Rugby Australia are looking to double-down on the success of luring former NRL star Marika Koroibete to the code by targetting one of his teammates, Suliasi Vunivalu.
The Melbourne Storm will be out to avenge their loss from seven days ago when the season goes on the line a week earlier than they would have liked as they host a red-hot and overconfident Parramatta Eels side in the second NRL semi-final.
It was something of a shock that the Storm lost their qualifying final on home soil to the Canberra Raiders last weekend, scoring just a single try across the 80 minutes as they fell 12 points to 10.
It was fairly easy to tell that something wasn’t quite clicking for the Storm from the opening minutes of the contest, with some sloppy errors, uncharacteristic mistakes in defence and an attack which looked, at times, flat out clunky.
Given their stunning regular season, which finished with just four losses from 24 games and a bunch of broken records, it was a surprise to see the Storm turn up for a finals game on home soil the way they did.
While Craig Bellamy made some late-season much-publicised changes to their side, it didn’t give any excuse for the level of performance that was dished up last weekend.
It wasn’t a massacre by any stretch, with the Storm holding the lead into the final ten minutes and still being well and truly alive in the contest, but it was still a concerning loss at this stage of the season nonetheless.
However, given they lost that game and don’t particularly like playing games they don’t have complete control over in terms of ruck speed and positioning, the home side should be nervous about playing a side like the Eels in a knockout game of footy.
Parramatta will come into this game full of confidence, following not just last week’s elimination final victory over the Broncos, but their finish to the season.
Brad Arthur talked about his team being able to take it to another level after their Round 25 victory over the Manly Sea Eagles, and they did just that last weekend at home against the Broncos, who, if we are honest, fell into the top eight, rather than roaring in there.
The 58 points to nothing win over Brisbane broke the record for the most points and biggest win in a top grade Australian rugby league finals match, and if Mitchell Moses had of brought his kicking boots to the game, it could have been 68.
Their attack was red-hot, however, Parramatta have struggled badly away from home this year, and so, that leaves a real air of uncertainty around the eventual result of this one.
What we do know with absolute certainty coming into this game is that the Storm have the wood over the Eels, winning four of the last five, which includes that 64-10 drubbing earlier this year.
They also have won five of seven at AAMI Park between the two sides, and all five of their finals matches, including a first-week battle in 2017, and the 2009 grand final.
In short, the Eels haven’t had a great deal of fun against the Storm over the years.
In somewhat surprising news, the Storm are completely unchanged for this semi-final despite their loss to the Raiders seven days ago.
Craig Bellamy continues to put his faith in the late-season risk that was changing the spine, with there still being no room for Brodie Croft, Curtis Scott is once again left out for Justin Olam to continue his run in the side.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen, 2. Suliasi Vunivalu, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Justin Olam, 5. Josh Addo-Carr, 6. Cameron Munster, 7. Jahrome Hughes, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Cameron Smith, 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 11. Felise Kaufusi, 12. Kenneath Bromwich, 13. Dale Finucane
Bench: 14. Brandon Smith, 15. Tui Kamikamica, 16. Max King, 17. Joe Stimson, 18. Curtis Scott, 19.Tino Faasuamaleaui, 20. Tom Eisenhuth, 21. Brodie Croft
The Eels were forced into a change last week thanks to the suspension of Kane Evans, but they will revert straight back to the previous process for this semi-final trip to Melbourne.
Evans starts up front, looking to pick up where he left off, form-wise, at the end of the regular season. This pushes Daniel Alvaro to the bench and Ray Stone out of the 17.
No surprises to see no further changes, given how well Parramatta played last week.
1. Clint Gutherson, 2. Maika Sivo, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Waqa Blake, 5. Blake Ferguson, 6. Dylan Brown, 7. Mitchell Moses, 8. Kane Evans, 9. Reed Mahoney, 10. Junior Paulo, 11. Shaun Lane, 12. Manu Ma’u, 13. Nathan Brown
Bench: 14. Brad Takairangi, 15. Daniel Alvaro, 16. Tepai Moeroa, 17. Marata Niukore, 18. Ray Stone, 19. Jaeman Salmon, 20. Peni Terepo, 21. Josh Hoffman
Parramatta have to play like they did last week
This, to be fair, was a point I raised in my wrap-up of the Eels’ whiteash of Brisbane last week, but it certainly doesn’t make the point any less valid.
