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Finishing sixth in the regular season, the Melbourne Storm have suddenly hit top form at the right end of the season. Last weekend, after trailing the Brisbane Broncos 8-0 at half time, the Storm came back to decimate the locals 31-14 in front of 31,000 people.
With five eighth Scott Hill and half back Matt Orford both in tremendous form, the southerners are looking hard to toss. Outside of the Storm halves are the likes of Matt Geyer and a potential match winner in fullback Billy Slater.
Their opponents for this Sunday's sudden death semi-final are the Canterbury Bulldogs.
By all accounts, the Bulldogs should be favourites to take out the match. Along with the Sydney Roosters, the Canterbury side have been the team to beat in 2004. After 26 rounds, the Bulldogs finished on 42 points, equal with the minor premiers Roosters outfit. But despite this, the Bulldogs were out-enthused last weekend, going down 30-22 to ?red-hot underdogs?, the North Queensland Cowboys who simply ran their more fancied opponents ragged. It?s hard to see the Bulldogs allowing the same thing to happen two weekends in a row. Nevertheless, it does raise questions in the minds of the average punter.
To compound the seeds of doubt, the Bulldogs may take the field with an injured five eighth in Braith Anasta. Half back Brett Sherwin is also under an injury cloud. In a desperate bid to be cleared for Sunday's semi-final, Anasta trained this week, running and kicking despite being hampered by a knock to the sternum, an injury he sustained in last weekend's loss to the Cowboys. Without Anasta, the Bulldogs will be going into this match below-strength and provide the Storm with a sizeable advantage in the halves. With Johnathan Thurston and Reni Maitua, standing by as potential replacements, Bulldogs fans will be hoping Anasta gets the green light.
If the Canterbury halves are allowed some room to attack, they?ll have the likes of Willie Tonga and hard running winger Matt Utai highlighting a star-studded backline. In particular, the Bulldogs appear to have the edge in the centres.
Up front, the Storm have plenty of muscle with Robbie Kearns, Stephen Kearney and Rodney Howe all experienced campaigners. Hooker Cameron Smith will also play an important role as the Storm look for room up the middle. Keep an eye on David Kidwell who, when he keeps his cool, is hard to stop, especially just wide of the ruck. But overall, the Storm pack will have to contend with a more mobile unit which includes Mark O?Meley, Willie Mason and Andrew Ryan. If the Bulldogs are to win, they will rely on their skipper one of the form props of the year in Steven Price.
Nevertheless, if Storm coach Craig Bellamy was taking notes last weekend, we can expect to see the smaller Melbourne men take on the defence up the middle of the park.
Both sides will be looking to the interchange for impact. With a number of players hitting form, the bench looks good on both sides. And as the pressure mounts, Bulldogs sensation Sonny Bill Williams may just be where coach Steve Folkes will find the edge he needs.
In what is shaping up as a close encounter, the result may come down to goal kicking. The Bulldogs also have an advantage in Hazem El Masri who has so far kicked an incredible 125 goals in the 2004 competition.
TEAMS SUNDAY 19 SEPTEMBER 2004 CANTERBURY BULLDOGS v MELBOURNE STORM Aussie Stadium at 3.45pm BULLDOGS: Luke Patten, Hazem El Masri, Ben Harris, Willie Tonga, Matt Utai, Braith Anasta, Brent Sherwin, Mark O'Meley, Adam Perry, Steve Price (c), Willie Mason, Andrew Ryan, Tony Grimaldi. Interchange: Reni Maitua, Corey Hughes, Roy Asotasi, Sonny Bill Williams, Johnathan Thurston (one to be omitted). Coach: S Folkes STORM: Billy Slater, Matt Geyer, Steven Bell, Ben MacDougall, Matt King, Scott Hill, Matt Orford, Robbie Kearns, Cameron Smith, Rodney Howe, David Kidwell, Stephen Kearney (c), Dallas Johnson. Interchange: Alex Chan, Ryan Hoffman, Antonio Kaufusi, Cooper Cronk, Steve Turner, Jeremy Smith, Robert Tanielu (three to be omitted). Coach: C Bellamy
Referee: Paul Simpkins.
FORM GUIDE Melbourne: Played: 25, Won 14, Lost 11 (Points for: 715, Points against: 531) Bulldogs: Played 25, Won 19, Lost 6 (Points for: 782, Points against: 521) Head to head: Played 15, Bulldogs 10, Melbourne 5. Previous clashes in 2004: Melbourne 22 d Bulldogs 12 at Olympic Park (Rd 24) Bulldogs 25 d Melbourne 18 at Sydney Showground (Rd 18)