Melbourne Storm vs Brisbane Broncos: NRL preliminary final preview and prediction

Scott Pryde Roar Guru

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    The Melbourne Storm juggernaut will aim to roll on one more time and book a spot in their second straight grand final when they host the inconsistent yet dangerous Brisbane Broncos in the first preliminary final.

    There are no questions about who the best team has been this year. The Storm are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else in the competition.

    It’s why they finished six points clear at the top of the table with a for and against of over 300. We haven’t seen numbers like that for close to a decade – when the Storm were also by far the best team in the competition, albeit over the salary cap.

    That sort of season doesn’t just happen. You have to consistently be the best, and they were. They dismantled teams, played aggressive rugby league when they needed to and had just about the perfect season.

    Despite that, they were almost involved in a disaster during the first week of the finals against Parramatta – which also happened to be a record-breaking game for captain Cameron Smith, who overtook Queensland legend Darren Lockyer by playing his 356th first-grade match in the NRL.

    No matter what you think of Smith, he is Immortal material with his long and brilliant career. But his day of celebration was almost brought undone. The Storm were outplayed in the first half, going into the break trailing. The Eels dropped their bundle in the second half and Melbourne came back, but it was a wake-up call and after such a successful season, maybe one they needed to have.

    Cameron Smith

    (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

    Brisbane, on the other hand, come into this game having had to play last week. A refreshed Melbourne Storm side is never an easy task, but it will be even more difficult for Brisbane who battled their way to a 13-6 win over Penrith last week.

    It was a much-improved performance from the Broncos, with their defence starting to look a little better. Still, the Panthers didn’t throw a great deal at them and the pressure will be on for the Broncos to keep the scoreboard down.

    That is an easy generalisation to make, because there were holes in the line left, right and centre against the Roosters, while they conceded 54 points against the Eels just a few weeks before the end of the season.

    History

    Last five meetings
    2017, Round 17 – Broncos 12 defeated by Storm 42 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
    2017, Round 3 – Storm 14 defeat Broncos 12 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
    2016, Round 25 – Storm 16 defeated by Broncos 26 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
    2016, Round 17 – Broncos 6 defeated by Storm 48 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
    2015, Round 26 – Broncos 8 defeated by Storm 15 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane

    Team news
    Unsurprisingly, the Storm are unchanged for this one.

    The Broncos, on the other hand, have done plenty. They welcome back captain and fullback Darius Boyd, who has spent the finals series out with injury so far.

    That pushes his fill-in Kodi Nikorima into the halves, while Benji Marshall will drop back to the bench. Tevita Pangai Junior is also likely to make his return from injury, named in jumper No.15, while David Mead and Jai Arrow drop back to the reserves list.

    Key players
    He might be making his return from injury, but if the Broncos are going to win this, then Darius Boyd must lead from the front.

    The Broncos’ skipper, with so many attacking options on the park, may be lacking in the offensive department at times this year, but he has proven his worth as a defensive organiser. Behind Billy Slater – his opposite number tonight – he is the best organiser in the competition, and it’s shown over the last few weeks with holes appearing left, right and centre in the Broncos’ line.

    They weren’t there last week, but they were never expected to be. The Panthers simply didn’t throw enough at them.

    Darius Boyd of the Brisbane Broncos celebrates

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    On the other side of the coin, Bill Slater is the key man for the Storm. Apart from his defensive organisational skills, he is a proven match-winner with the ball in hand.

    Billy the Kid has been on fire this season and has made a world of difference to the Storm after missing the majority of 2016.

    Can Brisbane deal with the toughest road trip and situation in rugby league?
    The Broncos are up against it here, there’s no question about that. You only have to look at their own record against the Storm to know it’s hard enough to beat Melbourne in Melbourne during the regular season, let alone during the finals.

    They have won just three of eight at AAMI Park, but if you were to include matches played at the old Olympic Stadium, that record becomes just five from 18.

    The one final they played in Victoria back in 2007 ended in a 40-0 drubbing. The Storm have lost just four games out of 25 played at home.

    They are some astronomical figures. Figures which should make it near on impossible for the Broncos to mount a challenge.

    All power to them if they do, but with Cooper Cronk in his final season at the club, the motivation will be there to send him out a winner.

    Cameron Smith’s kicking game could be the difference
    The kicking game of Smith is not all about attack and scoring points – he rightly leaves the organisation of that to Cronk.

    What Smith does is help grind teams into the dirt, hold them there and not let them back up. So many times in a game will you see the Australian captain dart out of dummy half and kick from inside his own 40 on the third tackle.

