Storm can match Cowboys' big men: Smith
Storm skipper Cameron Smith is backing his forward pack to take it to the much-vaunted North Queensland big men when the sides meet in Melbourne on Saturday night in a supersized qualifying final showdown.
While Smith, teammate Cooper Cronk and Cowboys halfback Johnathan Thurston will be the headline acts, the battle of the bulge through the middle is where the game will be won and lost.
The Cowboys (38,977 metres) and Storm (38,428) finished the regular season as the top-two metre-eating teams in the NRL and it comes as no surprise that their superiority up front saw them finish the year in the top four on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo are undoubtedly the most feared starting middle three in the NRL, but Smith believes his forwards are more than capable of matching it with the Cowboys trio.
The Storm have plenty of international experience with Kiwis Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris and Kevin Proctor in the starting pack, but Smith nominated his less heralded teammates as the backbone behind their minor premiership success.
"I've been extremely proud of how our forward pack has handled this year. It's a big reason why we finished on top," Smith said.
"Jesse Bromwich is the leader of our forward pack and he gets a lot of compliments through the media – and he deserves that – but there are guys like Dale Finucane, Tim Glasby, Jordan McLean, Kenny Bromwich and big Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
"Those guys have been playing extremely good football for the entire season and they've taken it to big forward packs with guys who have a lot of experience. I'm confident they'll be able to do that again this week.
"Obviously we're playing against a pretty formidable forward pack in Tamou, Scott and Taumalolo. They've got some pretty good back-rowers as well with Gavin Cooper who is a State of Origin player [and Ethan Lowe as well].
"But those guys will get the job done like they've done every week. They're no fuss at training and whatever the coach asks them to do, they just go out and do it, and every week they play as hard as they can."
The key to shutting down North Queensland's roll-on through the middle, Smith said, was shutting down powerhouse lock Jason Taumalolo, who finished the 2016 regular season behind only Bulldog James Graham with 4,002 running metres.
His brutal carries and lightning-quick play the balls have been crucial for the Cowboys this season, with Thurston running riot in the space created by his go-to big man.
"He's one of the best [forwards in the game]," Smith said.
"Given his age, he's just done some impressive things in the game [already]. He's a wonderful football player who plays with a lot of energy.
"He's been one of the more consistent players for the Cowboys this season – probably the last two seasons to be honest – so he's a guy they rely on for go-forward.
"JT likes him to have some carries for him to get some momentum so he can play off the back of that, so a really important part of our defensive effort is to contain him.
"We're not going to take him out of the game [because] he's such a great player, but we've just got to try to minimise the impact he has."
Game on. Data off.
Stream every NRL game, including finals, live and data free with a 2016 Footy Pass, exclusive to Telstra mobile.
Watch all the NRL action live on your compatible tablet or mobile device with data-free streaming on your Telstra mobile plan.
For use in Australia only.