The NRL finals have arrived! The first qualifying final will see the Melbourne Storm looking to return to their best as they host an in-form South Sydney Rabbitohs outfit.
When you talk about form, it has to be acknowledged Souths lost two games on the trot before belting the Wests Tigers by 41 points in their final game of the regular season.
But this is a team who have won nine straight at one point this season and found superb form, shooting into premiership favouritism.
While the losses to the Brisbane Broncos and Canberra Raiders de-railed their momentum, the far greater consequence was falling to fourth on the logjammed NRL ladder and facing a trip to Melbourne for their qualifying final.
Travelling to Melbourne is a double-edged sword and makes the game must-win for the Bunnies. The first part of that is the game itself, with Melbourne being one of the toughest road trips in the competition.
The second part of that is the physicality. Craig Bellamy’s side know how to play the contest their way, dictate the pace of the game and ensure it’s physical from the first whistle to the final siren.
A loss will see the Rabbitohs playing their first knockout match next week, and turning it around – even with a seven-day turnaround – is never an easy task after playing in Melbourne.
The Storm have their own issues to deal with heading into the finals though. They failed to beat the Penrith Panthers last week, although had a mountain of injury worries and players rested ahead of what is sure to be a taxing finals campaign.
With the way things currently are, the Storm need the week off badly. They haven’t been playing poorly, but not at full strength, they only just got over the Titans in Round 24 before dropping to the Panthers last week.
Despite the loss, they still won the minor premiership and will enter this game as favourites with home ground advantage.
Souths haven’t had a lot of fun against Melbourne over the years. They have won just five of 29 total matches, although they split their previous two finals meetings in 2012 and 2013.
The Rabbitohs picked up a win against the Storm in their only game this year, but their last trip to Melbourne at the end of the 2017 season ended in a 64-6, which will leave some bad memories for the remaining players.
Their problems in Melbourne are apparent. While they have lost all seven games at AAMI Park, they lost all seven games at the Old Olympic ground as well, leaving them zero and 14 on trips to the Victorian capital.
Overall record: Played 29, Storm 24, Rabbitohs 5
Last meeting: Round 21, Rabbitohs 30 defeat Storm 20 at ANZ Stadium, Homebush
Last five: Storm 4, Rabbitohs 1
Record at venue: Played 7, Storm 7, Rabbitohs 0
Record in finals: Played 2, Storm 1, Rabbitohs 1
1 Billy Slater, 2 Suliasi Vunivalu, 3 Cheyse Blair, 4 Curtis Scott, 5 Josh Addo-Carr, 6 Cameron Munster, 7 Jahrome Hughes, 8 Jesse Bromwich, 9 Cameron Smith (c), 10 Tim Glasby, 11 Felise Kaufusi, 12 Joe Stimson, 13 Dale Finucane
Interchange: 14 Brandon Smith, 15 Christian Welch, 16 Tui Kamakamica, 17 Kenneath Bromwich, 18 Ryan Hoffman, 19 Brodie Croft, 20 Sam Kasiano, 21 Sandor Earl
The Storm welcome back Billy Slater, Suliasi Vunivalu, Cameron Munster in what are huge additions for the club. Interestingly, Jahrome Hughes has won the race for the number seven jumper, with Ryley Jacks and Brodie Croft both excluded from the 17.
Brandon Smith, the hard-nosed forward is also back on the bench with Ryan Hoffman out of the side.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
1 Alex Johnston, 2 Campbell Graham, 3 Greg Inglis, 4 Dane Gagai, 5 Robert Jennings, 6 Cody Walker, 7 Adam Reynolds, 8 Tom Burgess, 9 Damien Cook, 10 George Burgess, 11 John Sutton, 12 Angus Crichton, 13 Sam Burgess (c)
Interchange: 14 Hymel Hunt, 15 Cameron Murray, 16 Jason Clark, 17 Dean Britt, 18 Braidon Burns, 19 Tyrell Fuimaono, 20 Tevita Tatola, 21 Matt McIlwrick
South Sydney have made no changes for this one – Sam Burgess is still said to be battling a leg injury he picked up last week though.
How will the Burgess boys perform?
This is the key to a South Sydney victory for mine. If the Burgess boys perform well, it allows their whole team to flow and do exactly what they have been doing all season long.