    The aim is nearly always to end up with a 40/20 against his name and an attacking opportunity to follow, but even if that’s not the end result, more often than not, it’s pinpoint accurate.

    He then forces teams to work out of their own end. It’s premeditated, and the chasers know exactly what’s going on, but time and time again we see wingers and fullbacks being caught out.

    As mentioned, Darius Boyd is a great organiser at the back, but that’s not going to help if they can’t put pressure on Smith out of marker.

    Speaking of Boyd, if he doesn’t win the battle of the fullbacks in this one, Brisbane are toast. We have already indicated them as the key players, but if he can’t pop up and do more in attack, hoping his hamstring holds together, Brisbane have no chance.

    Cameron Smith Melbourne Storm NRL Rugby League 2017

    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    Brisbane must play attacking rugby league – a grind will get them nowhere
    Melbourne are the kings of the grind. This is a team who are never beaten physically, although, an argument could be made that they were during the 2016 finals – note, the Origin period isn’t included in that.

    Between the leadership and tackling of Cameron Smith, the consistency of Jesse Bromwich, edge running of Tohu Harris and aggression from the bench with Nelson Asofa-Solomona leading the way, this is a side who have mastered the art of playing the game at whatever speed they want to.

    That’s not to say they can’t play fast – just look at what they did to South Sydney.

    But Brisbane would like to think they have better defence than the Rabbitohs. If Wayne Bennett’s side are going to be in this, they have to use every attacking play in the book. They need to find the balance the Eels did in the first half of their clash against the Storm – control the ball, but play expansive, innovative rugby league and look to score regularly.

    Melbourne aren’t so good when they have to play from behind. They still win more often than not, but there are problems if they don’t play with a lead. If Brisbane can force that, not get trapped into an arm-wrestle and play free-flowing footy, there’s no reason they can’t pull off the upset of the season.

    So, who wins it?
    There is no going past the Storm. They are the best team by a country mile, and even with their shaky performance against the Eels, you can’t see them performing that way again.

    They should have received a scare and wake-up call against the Eels. You can be sure Craig Bellamy hasn’t let the win be rested on.

    The Broncos might have Boyd back, they might know how to run up a score, and they might have Wayne Bennett at the helm, but this is where their run comes to an end.

    Melbourne are going to their second straight grand final.

    Prediction: Storm by 16.

    Key game information: Sydney Roosters vs North Queensland Cowboys NRL preliminary final

    Kick-off: 7:55pm (AEST)
    Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
    TV: Live, Fox League 502 and Nine Network
    Online: Live, Foxtel app, Foxtel now and NRL live pass
    Betting: Storm $1.28, Broncos $3.85
    Overall record: Played 42, Storm 28, Broncos 13, drawn 1
    Last meeting: 2017, Round 17 – Broncos 12 defeated by Storm 42 at Suncorp Stadium, Brisbane
    Last five: Storm 4, Broncos 1
    Record in finals: Played 7, Storm 5, Broncos 2
    Record at venue: Played 8, Storm 5, Broncos 3
    Referees: Matt Cecchin and Ben Cummins

    Melbourne Storm
    1. Billy Slater
    2. Suliasi Vunivalu
    3. William Chambers
    4. Curtis Scott
    5. Josh Addo-Carr
    6. Cameron Munster
    7. Cooper Cronk
    8. Jesse Bromwich
    9. Cameron Smith
    10. Jordan McLean
    11. Felise Kaufusi
    12. Tohu Harris
    13. Dale Finucane
    Interchange
    14. Kenneath Bromwich
    15. Tim Glasby
    16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
    17. Slade Griffin
    Reserves
    18. Jahrome Hughes
    19. Robbie Rochow
    20. Joe Stimson
    21. Young Tonumaipea

    Brisbane Broncos
    1. Darius Boyd
    2. Corey Oates
    3. James Roberts
    4. Tautau Moga
    5. Jordan Kahu
    6. Anthony Milford
    7. Kodi Nikorima
    8. Sam Thaiday
    9. Ben Hunt
    10. Adam Blair
    11. Alex Glenn
    12. Matt Gillett
    13. Josh Mcguire
    Interchange
    14. Benji Marshall
    15. Tevita Pangai
    16. Joe Ofahengaue
    17. Herman Essese
    Reserves
    18. David Mead
    19. Jai Arrow
    20. Jaydn Su’a
    21. Jamayne Isaako

    Don’t forget The Roar will carry live coverage and highlights of every NRL finals match.

    Scott Pryde
    Scott Pryde

    One of the mainstays of The Roar, Scott Pryde has written over 1,100 articles covering everything from rugby league to basketball, from tennis to cricket. You can follow him on Twitter @sk_pryde.