Sydney Roosters v Melbourne Storm

ANZ Stadium, Sydney

After the tightest and most unpredictable season in NRL history we arrive at the biggest stage with the two teams most pundits predicted to play in this year’s Grand Final before a ball was kicked. What is predictable is that both sides hold the meanest defences in the competition and that was on full display in the preliminaries over the weekend. This promises to be a Herculean clash between two wonderfully talented sides, it is high stakes, immense pressure and so tight one mistake could decide the match.

The Build Up:

It wouldn’t be Grand Final week without injury or suspension controversy but this has been the most sensational build up ever. Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater have been playing the waiting game for two extremely differing reasons. Cronk injured his rotator cuff severely in the Bunnies clash and his shoulder is in technical terms ‘buggered’ and will be given until game day but I’m calling him gone, only Superman could play with that injury and if he does he’ll get lined up and hammered by Nelson Asofa-Solomona who has kryptonite for shoulders.

While Slater has escaped suspension for a shoulder charge and now handed the chance to complete a fairy tale ending to his storied career. The Storm mounted a strong defence to get their man to the Big Dance assembling a star-studded stack of big wigs resembling OJ Simpson’s. “If the charge don’t fit, you must acquit” was basically the upshot, Billy the Kid dodging a bullet, with his crack team arguing successfully, it wasn’t a shoulder charge just an unavoidable collision the key being his right hand making the initial contact. The judiciary surely swayed by the Queensland hand of God! Whatever the future ramifications Billy is free to play his final match – the 2018 NRL Grand Final. Let’s break it down!

The Clubs:

The Storm were already slight favourites, but Slater’s inclusion firms Melbourne in the market and adds motivation to this remarkable club making their third straight Grand Final appearance and hoping to climb the summit again achieving the NRL’s Holy Grail – back to back titles while saying see you Slater to Billy with a premiership ring.

For the Roosters the minor premiership, their fourth in six seasons, was a brilliant accomplishment but the Bondi boys want the big trophy in the cabinet. Cronk is a huge out for the Roosters as he was brought to the club for this moment, to take the Tricolours to a title and looks to have fallen at the last hurdle. Maybe Cronk can chuck on a light blue T-Shirt and be water boy still able to direct plays influencing proceedings?

The Game Plan:

It’s no coincidence the two best defensive sides in the competition are the teams left standing, their line speed and goal line desperation are simply astounding. Chinks in the armour and points will be at a premium, don’t expect a try-fest, two could be enough to secure victory, maybe even one! This will be a match of moments and the Storm has a huge edge in this domain. Melbourne are experienced, clinical and have the blue print to victory, kick to the corners early in the tackle count, get field position and control the tempo of the game, slow the Roosters down than shift through the gears with ball in hand, and it all starts and ends with the skipper, Cameron Smith in a game which will be played and officiated at Origin speed. Performing under pressure is pivotal and the calmness, execution and game management of Cameron Smith is unrivalled. Smith has riding shotgun two of the best in the business, Cameron Munster and Billy Slater, and once inside the red zone watch the pace surge dramatically. They were sharp and rhythmic in the Sharks smackdown and with a fully fit squad, an amazing stat at this time of year, adding to the lethal concoction brewing for the perfect Storm.

The Roosters were scrappy in bouncing the Bunnies out and have got to execute better to break down the Storm, but the result was all that counted as everything changes this week, Latrell Mitchell and Dylan Napa are back, which soothes some of the pain from Cronk’s expected withdrawal. Roosters Mr Fix-It Mitch Aubusson has been named at halfback but Trent Robinson is playing ducks and drakes, I’d take a punt on Ryan Matterson starting at five-eighth, while Luke Keary replaces Cronk as chief playmaker handed the monumental task of running the show on both sides of the ruck. Keary is quality, he showed that in getting the Roosters home last week as Cronk became the most expensive passenger ever placed on a league field in a Roosters jersey since Fatty Vautin finished his career two years too late but Keary has just had a boulder of expectation and pressure placed on his shoulders. One of their key plays sees Keary sweep around both sides of the field at explosive pace linking with James Tedesco to unleash with razor sharp passing either Latrell Mitchell or Joseph Manu. Expect to see Matterson and Victor Radley, who has more in his kitbag than teeth rattling tackles, spend time at first receiver to give Keary space to keep this trick shot in the play book. Also loaded with the kicking duties, Jake Friend will mirror his opposite Cameron Smith and kick from dummy half to offer an option and relieve Keary.

