Saturday, September 10 from 7:55pm at AAMI Park, Melbourne
Premiership ladder position:
Melbourne Storm: 1st
North Queensland Cowboys: 4th
Melbourne Storm: 19-5
North Queensland Cowboys: 15-9
Melbourne Storm: $1.77
North Queensland Cowboys: $2.10 with Crownbet.com.au
Points spread line:
Melbourne Storm (-2.0): $1.91
North Queensland Cowboys (+2.0): $1.91
TWO of the best halfbacks in the NRL, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston, will meet for an epic Qualifying Final clash at AAMI Park on Saturday night, with the Melbourne Storm aiming to make it three from three against the North Queensland Cowboys in 2016.
The Storm come into the match as the minor premiers, having executed a clinical victory over Cronulla last weekend, holding the Sharks to just six points in the 26-6 thrashing at home in Melbourne.
The victory showcased precisely why they are at the top of the pack heading into the finals – with excellent defence, strong execution and the ability to get the small things right.
The purple wall are a well-rounded team and play a style of football that is adaptable to almost any situation, with Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith continuing to showcase their brilliant best, while their forward pack of Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris and Dale Finucane are all in stellar form.
On top of this, Melbourne rookie Suliaisi Vunivalu just doesn’t know how to stop scoring, with 21 tries thus far in his debut year in the NRL, the most scored by any individual player across the entire competition.
Skipper Cameron Smith has challenged his players to maintain their intensity and aggression from the Cronulla game heading into this Saturday’s match.
“That is pretty much the standard that we need to show for the rest of this competition no matter how many games we play from here,” Smith said.
“That’s what it’s going to take to be in games from here on out.”
It will be no easy task for the Storm this weekend, coming up against the defending premiers, who scored a strong win over Melbourne in last year’s Preliminary finals.
However, since then, the Storm have dominated against North Queensland, winning 15-14 in round 10 and 16-8 in round 21.
Despite their 2016 record favouring the opposition, the Cowboys are getting back to their best, coming into Saturday’s game in fourth spot on the ladder following three successive victories.
As a result, they are expected to come into this match full of confidence and, while Smith expects Melbourne to perform at their best, he concedes his team will face a tough task.
“Obviously JT (Johnathan Thurston) is back in the side and playing well, last time we played them (in Townsville) he didn’t play,” Smith said.
“We’ve played them on a big occasion this year early in the season at Suncorp in front of 45,000 and we played well that night, and we played well in Townsville as well.
“There’s a lot of things that we need to reset now and have a look at like what we want to come up with against the Cowboys.
“They’re a very different side to Cronulla and they’ll be a different side to what we’ve played the previous two match-ups this year.
“This is finals and these guys are the reigning premiers so they know how to play the big games.”
The Cowboys represent a great chance of winning back-to-back titles, a feat which hasn’t been achieved since the Broncos won the Premiership in 1992 and 1993, and their aspirations will be strengthened this weekend if they can defeat the Storm and lock-in a preliminary final back home in Townsville.
Their best asset is undoubtedly Thurston, who is magic with a football in hand, while he will be assisted by a quality line-up, with Michael Morgan starting to hit his straps after returning from injury a few weeks back, while Jason Taumalolo is stamping himself as one of the best forwards in the competition.
Combine these three talents with the likes of Jake Granville who can break up defenders with his sheer speed and you have got a team which can dominate at the highest level.
Storm vs. Cowboys first try scorer odds and tips
Melbourne Storm first try scorer odds:
Suliaisi Vunivalu $7.50
Marika Koroibete $9.50
Will Chambers $14
Cooper Cronk $17
Cameron Munster $18
Cheyse Blair $18
Ben Hampton $23
Kevin Proctor $23
Tohu Harris $26
Blake Green $26
Kenny Bromwich $26
Dale Finucane $41
Cameron Smith $41
Jesse Bromwich $41
Christian Welch $41
Jordan McLean $56
Tim Glasby $56
Suliasi Vunivalu is in terrific form and recently equaled the club record for the most tries in a match, scoring four in the opening half of Melbourne’s win against Manly in round 24.
The winger made his first grade debut against the Tigers in round seven and since then has scored 21 tries for the Storm, a feat which is seeing him hailed as the rookie of the year by many experts.
While he had a quite game against the Sharkies last week, there will be no holding back heading into Saturday’s game with the dreams of a Premiership win in his first season becoming more of a reality each day.
North Queensland Cowboys first try scorer odds
Antonio Winterstein $9.50
Kyle Feldt $11
Michael Morgan $17
Justin O’Neil $18
Ethan Lowe $21
Gavin Cooper $21
Lachlan Coote $23
Kane Linnett $23
Jason Taumalolo $26
Johnathan Thurston $26
Coen Hess $26
Jake Granville $31
Rory Korstjaysn $34
Patrick Kaufusi $46
Matthew Scott $51
Scott Bolton $51
James Tamou $51
Antonio Winterstein is the equal second favourite to score the first try, despite having not crossed the elusive white line in his past three games.
Prior to that he had been in pretty good form, with 11 tries throughout 2016, his latest being against the Storm in round 21 – perhaps an omen heading into Saturday’s match.
There could be some value with Michael Morgan – while his return to the field had been somewhat dismal since resuming against the Roosters in round 20, he has started to show glimpses of what he is capable of over the past few weeks.
With the enticement of back-to-back premiership wins just around the corner, it could be enough to ignite his best heading into the finals.
Storm vs. Cowboys game prediction
While the Cowboys are the defending champions, they have the disadvantage of playing in Melbourne this week where the Storm has been an ominous force throughout the regular season.
If Melbourne can down the Cowboys on Saturday night, they won’t leave home until the grand final (assuming they win their preliminary final) which is extra incentive for the boys in purple to maintain their ruthless edge.
While it is hard to tip against Johnathan Thurston, a man capable of just about anything with a football in hand, the Storm have been on-point all season and if they can bring their strong defence and attacking precision into the finals it is hard to see them being toppled.