The bottom line is this – if Parramatta attempts to get into a grind with Melbourne, they are going to emerge from it as the first loser, second place, and their season over except for Mad Monday.
Like the Manly Sea Eagles, who also made the top eight, the Eels have overachieved in 2019 when compared to pre-season expectstions, but they should still be holding serious thoughts of winning this match.
It’s not a rocket science formula, but Parramatta must get back out there with an almost care free attitude, being happy to offload, throw long passes, switch the play from right to left and back again, and use the pin point accuracy of Mitchell Moses’ kicking game early in the tackle count wherever there might be an opportunity.
Parramatta might as well throw caution to the wind. Whether it comes off or not is another question entirely.
But if it doesn’t come off, they may as well be defeated knowing they had a red-hot crack at defeating the juggernaught only to come up short, rather than going away from what has treated them well and playing a conservative style that would be sure to confirm their elimination from the competition.
Cameron Munster has to take over
It is in big games, such as knockout finals and State of Origin where the biggest and best players in this great sport of rugby league stand up and come to the fore to be counted.
Cameron Smith is a master of it. Billy Slater and Johnathan Thurston were brilliant at it, as was a player like Andrew Johns, while James Tedesco has stamped his authority on big games countless times over the past few years.
That’s not to say that Munster hasn’t done this, but it’s difficult to think of a time when the Melbourne half has been the undisputed halves leader in his side and faced a situation like this one.
Last year’s grand final wasn’t a great day for Munster, and he would be the first to agree with that information as the Storm fell to the Roosters convincingly.
However, the pressure of that game and situation is probably the closest thing he has experienced so far to what he will go through over the next couple of weeks, or for how ever long Melbourne’s season has left to run.
It’s up to Munster and Cameron Smith to direct this team around and direc them towards what would be yet another grand final appearance.
This is Munster’s time to confirm in the eyes of fans, coaches, pundits and writers alike that he is at the top of the tree in this sport. Lifting the Provan-Summmons trophy on the first Sunday in October will go a long way towards doing just that.
Melbourne can’t afford to play from behind
While the man I just spent some time talking about would have to play a huge role in any potential comeback for the Storm, it certainly won’t be in the best interests of the club to fall behind early in this one and have to play catch-up footy.
Even though it certainly can be done by the Storm – and that is a tip of the hat to their bench which is by far one of the best in the competition – Parramatta aren’t the sort of team you want to be chasing throughout the second half of a knockout game.
Because of the amount of youth and inexperience the Eels have running around for them, they are what is commonly referred to as a momentum team. That is, once they get a head of steam, it’ll be incredibly difficult to slow them down, even for the experience and professionalism of the Storm.
One of the knocks on the Storm under Craig Bellamy has always been their inability to play from behind in games, and while that is less prevalent than it once was, it still exists and, particularly in finals games, dictates that Melbourne need to make a good start.
While last night’s semi-final between the Sea Eagles and the Rabbitohs looked a seriously tough game to tip on paper during the lead-up, and certainly played out that way during a topsy-turvy contest, this one isn’t promising the same level of thrills and spills.
Of course, a wide majority would have been on the Storm to not even be in this game, so rugby league has once again proven that it can throw up upsets and strange results, however, it’s hard to see one here.
The Eels simply aren’t going to get the time and space to do what they did to Brisbane last weekend, and so, their game plan won’t be nearly as effective.
The Storm, on the other hand, often get angry when they lose. It’s happened before, and it’ll happen again.
Factor in the mental demons from last time these sides met and Parramatta’s horrendous away record, and you have all the recipe for the Storm to wipe the floor of their slippery opponents.
Storm by 12.
Date: Saturday, September 21
Kick-off: 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
TV: Live, Fox League 502, Channel 9
Online: Live, Foxtel App, Foxtel Now, Kayo Sports, 9Now, NRL Digital Pass
Betting: Storm $1.35, Eels $2.85
Overall record: Played 35, Storm 22, Eels 13
Last meeting: 2019, Round 9, Storm 64 defeat Eels 10 at AAMI Park, Melbourne
Last five: Storm 4, Eels 1
Record in finals: Played 5, Storm 5, Eels 0
Record at venue: Played 7, Storm 5, Eels 2
Referees: Ben Cummins, Grant Atkins
Don’t forget to join us here on The Roar from 7:30pm (AEST) on Saturday evening for our live coverage and highlights of the game.