Round 20: Storm v Raiders preview
Back-to-back Storm crusade continues as Raiders look to keep flagging finals hopes alive.
It's taken nineteen weeks, but last year's minor premiers and premiers Melbourne have finally reached the summit of the NRL competition, having floated around the top eight most of the season, biding their time. Boosted by the inclusion of Cam Smith during the Origin period following his representative retirement, the Storm have gone on a dream run over the winter months, and after the Rabbitohs' winning streak ground to a halt last weekend, jumped into first place, where they'll be keen to stay for the remaining six weeks of the competition.
Looking at their opponents on Saturday night, well... they could be first.
Sounds silly? The problem with Canberra is easily apparent when you look at their ladder position as compared to their points differential. They sit tenth, six competition points out of the top eight... but have a positive differential of 58, despite the teams around them having negative 33, positive 6 and positive 4. The story this tells? They can't close out games. Countless times this season (and indeed over the last couple of years), Canberra have held good leads, only to capitulate late in games, almost freely giving away the two competition points.
A quick look at the team sheets for this week reveals minimal changes, Melbourne have the same seventeen as last week with just positional switches - Dale Finucane starts at lock with Kenny Bromwich benched. Canberra meanwhile welcome back Joseph Tapine, which pushes Sia Soliola to the bench and Jack Murchie drops to the reserves. Inthe backline, Nick Cotric will play centre with Oldfield moving to the flank.
This pair have met 40 times since 1998, Melbourne dominating the head-to-head battle 29 wins to 11. They collected the J.J. Giltinan Shield for the 2017 minor premiership last time they met in the final round of last year's competition.
Who to watch: A few of the best outside backs in the game are on show this Saturday night - Melbourne's Josh Addo-Carr and Suliasi Vunivalu are two of the more prolific (and speedy) wingers in the NRL in recent years, made more evident for Addo-Carr in particular with his NSW selection in 2018. His ability to break into the back-field is phenomenal.
Cast your eyes to the away side's teamlist and you have the 'Leipana' pairing, arguably the most exciting right-side attack in the competition. While there have been question marks over Joey Leilua's try celebration manner in recent weeks, their combination is undeniable and if Melbourne's defence is even a little off-the-job, these two will be key figures in any potential upset.
My tip: It would take a pretty special Raiders performance to get them across the line on Saturday night at AAMI Park. Melbourne's apparently limitless depth has helped them through the Origin period just about perfectly and there's no reason their run won't continue here. Storm by 18.