The Forwards:

The packs will attempt to gain dominance, force errors through heavy contact and the heat in the engine room will be searing the front rows cancel each other out but the Roosters have an edge with the return of X factor Dylan Napa fired up and fresh from suspension. Napa will rock harder than the pregame show monstering Melbourne with the ferocity of his hits off the pine, ready to blast out of the Chook Pen to smash the Storm. The Melbourne forwards won’t be intimidated one iota, surrounded by stars the men to watch are two underestimated back row beauties who are in fine fettle. Felise Kaufusi is a moral for Kangaroos selection, on top of his beautiful hole running and silky ball skills, he’s added starch dishing out perfectly timed pile drivers. Never taking headlines and my tip to take out the Clive Churchill Medal (if the engraver hasn’t already seared B. Slater onto it) is the quiet achiever Dale Finucane. The Storm’s lock gets through a mountain of work and will be on Teddy patrol, ruling the ruck repelling any Roosters raids as Tedesco sniffs about.

The Backs:

The Roosters still managed three tries last week minus their major attacking weapon Mitchell with Manu stepping up, his class shining at the back end of the season and gives the Roosters sharp spurs on either edge. The danger of the Roosters is if Latrell doesn’t lash you on the left they’ll rock you on the right via Manu, if that fails Teddy will motor down Main Street. There is strike power everywhere but can Keary deliver without Cronk beside him? Both sides will back their defences to control field position. This is where the Roosters hold a sizeable advantage with their back five led by the belligerent ball carrying of Blake Ferguson in his final game for the Roosters, before he heads west to the Eels, the Chooks march down field better than any team in the comp. There are monumental matchups across the park, each one vital in the quest for victory, the centre battle between young guns Curtis Scott and Joseph Manu is electrifying and the Roosters will like their odds in that one. Scott has his hands full trying silence the sweet steeping Manu who outpointed GI last week, no easy task, but the custodian battle between Tedesco and Slater takes the cake it will be a high-octane turbo charged thriller. Teddy has added a much-improved passing game to his armoury with his fast hands, but the Prince of fullbacks is still Slater. He sliced the Sharks apart and settled that game almost solo, it was Slater at the peak of his powers and B1lly the Kid is revved up to depart the game on top and earn man of the match honours without question.

The Game Breakers:

In a game jam packed with match winners, this Grand Final possesses two players who can win this off their own bat: Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Munster. Mitchell will be itching to have a crack after missing the Bunnies battle suspended and will be salivating at the prospect of reintroducing himself to his Origin speedbump Will Chambers, shoving the Storm sledgers verbals back down his throat via his fend, speed and brute strength. Latrell is lethal and if he has a day out the Tricolours can triumph. In Cameron Munster the Storm hold the player who performs his best football in this cauldron and can turn the back to back attack dreams to reality. Munster can do it all and has the luxury of Cam Smith and Brodie Croft to steer the Storm, freed up to inject himself into the action when he sees fit with the slashing Slater swooping behind and the best finishers in the game Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr waiting on the wings for a cut out pass or deft grubber. If any side can break down the ruthless Roosters, it is the might of Melbourne via some Munster magic.

The Conclusion:

There’s been nothing between these sides all season, prone to poor completion rates but defined by demon defence combining with awesome attacking artillery it will be the side which handles the occasion and wins the big moments that will come up trumps. Premierships are decided by small margins tipping the scales the Storm have the know-how to produce on the biggest stage, won’t be overawed and Cooper Cronk, the one Rooster who holds these elements in his makeup, is most likely missing. Melbourne to make history winning back to back titles sending their champion Billy Slater out on the finest possible note.

Storm by 2

NRL Finals Week Three Results

Storm 22 Sharks 6; Roosters 12 Rabbitohs 4