Round 25: Storm v Panthers preview
The Storm look to wrap up their third-straight J.J Giltinan Shield when they take on the desperate Panthers.
Heading into the final round of the regular season without a confirmed starting halfback would sound like a nightmare to any NRL coach. And it would be an even bigger issue if their team had qualified for the finals series.
That is the exact situation facing Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy. Yet his side have all but wrapped up the minor premiership for the third year straight. It goes to show that the culture and environment in Melbourne is simply unmatched, with Brodie Croft, Ryley Jacks and Jahrome Hughes all more than capable of slotting into the number seven jersey with minimal disruption. For what it's worth, Croft has been named in the halfback jumper for Friday night's clash with the Panthers.
Melbourne's rise to top spot has been even more impressive given the string of injuries they have had to deal with in the final few rounds of the season. One member of their injured brigade is retiring club legend Ryan Hoffman, who may make a miracle comeback this weekend after it was initially feared that his season was over. They will be without fullback Billy Slater though, who has been ruled out after a serious illness in the family.
The Storm shouldn't have too many dramas on Friday night given that their opponents are yet to win a match on Melbourne's home turf. Even more incredible is the fact that the Storm have won 16 of their past 17 against Penrith. It doesn't bode well for Cameron Ciraldo's men, who appear certain to limp out of week one of the finals series, after promising so much early in the season. The Panthers sat atop of the competition table midway through 2018, only to suffer a post Origin slump that saw them fall to the Sea Eagles, Sharks and Broncos.
And they never really recovered.
Three-straight wins over the Sea Eagles, Raiders and Titans in extraordinary fashion papered over serious issues at the foot of the mountains, which have cost them in the past fortnight. Ill-discipline continues to make life hard for the mountain men, who found themselves trailing the Warriors 36-4 last week before scoring two quick tries to add some respectability to the score line. Only weeks after looking like locks for a top-four spot, the Panthers now find themselves in a race to secure a home final. They will need their forward pack to stand up on Friday night as it is the only real place where they have an advantage over their opposition.
Penrith built their early season success on the back of their rampaging big men, but recently they appear fatigued and their slow starts to games are indicative of this. Fortunately, they are boosted this week by the return of experienced playmaker James Maloney. His comeback is offset by a season-ending injury to centre Dean Whare, who was arguably Penrith's best in the past month.
Last meeting: Round 5 2017 - Storm 28 Panthers 6
Who to watch: The battle of the five-eighths may decide this one. Cameron Munster inspired the Storm to a scrappy 10-8 win over the Titans last week. After failing to score any points in the first half, Melbourne needed a spark and found it in their number six. Munster's fancy footwork constantly fooled the Gold Coast defence and it proved the difference in the end when he sliced over out wide for his side's second try of the night. Penrith have looked vulnerable in defence recently and will need to keep a close eye on Munster, who will want to take advantage of tiring forwards in the middle of the park.
Meanwhile, the Panthers have lacked experience and guidance in the past fortnight but the return of a fit and firing Maloney may be just what they need. The former Shark is a proven winner and will need to step up against a side that has had Penrith easily covered in recent years. His long-range kicking game will be particularly important given that Munster and Croft are still polishing that aspect of their game.
Tip: Penrith usually prosper as underdogs but there is a reason they are expected to lose this week - they have been playing terribly. The Storm should be able to win this one without leaving second gear. Storm by 8.