Storm v Panthers: Slater, Harawira-Naera out
This is the only match of the round featuring two finals-bound teams, but both are still searching for top form just a week out from the start of the playoffs.
Melbourne find themselves in a familiar position at this stage of the season, with one hand on what could be a third straight minor premiership, but they had to scrap for a two-point win over the 13th-placed Gold Coast Titans last week and – more concerningly – still haven't decided who their best halfback is.
The Storm's two most recent matches against top-eight sides resulted in defeats (to the Rabbitohs and Sharks) and they struggled on the weekend without injured trio Suliasi Vunivalu, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Brandon Smith and the suspended Will Chambers. This week they will be without Billy Slater, who has withdrawn from the team for personal reasons due to an illness in his family.
Meanwhile, the alarm bells are sounding at Penrith, who have a one-point win and two losses to their name since parting ways with coach Anthony Griffin. They were humbled by 20 points against the Warriors on Friday night and need a major turnaround of form if they are to avoid crashing out of the finals in the opening round next week.
Match: Storm v Panthers
Round 25 -
Venue: AAMI Park
- Nine Network
- Fox League
- LIVE PASS
Key match-up: Penrith have sorely missed James Maloney in the last couple of weeks with the star five-eighth sidelined for both the team's surprise losses due to a knee injury. He's set to return this week against his State of Origin rival Cameron Munster, who's never been more important to Melbourne than he is right now. Munster's role has been increasingly vital alongside a rotation trio of halfbacks this season, and he could become the face of the Storm when Billy Slater and eventually Cameron Smith move on from the club.
For the Storm to win: Get their attack back on track. Here's a surprising stat: in the past month Penrith have outscored Melbourne 85 points to 64. Melbourne have traditionally loved a gritty contest but in the past couple of seasons they have been equally adept at blowing teams away – they were the best attacking side in the competition last year and rank third in attack this year. Until a month ago they were scoring 24 points a game but that's dropped down to 16 per game since then. Whatever their faults, the Panthers remain a team capable of chasing down small targets in the game's finals stages so Melbourne will want to have a decent score on the board.
For the Panthers to win: Hang in there early on. A couple of weeks ago we reported that the Panthers were the worst team in the league in the opening 20 minutes of matches but the best of all in the final 20. And even in last week's heavy defeat to the Warriors they outscored their opponents in the final quarter. Both those horror starts have continued despite a change of coach – they conceded three tries in the opening half hour of both their last two games, and if they do that against a professional side like the Storm they won't be let back into the contest.
Storm Stat Attack: Slater may have played the final regular season match of his career but he hasn't slowed down with age, with last week's haul of 302 run metres against the Titans the highest total of his career. It goes without saying that his likely replacement Jahrome Hughes has big shoes to fill.
Panthers Stat Attack: History is not on Penrith's side in this one. The Panthers are yet to win in seven attempts against Melbourne at AAMI Park, and their six away wins in 2018 have all come against teams in the bottom half of the ladder.
And another thing: If this game goes down to the wire, expect James Maloney to come up trumps. Maloney kicked not one but two field goals against the Storm last season for the Sharks – first in Cronulla's 11-2 win at AAMI Park then in their 18-13 loss at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers, Friday 7.50pm at AAMI Park
Fullback for Storm is number 19 Jahrome HughesFullback for Panthers is number 1 Dallin Watene-Zelezniak
Winger for Storm is number 2 Justin OlamWinger for Panthers is number 2 Josh Mansour
Centre for Storm is number 3 Cheyse BlairCentre for Panthers is number 3 Waqa Blake
Centre for Storm is number 4 Curtis ScottCentre for Panthers is number 4 Tyrone Peachey
Winger for Storm is number 5 Josh Addo-CarrWinger for Panthers is number 5 Christian Crichton
Five-Eighth for Storm is number 21 Ryley JacksFive-Eighth for Panthers is number 6 James Maloney
Halfback for Storm is number 22 Scott DrinkwaterHalfback for Panthers is number 7 Nathan Cleary
Prop for Storm is number 8 Jesse BromwichProp for Panthers is number 8 Trent Merrin
Hooker for Storm is number 9 Cameron SmithHooker for Panthers is number 18 Sione Katoa
Prop for Storm is number 15 Christian WelchProp for Panthers is number 10 Reagan Campbell-Gillard
2nd Row for Storm is number 11 Felise Kaufusi2nd Row for Panthers is number 11 Viliame Kikau
2nd Row for Storm is number 12 Joe Stimson2nd Row for Panthers is number 12 Isaah Yeo
Lock for Storm is number 13 Dale FinucaneLock for Panthers is number 13 James Fisher-Harris
Interchange for Storm is number 14 Kenneath BromwichInterchange for Panthers is number 14 Tyrone May
Interchange for Storm is number 10 Tim GlasbyInterchange for Panthers is number 15 Moses Leota
Interchange for Storm is number 16 Tui KamikamicaInterchange for Panthers is number 17 James Tamou
Interchange for Storm is number 18 Ryan HoffmanInterchange for Panthers is number 19 Jack Hetherington
Storm: Billy Slater has withdrawn from the match for family reasons. Jahrome Hughes (who is returning from injury), will start at fullback. Ryan Hoffman has come onto the bench, while Cameron Munster is out with a minor knee injury. Ryley Jacks and Scott Drinkwater are the halves. Christian Welch comes off the bench to start in a straight swap with Tim Glasby. Tui Kamikamica and Sam Kasiano were omitted an hour prior to kick-off, while Slater and Albert Vete were cut on Thursday.
Panthers: Sione Katoa will start at hooker in place of Wayde Egan. Jack Hetherington has been promoted to the bench. Kaide Ellis was cut an hour before kick-off, while Corey Harawira-Naera and Tyronne Phillips were dropped 24 hours before game time.
Head-to-head: Played 32; Storm 25 wins, Panthers 7 wins
Previous result: Storm won 28-6 in Melbourne in round 5, 2017
Points per game: Storm 22.6; Panthers 21.5
Points conceded per game: Storm 14.8; Panthers 19.3
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
Petero Civoniceva's prediction: The Panthers look lost at the moment and AAMI Park is not the sort of place you want to be going when you're off your game. It's a massive issue to be playing without confidence at this time of year and even though James Maloney's return will help I can't see Penrith turning it around. The Storm will be too clinical.
Tip: Storm by 6