Reigning premiers Melbourne Storm will host this season’s biggest improvers the South Sydney Rabbitohs at AAMI Park to kick off the 2018 NRL finals series.
The Storm have shown their quality and depth this season to achieve a 2nd placed finish despite not finding a permanent replacement for Cooper Cronk in the halfback position.
They have again been well led by star hooker Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater, with five-eighth Cameron Munster going to new levels and of course coach Craig Bellamy continues to demand high standards of his squad.
The Rabbitohs have been a revelation under new coach Anthony Seibold.
Inspired by the powerful charges of the Burgess brotherly trio Sam, Tom and George and the dummy half sprints of hooker Damien Cook, the South Sydney backline have been electric at times, especially last week in the 51-10 demolition of Wests Tigers.
2018 - Rabbitohs def Storm 30-20 at ANZ Stadium
2017 - Storm def Rabbitohs 64-6 at AAMI Park
2017 - Storm def Rabbitohs 14-6 at Perth Oval
2016 - Storm def Rabbitohs 15-14 at AAMI Park
2015 - Storm def Rabbitohs 16-12 at AAMI Park
Melbourne’s record in this fixture is as dominant as they come with 24 wins from 29 matches against South Sydney.
Incredibly the Rabbitohs have never won in Melbourne since the Storm joined the competition in 1998.
This will be the second time these two clubs have played in a final at AAMI Park, with the Storm convincingly beating the Rabbitohs 24-6 in a Week 1 Qualifying Final in 2012.
However, the Rabbitohs did get revenge at the same stage of the 2013 finals, toppling the Storm 20-10 at ANZ Stadium.
The weight of history is against the men in Myrtle and Green however they were superb in defeating the Storm 30-20 at ANZ Stadium in Round 21 this year, with hooker Damien Cook scoring a memorable solo try, so they should be confident regardless of the head-to-head record.
|Melbourne Storm||South Sydney Rabbitohs|
|1||Billy Slater||Alex Johnston|
|2||Suliasi Vunivalu||Campbell Graham|
|3||Cheyse Blair||Greg Inglis|
|4||Curtis Scott||Dane Gagai|
|5||Josh Addo-Carr||Robert Jennings|
|6||Cameron Munster||Cody Walker|
|7||Jahrome Hughes||Adam Reynolds|
|8||Jesse Bromwich||Thomas Burgess|
|9||Cameron Smith||Damien Cook|
|10||Tim Glasby||George Burgess|
|11||Felise Kaufusi||John Sutton|
|12||Joe Stimson||Angus Crichton|
|13||Dale Finucane||Sam Burgess|
|14||Brandon Smith||Hymel Hunt|
|15||Christian Welch||Cameron Murray|
|16||Tui Kamikamica||Jason Clark|
|17||Kenny Bromwich||Dean Britt|
|18||Ryan Hoffman||Braidon Burns|
|19||Brodie Croft||Tyrell Fuimaono|
|20||Sam Kasiano||Tevita Tatola|
|21||Sandor Earl||Matt McIlwrick|
Following their 22-16 loss to Penrith with a depleted lineup, a host of stars return for the Storm including fullback Billy Slater (personal leave), winger Suliasi Vunivalu (hamstring) and five-eighth Cameron Munster (knee). Jahrome Hughes moves from fullback to halfback with Scott Drinkwater, Justin Olam, and Ryley Jacks all dropping out of the squad. Brandon Smith returns to the bench, forcing veteran Ryan Hoffman to the reserves list.
The Rabbitohs are unchanged from 1 to 17.
The Facts that matter
The Storm has defied the expectations of many to miss out on the minor premiership only on for and against, despite injuries and indifferent form at stages throughout the season.
Melbourne have made the most handling errors this season with 108 and this definitely held them back in the early rounds when they were outside the top four.
Cameron Smith’s decision to retire from representative football before the State of Origin series greatly benefited the Storm, with them winning 10 of their last 13 matches with the 35-year-old hooking legend managing the team’s performance as well as ever with his crafty passing and astute kicking and inspiring the young talent in the squad.
The Storm are aiming to become the first club to win back-to-back premierships since the Brisbane Broncos of 1992 and 1993 and they have added motivation as they look to send out Billy Slater a winner. The fullback typically comes into his own at this time of year and inspires his defence with his talk from the back.
As the Storm prepare to take on the Rabbitohs, the major challenge will be to win the forward battle against a fearsome South Sydney pack.
The Storm are missing the charges of prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona so the pressure is on Kiwi international Jesse Bromwich and Tim Glasby to match the power of Tom and George Burgess up front.
Craig Bellamy’s outfit were outmuscled at ANZ Stadium by the Rabbitohs and will need to hold their own on Friday Night, so the likes of Munster and Smith can create opportunities for Storm fliers Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr.
After an underwhelming few years since their famous 43-year drought-breaking premiership in 2014, South Sydney have re-invented themselves under rookie coach Anthony Seibold.
While the Burgess brothers are still there and look to gain dominance in the middle third with their power and halfback Adam Reynolds kicking game is still crucial, the Rabbitohs throw a lot more at their opposition in attack.
Their sweeping set backline plays have caught many defences napping and are a big reason why they finished with the best-attacking record this season, scoring 582 points.
Fullback Alex Johnston has been superb in linking with his wide men and five-eighth Cody Walker’s natural footwork and flair provide a nice contrast to the structured play of half Adam Reynolds.
Champion centre Greg Inglis loves playing at this time of the year and he is fit and firing and a real threat on the fringes.
The player who arguably holds the key to the Rabbitohs premiership charge is hooker Damien Cook. He really made a name for himself with his electric dummy half runs which helped New South Wales to only their 2nd series win in 12 years and they have also inspired Souths to 3rd position.
The Rabbitohs recently experienced a malaise losing 3 games in a row with some key players missing but their superb 2nd half onslaught against Wests Tigers last week shows they are well and truly switched on and a premiership threat.
Melbourne comes into the first Qualifying Final as favourites which is understandable considering their ominous home record in finals and their unbeaten home record against South Sydney over 20 years. However recent form is also important and perhaps the Rabbitohs are looking more threatening than the Storm at the moment. South Sydney are at full strength and if their forwards can get a roll on they can be almost impossible to stop with the attack of Cook and Walker and the speed of Inglis and Johnston.
The Storm’s defensive strength and composure in big games has been proven time and again but I am leaning towards a minor upset and favouring the Rabbitohs to finally win in Melbourne and advance straight to Week 3 of the finals.
South Sydney by 4 points
Can the Bunnies upset the apple cart in Melbourne or will the Storm get back to winning ways on home soil? Let us know your thoughts in the comments and poll below.