whole season down the middle to Canberra's 15. If you include the left and right edge, Melbourne have conceded just 10 tries across 22 rounds in the middle 60 per cent of the field. The Raiders have conceded 32 down the same corridor.
But the Storm's fabled defensive unit is in for a tough night at the office.
Craig Bellamy labelled the Raiders the most dangerous team in the competition ahead of the top four clash.
"I think there's a lot of dangerous teams in the competition, but on form I think they are [the most dangerous], without a doubt," Bellamy said.
"All teams go through ups and downs throughout the year, it's a tough competition for 26 weeks playing at this level so we all have our ups and downs but they're having their up at the moment and I think right at this moment they probably are the hardest team to play."
There is no question the Raiders right side is extremely potent with Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana running riot. The pair have combined for an insane 199 tackle breaks this season, averaging nine busts a game between them. Add 26 line breaks, 75 offloads and 14 try assists, and there is little wonder the Raiders have scored 33 tries down the right flank this season.
But don't discount the Green Machine's left side either with captain Jarrod Croker having another outstanding season, contributing to the 26 tries they have scored on that side of the field with 15 of his own. Croker has made 64 tackle breaks and 13 line breaks as well to provide another point in a devastating Raiders attack.
If the Storm have a weakness in defence – and there are not many chinks in their armour – it is on their flanks, with a total of 29 tries conceded on either wing.
It'll be an interesting battle to see who can gain dominance and dictate the geography of the match.
The Storm have conceded just three tries all year in the final 10 minutes of a match. If ever a team plays 'the whole 80 minutes' it is the disciplined purple outfit. They never switch off, especially at the business end of the game, and they never panic.
Melbourne have also conceded just four tries across the season in the 20 minutes heading into half-time. The stats show that once they are in their groove, they are incredibly hard to break down. They've scored 24 tries in that same period, showing a total domination of all comers in minutes 20-40.
The Raiders' best time in the game is between minutes 50 and 60, when they have scored 17 tries and conceded just five. Ominously, it is the Storm's worst stretch of time in second halves, so could be a pivotal time in the game.
Josh Hodgson v Cameron Smith
This should be an absolute belter, an intriguing battle of two highly influential No.9s.
While Smith will go down as one of the greatest ever, he may not have it all his own way on Monday night. Hodgson is still well in contention for the prestigious Dally M Medal and for good reason – he is having another outstanding season. His stats read favourably when compared to Smith in 2016.
Smith leads the try assists against his rival 13-12 and also gets through a lot more work in defence, but Hodgson is a different kind of player and likes to get out of dummy-half and challenge tired markers. Where Smith likes to organise and give service to the forwards and Cooper Cronk; Hodgson plays as a vital attacking cog in the Raiders machine notching 1,447 running metres and 28 tackle breaks.
Their battle will be crucial for the outcome of the match. If Smith is allowed to get in his groove, there is no better player at controlling a game – on both sides of the ball. But If Hodgson can get his forwards rolling early, it will open a lot of opportunities for the Raiders to test the Storm's wall-like defence.
How they'll play
For the Storm, everything centres around Smith and Cronk; both players are always looking to pick defences apart. The Storm like to work to a certain part of the field and then unleash players in motion with both Smith and Cronk presented with options to tear a defence to shreds.
Smith goes to the line at speed with a short option, but has Cronk out the back who also has the option to play short to the likes of Kevin Proctor, or out the back to Cameron Munster, causing constant headaches for defences.
The Raiders are a team packed full of damaging ball runners and they use that to full effect to bulldoze their way through opposition teams.
"Tackle technique against the Raiders has to be spot on, otherwise they'll hurt you," NRL.com expert Matt Elliott said earlier in the week.
Every Raiders player has a great carry and runs hard, and it forces defences to respect the player carrying the ball and commit players to the tackle, but it also gives playmakers Hodgson, Aiden Sezer and Blake Austin the chance to either use their passing game or to take the line on themselves against tired defences.
Get set for a blockbuster clash by watching Matt Elliott's NRL Breakdown of the Raiders v Storm clash below.