For the second time in five rounds, the Wests Tigers and Melbourne Storm will battle. This weekend the Tigers have taken the clash to Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland as the first game of a doubleheader at the stadium.
The last meeting back in round two saw the Tigers stun the reigning Premiers with a 10-8 win despite an 18-8 penalty against them.
Many pundits and fans would have expected the Storm to be flying high after the first five rounds. However, losing Cooper Cronk seems to have had a more profound effect than they would have hoped as they slumped to another loss last weekend against the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
The Tigers are flying high with three wins from four games and Ivan Cleary has brought out the best from his new recruits including a career renaissance from Benji Marshall and some real grunt from Russell Packer. These two and the rest of the squad helped them to their biggest win of the season 30-20 against the Parramatta Eels.
Round 2, 2018: Wests Tigers def. Melbourne Storm 10-8.
Round 4, 2017: Melbourne Storm def. Wests Tigers 22-14.
Round 16, 2016: Melbourne Storm def. Wests Tigers 29-20.
Round 7, 2016: Melbourne Storm def. Wests Tigers 19-18.
Round 21, 2015: Wests Tigers def. Melbourne Storm 34-16.
The Melbourne Storm has been such a dominant side over more than a decade few sides could have a positive record going up against the Storm.
Before the victory earlier in the season, the Tigers had not got the two points since 2015. The overall stats don't read well either for the joint-venture club as there have been 30 meetings with Melbourne victorious on 19 occasions and Wests have won 11 times.
In those 30 matches between the two sides, this is the first clash from Mt Smart Stadium so whoever wins this weekend will have the bragging rights for the first victory in New Zealand when playing one another.
|Wests Tigers||Melbourne Storm|
|1||Tui Lolohea||Billy Slater|
|2||Corey Thompson||Suliasi Vunivalu|
|3||Esan Marsters||Young Tonumaipea|
|4||Kevin Naiqama||Curtis Scott|
|5||Malakai Watene-Zelezniak||Josh Addo-Carr|
|6||Benji Marshall||Cameron Munster|
|7||Luke Brooks||Brodie Croft|
|8||Russell Packer||Jesse Bromwich|
|9||Pita Godinet||Cameron Smith|
|10||Ben Matulino||Nelson Asofa-Solomona|
|11||Chris Lawrence||Joe Stimson|
|12||Robbie Rochow||Ryan Hoffman|
|13||Matthew Eisenhuth||Kenny Bromwich|
|14||Jacob Liddle||Brandon Smith|
|15||Alex Twal||Tim Glasby|
|16||Michael Chee Kam||Christian Welch|
|17||Josh Aloiai||Sam Kasiano|
|18||Tyson Gamble||Justin Olam|
|19||Tim Grant||Patrick Kaufusi|
|20||David Nofoaluma||Ryley Jacks|
|21||Sauaso Sue||Felise Kaufusi|
The facts that matter
Few would have predicted heading into this second meeting between the two teams that the Tigers would have won the first clash AND they would sit higher on the ladder after four rounds.
The outstanding start to the season can be traced back to the form of Benji Marshall. A life member of the Tigers, Marshall returned to the club in the off-season with little expectations around his role in this team. No guarantees to feature in the side due to recruit Josh Reynolds and Luke Brooks, a hamstring injury to Reynolds has been a blessing in disguise. Since being thrust into the starting lineup in round one, Benji has shown a new level of maturity in his behaviour and importantly, his kicking game. Finding the touchline when needed, it has also been his spiral bombs that have created chaos for opposing backlines. If the Tigers have any chance to go 4-1, the former Kiwi international will be instrumental.
One of the other long-serving players who has shown improvement this season is Chris Lawrence. A schoolboy prodigy who made his debut as a 17-year-old out of St Gregory's College, he started his career so strongly in the centres before a horrific hip injury derailed his career. He made it back and represented Australia but it was clear he had lost some of that blistering pace. The past few seasons he has slowly transitioned into the back-row but this year, in particular, he looks like he has settled into the role. Running hard and challenging the defensive line, there is still plenty of time for Lawrence to make an impact and it looks like good signs from the first four rounds.
A lot of talk following the Storm's loss to the Sharks last week was the first ever sin bin of Melbourne captain Cameron Smith. Constantly criticised for his apparent ability to 'influence' the referees, it allowed for opposition fans to cheer the change in his fortune. While this is all in good humour, the sin bin highlighted a serious issue facing the reigning premiers. Known for being able to wrestle teams into submission, the crackdown from the referees this season has potentially brought them crashing back to the rest of the field. After conceding 19 penalties last week, it looks like it is back to the drawing board for Craig Bellamy and his coaching staff.
Suspension and injury have depleted the lineup for Melbourne this week with Will Chambers (suspended) and Dale Finucane (injured) missing this match. Not to take away anything from Young Tonumaipea and Kenny Bromwich, but the aforementioned outs are significant. Finucane is a rock in defence and while the Tigers have not been known for their attack this season, his ability to get through a ton of work will be sorely missed. Chambers is a slick centre and with teams struggling to get past the Tigers his ability out wide could have been a difference maker.
This game has all the writings of a real grind. Ivan Cleary has stressed a strong shape and discipline in defence and relied on the class of his outside backs and halves to deliver when the moment comes. This worked in the last fixture between the two teams and while Bellamy will be out to avoid a repeat, it's not completely out of the question we could see a similar result.
The forward pack, particularly, the leadership and the grunt of captain Russell Packer will be crucial and his battle with fellow Kiwi Jesse Bromwich should be a classic.
Look for the Storm to exploit the outside backs of the Tigers who have stuck firm despite being under heavy scrutiny in past seasons and with little to separate the two teams I have to go on form and that goes to the home side. Tigers by 4.