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Eels eye redemption by weathering the Storm
After finishing the home-and-away season as minor premiers the Melbourne Storm will be fighting to keep their grand final dream alive when they host the Parramatta Eels at AAMI Park on Saturday evening in the second semi final.
Suffering a last-gasp 12-10 loss to Canberra last Saturday, the Melbourne Storm will be looking to avoid becoming only the fourth team to bow out in straight sets since the new finals system was introduced in 2012.
Facing the prospect of joining Melbourne (2013), Manly (2014) and Parramatta (2017) to finish the regular season in the top four only to lose both finals matches, history looks set to hold the Storm in good stead for a bounce back win on Saturday night with the home team winning 11 of the past 14 semi finals.
Holding a dominant record against the Eels during Craig Bellamy's coaching tenure with 18 wins from 25 meetings, the reigning premiers boast a 100 per cent success rate in finals meetings over their weekend opponents having won all five previous matches by an average of less than seven points.
Keeping faith with the team beaten at the death last Saturday, Canterbury-bound forward Joe Stimson has retained his place despite spending the entirety of last weekend on the bench.
Blowing Brisbane off the park 58-0 in an unprecedented finals victory last Sunday, the Parramatta Eels will be wary of the threat posed by the reigning premiers having suffered their ire in a record loss during Magic Round.
Annihilated 64-10 at Suncorp Stadium back in May, the Eels will have their sights set on redemption as they fight to overcome a poor record at AAMI Park that has yielded two wins from seven visits this decade.
Showing themselves capable of scoring the points needed to unsettle the premiership heavyweights, coach Brad Arthur will need his side to demonstrate greater defensive resolve having conceded an average of 19 points per game this season.
Boosted by the return of Fijian international Kane Evans from suspension, Ray Stone drops back to the extended bench in the only change from the team that triumphed at Bankwest Stadium last Sunday.
Providing the Eels with great versatility off the bench, Brad Takairangi will play his 100th game for the club.
Last meeting: Round 9 2019 - Storm 64 Eels 10
Last Finals meeting: Finals Week One, 2017 - Melbourne Storm 18 Parramatta Eels 16
Who to watch: Becoming the latest gem to emerge from Craig Bellamy's prolific production line of finding diamonds in the rough, Papua New Guinean international Justin Olam has provided the Storm with a much-needed point of attacking difference in 2019. Developing into a powerful left edge centre after establishing himself as a first grade regular midway through the season, the 25-year-old speedster has more than justified the faith shown to average 100 metres per match along with seven tries and 32 tackle breaks in 12 appearances. Facing off against former Penrith prodigy Waqa Blake in a key match up on Saturday evening, look for Olam to take advantage of his chances with and without the ball to give the Storm every chance of qualifying for their 12th preliminary final appearance.
While much of the attention has been deservingly placed on his halves partner, Eels playmaker Dylan Brown will need to make his presence felt if the blue and golds are to progress through to their first preliminary final in a decade. Experiencing an injury-interrupted debut season brought on by a back injury that threatened to end his year after just three weeks, the 19-year-old Auckland native has shown plenty of quality touches with the ball in hand to score four tries in 14 appearances off the back of his potent running game. Regarded as one of the best young players in the game today, expect Brown to be heavily involved on Saturday night as the Eels look to set up a date with the defending premiers at the site of their last premiership victory.
The favourite: Holding a 63 per cent strike rate over their opponents in all meetings dating back to 1998, the Melbourne Storm are expected to bounce back with a strong performance at home.
My tip: While the Storm will pose a significantly greater challenge in attack and defence on Saturday evening, the attacking potential and desire to press their premiership credentials should see the Eels pull off a stunning victory built around defence. Eels by 6.
Outcome: The winner will face the Sydney Roosters next Saturday at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the preliminary final.
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 18. Curtis Scott 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Brandon Smith 15. Tui Kamikamica 16. Max King 3. Will Chambers
1. Clint Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Michael Jennings 4. Waqa Blake 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Kane Evans 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Manu Ma'u 13. Nathan Brown 14. Brad Takairangi 15. Daniel Alvaro 16. Tepai Moeroa 17. Marata Niukore
Referees: Ben Cummins, Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials: Chris Butler, David Munro; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Galea;