Round 9: Dragons v Storm preview
Premiership leaders face off against reigning champions
Disposing of one of the competition heavyweights on ANZAC Day, the Dragons will be hopeful of laying down claims of premiership favouritism by downing the defending champions on Sunday.
Given little hope of vying for the premiership before a ball had been kicked, Paul McGregor's men have been the stand out side of the competition from the opening night with seven wins from eight matches played.
Facing off against a Melbourne outfit the joint venture has experienced a horrific record against, managing just nine wins and a draw from all matches played since 1999, the Dragons hopes of claiming a major scalp won't be enhanced by the UOW Jubilee Oval venue where they hold a 25% success rate over the Storm.
Retaining the same squad that proved too strong for the Roosters, albeit with a flattering 24-8 final score, the only likely change to be made will be the final forward chosen an hour before kick-off.
Having given game time to youngsters Luciano Leilua, Hame Sele and Jacob Host over the first two months of the competition, hooker Reece Robson has been named as the final bench player in what will be his NRL debut. Employing the strategy as a precursor to the representative season where as a result of their strong start to 2018, the side is likely to be disrupted through Origin and International fixtures, the move to use youngsters sparingly early on should pave the way for depth players to prove their worth when truly needed.
While concerns over the way the Storm would handle life after Cooper Cronk proved worrying in the first five weeks of the year, three straight wins culminating in an ANZAC Day massacre has allayed any concerns over the reigning premier's credentials
Posting the highest opening half score of the season against the Warriors, the attacking tour de force on display was not without casualties for Melbourne to contend with.
Receiving mixed news on the selection front, the absence of vindicated QLD prop Tim Glasby has been offset by the return of workhorse Dale FInucance at the back of the scrum. Similarly boosted by the return of Suliasi Vunivalu on the wing, reliable outside back Young Tonumaipea has been included as part of the extended bench as a stand-by for Curtis Scott who was forced off late against the Warriors.
Winning four of their past five contests against the Dragons, the high stakes on offer should evoke memories of a proud moment in the history of the Melbourne Storm. While no current players were active when the side claimed their maiden premiership in only their second year in the competition, the 1999 grand final decided by-way of a bold Penalty Try awarded to Craig Smith and witnessed by an Australian record rugby league crowd of 107,999 patrons should instil a sense of occasion throughout the 17 players selected to resume hostilities with the Red V on Sunday afternoon.
Dragons key player: Highlighted as a player to watch earlier in the year, the prospect of a long-awaited Origin debut is firming in likelihood for Tariq Sims.
Touted as a star of the future following an eye-catching rookie season in 2011, a string of serious leg injuries threatened to derail the bruising enforcer, but through persistence and seizing an opportunity to return to the starting side, the 28-year-old has re-emerged as a serious contender for Brad Fittler's maiden series as coach of the Blues.
Justifying the growing calls for his selection with a succession of dominant showings on the left-edge, Sims appears to be relishing the opportunity of playing in a successful team following a turbulent period in a leadership role at Newcastle and being forced into the middle in his early days at the Dragons.
Branded with the unenviable label of being the ‘next big talent' before he had established his place in the top grade, a more mature Sims has thrived in his capacity as a player capable of making an impact with his actions, without the added pressures of captaincy, while forging a path independent of playing alongside his siblings.
Facing off against Queensland hopeful Felise Kaufusi in a tantalising personal duel, the rampaging second rower will be acutely aware of the need to stand out against the reigning premiers, while ensuring not to overplay his hand with reckless plays that have seen him sidelined for extended periods in the past.
Storm key player: With Melbourne producing a number of athletic wingers who have gone on to higher honours in years gone by, there is a case mounting for Josh Addo-Carr to become the latest member of that illustrious group.
Responsible for providing the likes of Matt King, Greg Inglis and Israel Folau starts in the top grade, Addo-Carr's journey to the Storm originally began in the Cronulla lower grades, before being handed a NRL debut with the Tigers in 2016. Enticed to Melbourne on an extended deal last season, the man affectionately dubbed ‘The Fox' has been embraced by the premiers as one of their own due to his feats with the ball and infectious personality.
Crossing for 31 tries in 35 appearances for the Storm, the 22-year-old has previously been endeared to New South Wales coach Brad Fittler having been handed a call up to the City team by the Roosters legend, who delighted in Addo-Carr's raw speed and proficiency in finding the line.
Adept at embarrassing opposition defences from long range and close to the line alike, the potential to create something from nothing with natural ability will ensure the Dragons keep a close eye on the Melbourne #5 throughout the course of Sunday afternoon, as Addo-Carr continues to press his case as the best man to fill the vacant left wing position for the Blues.
The favourite: With both teams coming into Sunday's clash full of confidence and with an all-encompassing quality to the way they play, bookmakers are unable to separate either side.
My tip: With Melbourne sustaining several key injuries including depleted front row stocks, look for the Dragons to capitalise through their forwards in a game that should go down to the wire. Dragons by 1.