There is no questioning Damien Cook has been the number one hooker in the competition this year, but a lot of that is on the back of the Burgess brothers and their fellow forwards leading the charge up the middle.
It’s staggering how many times South Sydney’s forwards manage to land on their stomach, get quick play the balls and allow Damien Cook to go to work around increasingly tired ruck defenders as the game goes along.
Sam Burgess, in particular, has had a wonderful season, but Tom and George have also been solid, with all three averaging north of 100 metres per game.
More importantly though, they are all averaging in the vicinity of ten metres per run and between them have racked up 92 tackle breaks, with Sam also contributing 35 offloads to the effort, which allows dangerous players like Alex Johnston and Cody Walker to do their thing.
Can Souths control Billy?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. There is no better big game player than Billy Slater.
What will make him even more dangerous is that he had a week off last week and this will be his last finals campaign, with Billy the kid wanting to go out on a high note.
When it comes to finals, there are few players who can do more than Slater. His organisational work in defence at the back is going to make scoring for the visitors tough, but it’s where he pops up in attack which will be the toughest thing to compete with.
Slater is one of the best readers of play in the history of the game. His support play and knowing exactly what play should be put on at what moment is second to none. He makes the Storm dangerous, no matter who is playing in the halves or alongside him in the halves.
If Souths can’t shut him down, they may as well forget about trying to win.
Melbourne’s experience counts for plenty
When you look at the Storm’s experience on the big stage, you talk about players like Slater and Cameron Smith, but what a lot of people forget is the man upstairs.
Craig Bellamy has been in charge of the Storm since 2003, coaching more than 400 games and winning a number of premierships. In fact, the Storm have barely missed a finals series since the super coach took over.
He has the players on field to execute, but you can bet the plan for a game like this will be solid and worked to a T.
Looking at the other side of the coin, Greg Inglis is a man with plenty of big game experience, as is Adam Reynolds and Sam Burgess. They aren’t the only three, but the trio have extra work to do in this one, with Anthony Seibold in his first season as an NRL coach.
Seibold has done a splendid job, but Souths have a heap of work to do to overcome the smarts of Melbourne at home.
The Rabbitohs left edge is good, but is it good enough?
On top of their forwards, the attacking weapon in 2018 for the Rabbitohs has been the left edge. Names like Cody Walker, John Sutton, Greg Inglis and Robert Jennings are all having incredible year’s.
We all knew what Inglis could do before this season, and a six-week break through injury heading into the finals has seemingly made him more dangerous than ever before, but it’s the men around him who hold the keys to South Sydney scoring enough points to challenge Melbourne.
Sutton has had an almost career-best season, Robert Jennings has 18 tries in just 18 games to his name, and Walker has laid on 16 try assists while scoring 12 tries of his own.
Of course, that’s before you even factor the efforts of fullback Alex Johnston sweeping around at the back and getting the job done, with the number one laying on 14 and scoring another eight of his own tries throughout 2018.
Simply put, there is a large discrepancy between right and left for South Sydney, yet, teams still don’t seem to be able to shut them down.
Melbourne sure couldn’t last time the teams met as they let in 30 points.
The thing with the cardinal and mertyle is that even when they are behind, they are always in the contest because of the danger their left side possesses. Get wrong-footed, slide too early in defence or rush off the line and they will find a way around you.
I’m really not expecting this match to be all that comfortable for the Storm. South Sydney have proven themselves a very capable side throughout the season, but for their formula to work, the forwards simply have to get the better of the game.
If they can’t do that, they won’t win. Damien Cook and the halves rely on it so much, and in Melbourne, the Storm control the pace of the game whether you like it or you don’t.
Nelson Asofa-Solomona is still a loss they are going to need to overcome, but with the rest of their returning stars this week, Melbourne should do the job, live up to their incredibly good record over Souths and grab a week off, leaving the beaten-up Rabbitohs outfit a week to turn things around and get their finals campaign back on track for what will be a potential preliminary final against either the Roosters or Sharks.
Storm by 4.
Key game information
Date: Friday, September 7
Kick-off: 7:40pm (AEST)
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
TV: Live, Fox League, Nine Network
Online: Live, Foxtel app, Foxtel now, 9Now
Betting: Storm $1.78, Rabbitohs $2.05
Referees: Ashley Klein and Adam Gee
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Read more: theroar.com.au