Schick Hydro Preview: Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos
The first team of Queensland against every Queenslander's second favourite team; if there's a match to test the loyalties of those in the Sunshine State it's a Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos preliminary final.
With a combined 14 players who have either played for the Maroons or spent time in the Queensland camp in recent years there is a heavy Queenslander influence in what shapes as their own "mate against mate" showdown.
Of course the Storm come in having snuck past the Eels in Week One of the finals series and enjoyed a week off while the Broncos pushed past the Panthers last weekend after going down narrowly to the Roosters in their qualifying final.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy has named the same 17 that accounted for Parramatta but the Broncos have been bolstered by their return of their fullback and captain Darius Boyd as well as powerhouse bench forward Tevita Pangai Junior.
As a result of Boyd's return at the back Kodi Nikorima shifts back to halfback to partner Anthony Milford in the halves with Benji Marshall reverting to the interchange.
Brisbane winger Corey Oates remains in some doubt after his sickening head knock suffered against Penrith and should he fail to pass the required protocols will be replaced in the starting team by David Mead.
Why the Storm can win: There are any number of stats that highlight why the Storm are hard to beat, not the least of which is that they have scored the most tries and conceded the fewest of any team this season. They have also conceded the fewest metres of any team but arguably the Storm's greatest strength is what they force their opponents to do. Teams trying to beat the Storm know you can't get into their grinding style of game because it's almost impossible to beat them at it so instead teams look to play more expansively or try things that they perhaps haven't all season. That often leads to unforced errors and more opportunity for the Storm architects to ramp up the pressure. Brisbane's 15 errors against the Panthers were the most by any team last weekend; repeat that again and it's time to start planning for 2018.
Why the Broncos can win: It hasn't been as consistent as it was in their grand final finish of 2015 but there's no question the Broncos can raise their defensive intensity to a level that troubles teams. Parramatta showed after surviving the initial onslaught that even the Storm can be rattled if you adopt a physically intimidating approach and limit their time to think with a fast-moving defensive line and the Broncos need to find a way to emulate that intensity. Their mobile pack gives them the artillery to deploy such an attacking mindset in defence with makeshift hooker Ben Hunt inspirational against Penrith in shooting out of the line to try and put a shot on. In attack Brisbane utilise their back five better than most teams in terms of run metres and early shifts to their centres also has the potential to unsettle Melbourne's defensive structure.
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Line Break Assists, Line Breaks, All Run Metres, Tackle Breaks.
The history: Played 42; Storm 28, Broncos 13, Drawn 1. The only team that the Storm has scored more than 1000 premiership points against since their inception, Brisbane have not recorded consecutive wins over Melbourne since 2004 and have won just four of 23 meetings since their 15-8 triumph in the 2006 Grand Final. The good news for Broncos fans is that their past three wins over the Storm have all come in Melbourne although their overall record at AAMI Park reads three wins and five losses from eight games.
What are the odds: Storm $1.28, Broncos $3.85. Sportsbet has received four times the amount of dollars on Melbourne in its head-to-head market, but Storm 1-12 is more popular than 13-plus. The only interest in Brisbane is at the line, where the money is 60/40 in their favour thanks to a big points start. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assistant Referee: Ben Cummins; Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler; Review Official: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Ashley Klein.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox League – Live from 7pm
NRL.com predicts: You have to think that the Eels missed a trick by not turning the finals series on its head in week one and that the Storm won't be that distracted or haphazard again in 2017. The great strength of the Broncos in this match-up is that they attack from all angles on both sides of the ruck so they have the potential to disrupt the Storm defensive wall if they can execute to a high level. The danger is that if they push passes that don't stick that the Storm stranglehold will take effect early in the piece. The Broncos won't fold meekly but they should expect a Storm attack functioning at maximum capacity. Melbourne by eight points.