Reigning premiers the Melbourne Storm are back at the summit of the NRL 2017 as they take a Canberra Raiders side whose finals hopes are fast fading.
The Storm’s 7 match winning streak hasn’t received much media focus, with Craig Bellamy’s men rarely playing their best football but still grinding away to win several close games, including their 12-6 win of the Warriors in New Zealand last week, in which they scored only 1 try but defended superbly to hold the lead.
Ricky Stuart’s men would do well to learn from the Storm’s ability to win tight games after going down narrowly again to the Cronulla Sharks 28-24 in Round 19.
However the Raiders were justifiably left fuming over several questionable calls including when the Sharks appeared to have knocked the ball on and the touch judge raised his flag and referee put his whistle to his mouth, only to let play go on. It was sent up as no try but the bunker overturned the decision and a try was awarded.
How the Raiders react to that defeat against the clinical Storm outfit will tell us a lot about their character.
2017 Storm def Raiders 32-6 at AAMI Park
2017 Storm def Raiders 20-14 at GIO Stadium
2016 Storm def Raiders 14-12 at AAMI Park
2016 Raiders def Storm 22-8 at GIO Stadium
2015 Storm def Raiders 14-10 at GIO Stadium
Melbourne have dominated this fixture over 20 years, winning 29 of the 40 matches between the two clubs.
The Raiders have proven a tough opponent for the Storm in more recent years with their big forwards and fast backs troubling them but Melbourne have still prevailed more often than not.
The most famous clash between the two teams was probably the 2016 Preliminary Final, in which the Storm’s defence barely held out against an exciting Raiders outfit 14-12 at AAMI Park. Raiders fans rue that missed opportunity to make the Grand Final but also wish their team could recapture the form they had 2 years ago.
Dale Finucane moves into the starting side at lock with Kenny Bromwich dropping to the bench for Melbourne.
The Raiders welcome back second rower Joseph Tapine from suspension, forcing Iosia Soliola to the bench and Jack Murchie out of the 17.
The highly talented Nick Cotric moves to the centres with Michael Oldfield switching to the wing.
The facts that matter
I think coach Craig Bellamy would admit that his Storm outfit in 2018 are not performing to the same exceptional standards the 2017 premiership version did, yet the Storm still find themselves top of the ladder after 19 rounds.
The excellent form of hooker and Captain Cameron Smith with him focusing fully on the Storm having retired from Queensland duties has helped them put together a 7 match winning streak and so has the form of their emerging young talent.
The likes of Jahrome Hughes, Brandon Smith, Ryley Jacks and Brodie Croft have all stepped up admirably when required to play key positions within the team. They are not overawed and stick to the gameplan.
Then, of course, the Storm have Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu on the wings, with 14 and 10 tries respectively so far in 2018.
Melbourne still top the handling errors list with 85 this season but they defend those errors better than anyone and that’s one of the main reasons they keep winning.
Canberra are 6 points outside the top 8 and with a tough run home they have been virtually written off as finals contenders.
It could have been so much better for ‘The Green Machine’ and the statistics indicate that it should be with the Raiders having scored the most tries this season with 75.
The killer stat for Ricky Stuart has been the fact that they have lost 6 games by 4 points or less in 2018. Even if they had won just half of those games they would sitting in the 8 rather than looking like only a slim mathematical chance.
The Raiders have looked sharp in attack since the return of crafty hooker Josh Hodgson in Round 15, scoring 164 points in 5 games.
Hodgson goes up against the best in the business in Cameron Smith on Saturday Night in Melbourne and while it’s very hard to put Smith off his game, Hodgson can be a real threat to the Storm through the middle of the ruck with his quality running, passing and kicking game if the Raiders can on get any kind of roll on through the forwards.
Another statistic that doesn’t make good reading for Raiders fans is that they have lost all 7 games against teams currently in the top 8. They need strike players Josh Hodgson, Blake Austin, Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana to really fire if they are to have any chance against the competition leaders.
The Storm may have won 7 in a row but are yet to put a complete 80-minute performance with their gritty defence winning most games for them.
The Raiders produced a spirited second half at Cronulla and were unlucky not to get the win, so an upset shouldn’t be discounted here.
However, Melbourne has come through Origin in great shape and with most of their squad available, they will be looking to lift as a team across the park as they try to defend their title.
There are some great clashes across the park with the Raiders outside backs like Cotric, Leilua and Rapana more than capable of troubling the Storm’s outside men in Chambers, Scott and Addo-Carr and the Raiders forward pack are reliable in putting the Raiders into good field position.
However, it’s hard to tip against the Storm in Melbourne with their superior defence likely to get them home against the Raiders.
Melbourne by 10 points.
Will the Storm prove too strong as expected or could the Raiders upstage their talented rivals? Let us know in the comments below.
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