At this time of year, you hope to see the best of the best face off. On paper, Friday night’s clash between the Storm and Roosters is that with bells on, but on deeper inspection, it’s a meeting of teams that are incredibly strong in some areas and incredibly weak in others.
The Roosters are on a tear and haven’t lost in over a month, plus have the benefit of an emotional high from last week’s backs-against-the-wall knockout win over the Sharks.
Yet that seems increasingly like a pyrrhic victory, as it cost them three of their best players in Joey Manu, Joseph Suaalii and Billy Smith, not to mention the already injured Daniel Tupou. They’ll go in without an entire cadre of outside backs.
Melbourne somewhat limped into the finals. As much as they did win in Brisbane in a glorified Queensland Cup tie, they were spanked by a full strength Broncos last time out and now find themselves in danger of a straight sets exit.
They also had an emotional low of their own, with Ryan Papenhuyzen sadly breaking his leg after only recently returning from a year out with injury, something that Craig Bellamy himself admitted had left the group feeling flat.
Xavier Coates is injured too, and in the week, Jahrome Hughes went down and has since been ruled out with a calf injury. Tyran Wishart – or, perhaps, Harry Grant or Nick Meaney – will deputise in the halves.
The combined result of these two injury-affected sides is that nobody has the first idea how this will go. Even the bookies’ prices have tightened considerably since last week, and while the Storm are still favourites, it would surprise nobody if the Chooks’ unlikely charge continued.
The uncertainty should at least benefit fans. At this time of year, we think we know everything about everything. Now, we don’t. Let’s look into where this will be won and lost.
It’s easy to cast this one as backs v forwards. The Storm have been miles off it in the middle for a while, while the Roosters are pretty much at full strength in the middle. Alright, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is suspended, but they’re pretty used to that by now.
A cursory look at the form guide and the team lists would tell you that a low-scoring, forward-dominated match favours the Chooks and a more open, free-flowing affair helps the Storm.
Melbourne have perhaps strengthened their outside backs coming into the contest, ending the exile of Justin Olam in the Queensland Cup and bringing back one of best centres in the world – at least if you believe the ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’ maxim.
Xavier Coates is out, which is a shame, but Reimis Smith takes his place, which is fairly handy stand-in to have.
“They bring a bit of experience in there,” Bellamy told media ahead of the game.
“It wasn’t easy, leaving them out, to be quite honest, because they’ve done such a good job over a long period of time.
“But I just felt it needed to doing, so we did it. But hopefully, they’ll be all excited about (the game) and I have no doubt their experience will be good for the team.”
Compare and contrast to the Roosters, who have James Tedesco and four guys who, on a more settled weekend, would be playing for North Sydney. Teddy and the Bears will have a big job on their hands.
Last week, despite losing more weapons than the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Roosters’ systems came to the fore to keep Cronulla at bay.
This time around, they know they will need to do that again. “We’re still searching for improvement,” said Trent Robinson in his captain’s run presser.
“There’s things last week that we looked at and thought we could get better at. Our defence has been improving, but we still sat down on Monday and thought ‘we need to tweak this or that’.
“Defence is always the backbone of your game. Last week we didn’t execute in the first half and then lost players in the second half, which kept it to 13 points. But because of the backbone of our D, it kept them to 12 points.”
The best path to victory for the Roosters is to put as much grass between them and their line as possible, and then the shortest amount, too.
It’s rare that a Robinson side will countenance thinking about the completion rate, but in this instance, a very conservative game plan that keeps the ball at the other end of the field and limits errors will give them the best chance of making this game another 13-12 style affair.
If that is the case, Robbo will back his boys to nick the necessary number of points to win it. His side have only completed north of 80% on five occasions this year, but it would benefit them to do so this weekend.
The main drawback of losing all his outside backs is the loss of strike out wide, but a benefit of not having them available for much of the year – and of being able to bring in blokes from an integrated reserve grade team – is that the cohesion should be there, as well as a knowledge of systems.
The Roosters have proven even in their worst times this year that the defence can function, and their goalline is the best around. Expect six agains aplenty if when it comes to that area, a long-standing Chooks trademark, and a willingness to go deep.
Their sliver of hope will be that Melbourne’s attack was miles off last week, and that was with Hughes fit and firing. It’s been proven that, in the big games against the best defences, the Storm can stutter with the ball.
The best hope for the Roosters is that they keep their opponents down to fewer than 12 points. Melbourne, on the other hand, need to do the exact opposite.
Those attacking deficiencies were shown up big time by the Broncos, and worryingly for Bellamy, he didn’t seem to know where it had come from.
“I’m not sure how we could come into this game and play like that,” he told the media after last week’s loss.
“I can’t remember the last time we attacked that poorly. Obviously, some of that was due to the Broncos’ good defence, without a doubt, but we just looked like we were 17 players thrown together on the night and good luck.
“We’ve been scoring plenty of points the last 4-6 weeks and our attack has been humming along all right, but tonight it looked like we’d only just met each other in the dressing room before the game. That’s something we’ll have to look at during the week.”
He’s now had a week, and you suspect a few home truths will have been delivered. Much as Bellamy insisted that Melbourne’s attack has been decent in recent weeks, the stats have consistently said that they struggle against anyone who can half defend.
Their line break tally averages at five per game, which is only good enough for 12th in the comp, and their showing against better defensive sides is very poor.
Indeed, they managed just three and four in two meetings with the Roosters, and though they won both games, that could as much be put down to horrendous attack from their opponents.
Cameron Munster has been off it since the end of Origin, scoring just twice himself and picking up only four line break assists in his last 16 games – and they were in two matches, meaning in 14 of them, he didn’t create anything for his teammates.
His running does remain elite, but with Hughes out, it’ll all be on Munster and Grant to break the Roosters down. Meaney, too, needs to come up big from the back.
“I can’t remember the last time I’ve had back-to-back bad games,” Munster told AAP during the week. “We were disconnected in our spine (against Brisbane) and it was probably the first time we’ve looked that bad.
“I would have liked to play a lot better that’s for sure. I tried hard at times but the way the game panned out I couldn’t inject myself. When I did it was dogshit.
“I have been doing the same prep all year but it is one of those seasons where I have been a bit inconsistent, so I have got to try and figure out what I am doing different or if I am feeling different.”
Conversely, while the Roosters are dropping like flies in the backline, their spine is finally coming together.
The quartet of Sam Walker, Luke Keary, Brandon Smith and Tedesco have saved their best footy for the back end, with the halfback recovered from injury and the other three finding form at the perfect time.
“Our spine is intact, so we’re going down there with a clear gameplan, but also a clear belief in how we want to attack the game and what we think we’re capable of,” said Robinson.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time with those guys because they’ve only really come back as a band in the last three games with the four of them.
“I feel like their combination and knowledge of each other is getting better and better. They are match-winners and they do create opportunities.
“The order of events has to be really well set up and then that’s what they’re there for, to do and create opportunities and execute them,
“We never put restrictions on what we’re capable of with the ball, but our job is to put that backbone in place again with the defence.
“If we set that up, the execution will decide how many points we score. That process won’t change and we need it to be the foundation of our game.”
The Roosters will be banking that those four can make those things happen, but conscious that they might create and then struggle to finish, especially with an all-reserve grade OB selection.
Melbourne will have all the strike they need, but need their spine to create the opportunities for them.
An expansive game with a large metre total would suit the Storm. A tight one would suit the Roosters. Now, it’s over to them to see who can produce the best conditions for their side.