Schick Hydro Preview: Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
12 months ago North Queensland knocked the Storm out of the finals and then went on to win the premiership.
This season the two sides meet a little earlier, but arguably just as much is on the line.
A preliminary final berth awaits the winner, while the loser must go the long route in order to have a chance at the Provan-Summons trophy.
Melbourne earnt the right to host this fixture after playing a season of consistently good footy to finish the regular season on top, while the Cowboys held off challengers to claim the final double chance position last weekend.
These two sides have met twice this season with the Storm winning on both occasions, although this will be their first meeting at AAMI Park as the Storm played their home fixture at Suncorp Stadium in Round 10.
Melbourne have named the same 17 that beat the Sharks last weekend, although Nelson Asofa-Solomona is free to return from suspension and may be a late call-up.
The Cowboys have made just the one change, as Matt Scott is named despite being under an injury cloud, and Patrick Kaufusi drops out of the side. Scott Bolton returns to the bench.
Watch out Storm: Despite the Storm have plenty of finals experience across the park, they don’t have recent grand final experience like their opponents. Following North Queensland's golden point win in last year's decider each player now has big game experience, and a win like that will make the Cowboys even tougher to beat in crunch time. While Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith are known for their clutch playmaking ability it's hard to go past Johnathan Thurston when the times get tough, so if this game goes down to the wire, look for Thurston and the experienced Cowboys to pull themselves out of the fire once again.
Watch out Cowboys: For a side that many believe are still one of the major threats for the premiership, North Queensland's away record is that of a bottom eight side. The Cowboys have the worst record on the road of any finals team having won just four of their 12 matches away from 1300SMILES stadium. That in itself spells danger, but when you add in the Storm's fantastic 10-2 record at AAMI Park, this statistic now becomes a worrying one for the Cowboys. Despite their home record the Storm do tend to concede early points to the opposition, so if the Cowboys have any chance of overcoming their travel blues, they'll need to score first and score big in Melbourne.
Key match-up: Cooper Cronk v Johnathan Thurston. Forget just this game, this match-up could be one of the contests of the entire finals series. These two players have been nothing short of spectacular and have been at the centre of their teams' success all season. If it's possible, Cooper Cronk has gotten better this season, scoring 11 tries and having a hand in a league-high 23 four-pointers. Not to be outdone, Johnathan Thurston equals Cronk at the top of the try assist leaderboard with 23, and the four-time Dally M Medallist has had another influential year, even by his lofty standards. The Maroons teammates would love nothing more than to steer their team to victory, so whichever halfback can involve themselves more will earn their side a preliminary final spot.
The history: Played 32; Storm 22, Cowboys 10. These two sides have played three times in the past 12 months, with Melbourne holding a 2-1 advantage in that time span. The one win to North Queensland however was in the most important game, as the Cowboys smashed Melbourne 32-12 in last season's preliminary final. The Storm have won both games this season by a combined nine points.
What are the odds: Sportsbet has seen three times the dollars invested on Melbourne as punters surprisingly overlook North Queensland. Those backing the Cowboys are taking them 1-12 while Suliasi Vunivalu is holding twice the money compared to the second-best supported first try scorer in Marika Koroibete. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Grant Atkins. Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler. Review Officials: Luke Patten and Steve Chiddy. Senior RO: Ashley Klein.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7.30pm. Fox Sports – Live coverage from 7.25pm
How we see it: Melbourne have matured a lot over the past 12 months, and are much better positioned for this preliminary final rematch. North Queensland will come into this one on the back of three straight wins, but their away form still remains a big issue. Both sides are close to their full strength so this promises to be one of the matches of the finals, but it's hard to look past the minor premiers on their own deck. Storm by 8.
Game on. Data off.
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