Reigning Premiers Melbourne Storm host the Parramatta Eels on Friday Night in a game that shapes as a much closer contest than the ladder would suggest.
The third-placed Storm are coming off rare back-to-back defeats, going down to bitter rivals Cronulla Sharks 17-14 last round while the 15th placed Eels produced their best performance of the year with a stunning 40-4 thrashing of the St George Illawarra Dragons.
Craig Bellamy’s outfit are still well on track for an all-important top-four finish and while they haven’t been too far off in defeats against the Rabbitohs and Sharks, key defensive lapses and errors proved costly in both games.
Eels fans must be asking themselves where has the team’s current form been all season after two outstanding wins over the Titans and Dragons. Jarryd Hayne has been in freakish try-scoring form with 9 tries from 9 games since returning from injury and Mitchell Moses is in superb form at halfback. The Eels will be doing all in their power to avoid the wooden spoon.
2017 Storm def Eels 18-16 at AAMI Park
2017 Eels def Storm 22-6 at AAMI Park
2016 Storm def Eels 18-6 at Parramatta Stadium
2015 Eels def Storm 26-22 at AAMI Park
2015 Storm def Eels 28-10 at Parramatta Stadium
Melbourne have won 20 of 33 encounters against Parramatta since 1998. However, the Eels have caused the Storm problems in recent years.
The Storm’s biggest test in the 2017 finals series was easily their Qualifying Final against the Eels in Week 1. Parramatta gave the Storm an almighty scare, leading 10-4 at halftime and after the Storm came back strongly the Eels still piled the pressure on late in the game to just go down by 18-16.
Parramatta fans still hold ill feeling from the 2009 Grand Final when a Melbourne Storm side over the salary cap beat them 23-16, denying them a fairytale premiership from eighth place that year.
Intriguingly, current Eels coach Brad Arthur was the Melbourne Storm Under 20’s Premiership-winning coach in 2009 and learned plenty under Craig Bellamy, also coaching current Storm and New Zealand international prop Jesse Bromwich that season.
It was a sad sight to see at AAMI Park last week when veteran second-rower Ryan Hoffman injured his hamstring. After 267 games for the Storm, it is likely that the retiring Hoffman has played his last NRL game. Outside back Cheyse Blair will take his place on the bench for Melbourne.
For Parramatta, Tim Mannah replaces Kane Evans at prop while Oregon Kaufusi is set to debut off the bench in place of Will Smith.
The facts that matter
Melbourne come into this Round 23 clash looking to avoid a very rare three straight losses. That has happened since 2015 for the Storm and while they start strong favourites against the Eels there is still cause for concern.
The Storm have missed 38 and 41 tackles respectively in their last 2 games against the Rabbitohs and Sharks and also completed at only 74% and 76% and those 2 games. The Storm will need to be far more clinical than that if they are to defend their premiership.
The Storm should not lack any hunger to push into September with their great fullback Billy Slater having announced this year will be his swansong. While the Storm were not able to get the job done against a typically dogged and resilient Sharks side, it’s hard to imagine their form trailing off anymore as ‘Billy The Kid’ embarks on his farewell tour.
Hooker and Captain Cameron Smith has very few faults although he will want to improve his goal-kicking under pressure, having kicked just 1 goal from 3 attempts against the Sharks.
Jarryd Hayne has played Rugby League reminiscent of what made him a star back in the late 2000s and with a confident ‘Hayne Plane’ the Eels will go into this match against the Storm with no fear and a nothing to lose attitude.
Hayne’s matchup with Blues Origin winger Josh Addo-Carr should be a beauty with the Melbourne flier having scored 17 tries in 2018.
Halfback Mitchell Moses has caused the Storm problems in the past with his talented running and passing game and will look forward to going up against young Storm number 7 Jahrome Hughes.
The Storm pack cannot underestimate Eels lock and enforcer Nathan Brown who has returned to some impressive form in recent weeks. Brown has had an injury-plagued season but has rediscovered some quality form in recent weeks with his high energy runs and big hits in defence.
The Melbourne Storm have not been their clinical selves in the past 2 weeks while the Eels have provided real nuisance to some highly ranked opponents. The Eels have the motivation of trying to avoid the wooden spoon and would love nothing more than to upset the reigning premiers on their own turf. However, the Storm are still playing much better than the Eels latest victim the Dragons and should lift their intensity in the run to the finals. Expect the enthusiastic Eels to start well but the Storm through their strong forward pack and the composure of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cameron Munster should be able to create enough opportunities for the likes of Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr out wide and finish the stronger.
Melbourne by 12 points.
Can the Eels pull off another shock upset or will the high-flying Storm bounce-back from a last-start loss? Let us know in the comments below.
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