2020 has been something of a year.
COVID, rule changes on the fly, momentum controlling games more than ever, some of the teams at the top and enough controversies to get all the way to the start of next year without the need for a new story.
What hasn’t changed though is the Raiders and Storm playing preliminary finals, and nor has the reason they got themselves there.
The forward packs for Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart are simply outstanding. There is no other way around it, and while their attacking masterminds will likely get all the credit at the end of the evening whichever way the result goes, this game shapes up as one that’ll be all about the platform being laid in the middle third.
In a game which is likely to be physical, that’ll mean not just the starting forwards, but the bench forwards and the way they carry momentum in the middle portion of the game will be crucial to the result.
The big trend in the NRL this season has been games going all one-way traffic for long periods and then flipping on a dime to go the other way. It’s a trend which has been bleedingly obvious since the six-again rule was introduced, and it’ll determine all the remaining finals, but more so this one.
While there are game-breakers who can do things against the run of play in either side, what you don’t get against the Storm or Raiders is defensive fragility or a lack of professionalism allowing their opposition to make those game-changing plays to turn the game quickly.
When you think about the forwards for these sides, it doesn’t get any more important than the battle between Josh Papalii and Jesse Bromwich.
Both experienced, both representative level forwards and both the leaders of their respective middle thirds.
While Bromwich always turns up for big games and is likely to do so again this evening, his form doesn’t hold a candle to Papalii’s, who should be the first-picked in Wayne Bennett’s Origin team.
He is the form prop of the competition and showed just how important his role is to the green machine last weekend when he took on the Roosters and emerged with his team’s season intact.
It was an unreal performance, but at this point, it’s more expected than it is a surprise for the booming front-rower who has been locked up in the nation’s capital long term.
Papalii is currently averaging 152 metres per game but is a big-game player. He came up with 189 last week to go with a try.
The back-up brigade for the Raiders isn’t bad either. Joe Tapine has come on in leaps and bounds, Iosia Soliola will give you consistency week in and week out and the duo of Dunamis Lui and Hudson Young from the bench provide plenty.
That isn’t to mention the output of John Bateman, the underrated Elliott Whitehead and the defensive solidness of Tom Starling, who has done a wonderful job in filling the boots left by the injured Josh Hodgson.
While the Raiders pack is fierce and tenacious in the way they go about their business, it still has to aim up to that of the Storm.
Bromwich may give up a little in the leadership stakes to Papalii, but elsewhere, Christian Welch has been in the form of his life and may well partner Papalii up front for the Maroons when Origin kicks off.
He wasn’t excellent last time out against the Raiders with seven missed tackles, but ever since that game, he has averaged a staggering 150 metres per game to go with almost 32 tackles per game. It’s almost as if the one poor performance against Canberra back in Round 9 lit a fire in Welch, and he hasn’t put a foot wrong since.
He will need to be at the top of his game too, given the men in purple are still without the injured Dale Finucane. Nonetheless, man-mountain Nelson Asofa-Solomona lines up at lock and will cause the Raiders all sorts of headaches, while the second row of Felise Kaufusi and Kenny Bromwich are all representative, and all class.
They may well have an edge there over the visitors in terms of consistency with Cameron Smith guiding the team around for the entire 80 minutes.
Overall, you’d give the Raiders bench a slight edge, but it’s two players who pull the Storm back into the physicality of the contest. Brandon Smith would be starting at just about any other club, while Tino Fa’asuamaleaui will certainly be doing that on the Gold Coast next year.
The duo could give the Storm an edge because if Craig Bellamy’s side can have an even share of the ball throughout the game, the likes of Cameron Munster, Smith and Ryan Papenhuyzen will get them over the line.
Momentum, physicality and field position will decide this game. The Raiders, away from home and with same-day travel to Brisbane must get a good start to be competitive, but up against a rested Storm side, the battle is an uphill one.
It could well be a game for the rugby league purists. Points will likely be hard to come by, and it just makes this discussion regarding the forwards all the more important.
Do Melbourne have enough without Dale Finucane? Will the Raiders have enough in the tank and enough coming from the bench to compete with Smith and Tino when they get onto the field?
This will be an epic battle in the middle third of the park, but the edge is with Melbourne unless Papalii can pull all the tricks out and inspire his team to the same upset they pulled off in last year’s qualifying final.