Storm forwards ready to renew Sharks rivalry
Ever since Michael Ennis sledged Cameron Smith in the 2016 Telstra Premiership decider, Melbourne Storm's clashes with the Cronulla Sharks have had extra intensity.
Whether it's extra niggle or a few verbal barbs traded during press conferences, the rivalry has built rapidly and looks set to continue on Friday night at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
The Sharks will call upon Andrew Fifita, Paul Gallen, Matt Prior and Luke Lewis, the latter likely to return from a foot injury, to shut down a rebuilding and comparatively youthful Storm pack.
Storm prop Christian Welch has experienced this rivalry over the last two seasons and says it is born out of a mutual respect.
"I suppose being a front-rower, I look at the Sharks' front row in Prior, Gallen and Fifita, and they're certainly close to the benchmark front row in the competition," Welch said.
"I suppose we're always aiming up on them. There's always that Queensland and NSW rivalry with our rep players against theirs."
Fellow forward Joe Stimson played in 2017's close loss at AAMI Park (an 11-2 defeat in round six) and said Cronulla's physicality is what makes them such a challenge.
"They are an experienced forward pack, very physical and an aggressive team, so we have to try and match that, and hopefully get through the next 80 minutes," he said.
Ageing veterans Gallen and Lewis - with 615 premiership games between them - won't be specifically part of the Storm's plan, according to Stimson.
"We haven't really focused on any individuals," he said.
"We just focus on them as a group and our game plan, and hopefully execute it on the weekend. There is a rivalry and but there's a lot of respect there as well. Everyone really enjoys playing the Sharks. They're a physical team and we like to think we're a physical team (too)."
Fifita's bulldozing carries during last year's World Cup brought back memories of his decisive try in the 2016 grand final and the big Shark has been getting back to top form over the first few rounds of this season.
Welch scored a close-range effort on Thursday night against the North Queensland Cowboys, which was his first NRL try and was grateful for Sam Kasiano's support play which allowed him to cross the stripe.
"It was pretty good," Welch said of his try.
"I was pretty lucky having Sam Kasiano outside me. He drew a lot of defenders close to the try line, like he always does.
"It's good to get over but bounce back after a pretty disappointing performance against the Tigers."