In the second NRL preliminary final, the minor premiers Melbourne are up against the seemingly sentimental contenders in Canberra. The Raiders are in their first preliminary final of the NRL era, while the Storm are in their fourth preliminary final over the past 6 years. Will experience get the Storm home or will Canberra cause a big upset to make their first Grand Final since 1994? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts and a prediction below.
Previous Game Review
In the opening weekend of the finals, the Storm were clinical in their defeat of the Cowboys. In the first half, the Cowboys had the majority of field position and possession, but were unable to capitalise, as Melbourne’s defence was simply too good. The Storm took advantage of the few Cowboys errors to take a lead into halftime. This was a lead that the Storm never surrendered, in order to get the week off and a preliminary final in Melbourne. In that game, both Vunivalu and Jesse Bromwich were able to cross for tries, which was fitting as they were Melbourne’s two best players in that game.
Canberra hosted a second consecutive finals game, when they took on Penrith in last week’s elimination final. As they did against Cronulla in the opening week of the finals, Canberra got out to a very fast start, were quite dominant for the majority of the first half and took a 12-0 lead into the halftime break. The Raiders were able to cross again early in the second half to take their lead to 18-0. However, they once again faded in the second half, as Penrith scored two quick tries mid-way through the second half to reduce the lead to 6. Two late penalty goals secured a Canberra victory, but their job will be tougher this week, as they aim to make their first decider in 22 years.
- Round 23 – Canberra Raiders defeated Melbourne Storm 22-8, GIO Stadium
Previous Match at AAMI Park
- Round 19, 2014 – Melbourne Storm defeated Canberra Raiders 28-14
Previous Finals Match
- Week 1 Finals, 2003 – Melbourne Storm defeated Canberra Raiders 30-18, GIO Stadium
- In: Christian Welch, Matt White, Felise Kaufusi (all extended bench)
- Out: Nelson Asofa-Solomona
- In: nil
- Out: nil
Both sides have named unchanged starting sides for the preliminary final. There is a lot of star power in both backlines, with a number of representative players and soon-to-be representative players. Cooper Cronk will play his 300th NRL game on Saturday night and should be at his scheming, organising best. He will look to put powerhouse wingers Koroibete and Vunivalu into space and if this happens, the Storm could rack up a big score. Cameron Munster is showing that he is the long-term option at fullback, with his ball-playing ability coming to the fore this season. Canberra’s backline is highly rated and rightfully so, as they are very dangerous in attack. The much vaunted right-hand side featuring Joseph Leilua and Jordan Rapana are very difficult to stop. Also on the right side is Blake Austin, whose return to side was a big boost, as evidenced in the Raiders’ first try against Penrith. Austin adds a strong running game to the side, which complements the organising halfback Aidan Sezer very well.
The main reason for Melbourne’s return to the top four over the past two seasons has been the development of their big forward pack, particularly their front row. Jesse Bromwich has become one of the best props in rugby league, while young players Jordan McLean and Tim Glasby have improved greatly over the past two seasons. Bromwich is the leader of the pack and can tire out the big Raiders pack if he is able to get his second phase play going. The young Raiders props won’t back down from this challenge and no side possesses a bigger starting prop combination than Canberra, comprising of Junior Paulo and Shannon Boyd. Both props will aim to cause a dent in the Melbourne defensive line, limiting the Storm’s ability to control the ruck. The battle on the edges should be very good, with Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris up against Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead. All four are quality players that should feature in the Four Nations for their respective nations. Whitehead has shown some ill-discipline in the finals, which could cost Canberra if it flares up in this game. Obviously, the key matchup is at hooker, with Cameron Smith up against Josh Hodgson. These are the two best hookers in rugby league and both will be highly involved in their respective teams’ attack. The winner of this individual matchup will highly likely result in their team winning.
On the bench, both sides got with three forwards and a utility or hooker. Both Ben Hampton and Kurt Baptiste are used late in each half to exploit tiring defences, with the Raiders utilising both Hodgson and Baptiste from dummy half and the Storm using Hampton in a floating role. The loss of Nelson Asofa-Solomona is big for Melbourne, as he is one of the most impactful bench players in the NRL. He is a giant and his replacement for this game (either Welch, White or Kaufusi) will not have the same impact for Melbourne. In relation to the Canberra bench, Paul Vaughan provided a big impact against Penrith. He offers more than the other Raiders bench players in my opinion and he will be up for a big game to show his ability to both the Raiders and other clubs, in order to play first grade on a more regular basis.
It’s very hard to write anything new about the Melbourne Storm, as they are highly consistent and very rarely change during a season. I expect them to be at or near their clinical best in this game and it will be up to Canberra to force Melbourne to play a different style to win this game. The only way to achieve this is through a fast start, which Canberra has done in their first two finals games. In playing in two finals games in Canberra, the Melbourne weather shouldn’t affect the Raiders attack, as both games in were cold and slippery and the Raiders attack was not overly affected.
For Canberra to win, they need to move the ball around and tire out the big Melbourne pack. They do have the style of play to upset Melbourne, but a big concern is the energy that is used up in attack. In both finals, Canberra have faded in the second half and if they don’t have a sizeable lead built up, Melbourne will be too good, if there is a similar fade in this game. While the atmosphere shouldn’t impact the Raiders greatly, Melbourne have players that have played in so many big games. As a result, I think that they will withstand an early Canberra assault and come away with another clinical victory to make their first decider in four years.
Predicted Score: Melbourne 22 Canberra 14