The cover of last week’s Big League magazine screamed ‘1,000 not out’. The image of 400-gamer Cameron Smith stood at the forefront of triple centurions Benji Marshall and the understated Gavin Cooper.
We shake off the Magic Round fairy dust and get back into the grind of NRL season 2019 in Melbourne as the Storm host Wests Tigers.
Both teams are coming off comprehensive Magic Round wins of differing styles. Melbourne routed Parramatta 64-10, scoring breathtaking length-of-the-field tries whenever they felt like it. It was a return to the unstoppable force the Storm can be after an indifferent few weeks had seen coach Craig Bellamy read his squad the riot act.
The Tigers blew Ivan Cleary’s Penrith out of the water with 24 points in the first 20 minutes before cruising home for a 30-4 finish. Although the Tigers went in as favourites, the performance was a no doubt a pleasant surprise for fans who were a little concerned about how they’d handle the Panthers.
Last year Wests upset Melbourne twice – a 10-8 squeaker at AAMI Park in Round 2, then three weeks later a one-point escape thanks to a Benji Marshall field goal at a rain-lashed Mount Smart Stadium in New Zealand. The Storm made 15 and 19 errors respectively across those two games. I’m confident saying that won’t happen this week.
The last ten meetings between Melbourne and the Tigers have the Storm ahead 6-4 with only a couple of blowouts. You’ll have heard this week that Craig Bellamy has a 9-1 record coaching against Michael Maguire, but don’t pay much attention to that. Bellamy has a winning record against every other NRL coach – except for Des Hasler (11 wins, 16 losses) and Cronulla’s John Morris (one loss).
Storm fullback Jahrome Hughes had been a revelation in the No. 1 jersey until Parramatta’s Maika Sivo knocked him into next week with a cheap, late and high shot last week. Hughes is out with concussion and his role will be played by Ryan Papenhuyzen, the six-gamer who scored a doozy of a try against the Eels last week.
Mind you, almost every try the Storm got last Saturday night was a screamer. Curtis Scott’s length of the field effort was the pick of the bunch for mine, but he’s now going to miss an extended period with a broken foot and his place in the centres is taken by Marion Seve.
Melbourne lock Dale Finucane has always been a reliable operator but 2019 has seen his stock rise considerably as he continues to nail tackles (he’s only missed 12 out of the 298 he’s attempted) and churn the hard metres out (124 metres per game, up on his 2018 output by almost 20).
Finucane’s name is rightly in consideration for a New South Wales jersey and there’s no indication that his tempo will drop away.
Wests have worked their way into sixth place in the standings and, thanks to the hefty win last week, they’ve reset their for and against, climbing back to all square after taking a beating against Parramatta and then the Roosters a few weeks prior.
One thing running in the Tigers’ favour is an extra day of rest, with six days compared to the Storm’s five-day turnaround.
But it’s a hefty challenge they face, in particular up forward with the colossal Nelson Asofa-Solomona and reliable Jesse Browmwich leading the Storm pack. There’s a lot on the shoulders of Tigers prop Alex Twal, who is posting career-high metres gained and keeping his great defensive record intact.
Twal, Ben Mautalino and bench prop Thomas Mikaele will have to continue racking up the post-contact metres (Tigers are second best in the NRL, Melbourne third) and make sensible offloads to avoid getting caught up slow rucks.
Tigers centre Esan Marsters has had an interesting year. The 22-year old New Zealander is busting tackles, scoring tries and covering ground more than ever, but his kicking for goal is a real concern. Converting at a paltry 60 per cent is a borderline liability for a team that needs every point it can get.
Marsters’ inaccuracy has cost the Tigers valuable points and, as seen by his 0-3 effort in Tigers’ one-point Round 4 loss to Penrith, has cost them games too.
Away from home and with Cameron Smith teeing up for the Storm, Marsters simply must get his boot right for the Tigers to be any chance.
With both teams’ short lead-in and the style Wests will need to employ to handle their hosts, don’t expect a classic.
We’re probably going to cop some slowed-up rucks and grinding, hit-it-up play as the Tigers try to apply the handbrake to the Storm and the Storm try to close down Wests’ chances for offloads.
The Tigers have a big loss in them, so far in 2019 their average margin of defeat is 22.5 points. They’ll fight to keep it close but the Storm should be too good on their home track.
Storm by 10.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Will Chambers 4. Marion Seve 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Brodie Croft 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane
Interchange: 14. Brandon Smith 15. Christian Welch 16. Tui Kamikamica 18. Billy Walters 19. Joe Stimson 20. Tino Faasuamaleaui 21. Sandor Earl
1. Moses Mbye 2. Mahe Fonua 3. Robert Jennings 4. Esan Marsters 5. Corey Thompson 6. Benji Marshall 7. Luke Brooks 8. Ben Matulino 9. Robbie Farah 10. Alex Twal 11. Ryan Matterson 12. Chris McQueen 13. Matt Eisenhuth
Interchange: 14. Jacob Liddle 15. Thomas Mikaele 16. Josh Aloiai 17. Michael Chee-Kam 18. Paul Momirovski 19. Elijah Taylor
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