Round 22: Storm v Sharks preview
Acrimonious foes resume hostilities in Melbourne
Previously clashing in the worst spectacle of rugby league seen in recent memory, the rivalry between the Sharks and Storm is set to recommence on Sunday afternoon with the 2016 grand final combatants eager to push their respective claims in pursuit of another premiership.
Establishing a dominant lead against South Sydney last Friday night only to be outclassed by the new competition leaders during an emphatic second half display at ANZ Stadium, the Storm will be out to bounce back in a rare Sunday afternoon appearance at home. Holding an imposing record over Cronulla at AAMI Park with seven wins from eight matches contested at the rectangular venue, coach Craig Bellamy will be quick to remind his players of the sole loss early last year during the low-scoring grand final rematch played in trying condition. With nine Melbourne players remaining from the team beaten 14-12 in the 2016 decider, the passion on display from both teams should be palpable for spectators, especially given the simmering tensions remaining from the infamous Good Friday meeting played earlier this season. Despite being interchanged with the result beyond doubt against the Rabbitohs, Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith has been named to take his place at hooker, while after missing the 30-20 loss due to personal reasons, prolific winger Suliasi Vunivalu is set to return in place of Cheyse Blair.
Squandering a prime opportunity to press for a top four finish by allowing the lowly Sea Eagles to snatch victory in golden point last Sunday, the Sharks will be out to make amends with a stronger defensive performance against the reigning premiers. Showing enterprising attack to post their largest score at home in two years, the attacking positives will be of little consolation for coach Shane Flanagan given the worrying signs of conceding 33 points against a team battling to avoid the wooden spoon. Coming into the Round 22 fixture with consecutive losses for the first time since April, there has been a noticeable decline in quality from the Sharks in the weeks following State of Origin with a succession of results raising concerns as to whether the 2016 premiers are capable of making an impact come September. Having limped into the finals twelve months ago with two wins from their last five matches, the chance to make a statement against one of the competition heavyweights should prove telling in where the Sharks stand within the premiership hierarchy. Despite the disappointment of last Sunday, the Sharks have retained the same 17 players with Valentine Holmes being preferred ahead of Josh Dugan at fullback.
Who to watch: Having revolutionised the impact a hooker could have on the outcome of a match since debuting in first grade 16 years ago, Cameron Smith will be out to assert his class on the evolving Melbourne Storm roster in the run towards September. Playing alongside established halfbacks Matt Orford and Cooper Cronk for almost the entirety of his NRL career, the 35-year-old has been of greater importance to Craig Bellamy's squad in 2018 with a revolving cast of inexperienced playmakers producing varying results for the reigning premiers. Demonstrating his class to step up and secure two competition points with game defining plays regularly throughout the season, the incumbent Dally M recipient will be out to bolster his claims as the greatest of all time by leading the Storm to back-to-back titles for the first time in over two decades.
Missing from the Sharks line up during the Round 4 meeting of the two sides at Southern Cross Group Stadium, Matt Moylan has gone from strength to strength since establishing his place in the number six jersey for Cronulla. Proving to be a constant menace for opposition defences with an attacking skillset capable of scoring points through footwork, ball playing and with the boot, the former Penrith star has thrived in his change of scenery, appearing to be more relaxed alongside a number of senior players while benefitting without the added pressures of captaincy. Having struggled to establish a permanent position early on in his time under Shane Flanagan, the 27-year-old Australian and New South Wales representative has been at the forefront of the Sharks transformation from early season battlers to competition dark horses. With meetings between the two sides being notoriously close in recent times, Moylan's ability to land a field goal could prove invaluable in the context of Sunday's match and the Sharks overall season.
The favourite: With the fitness of Cameron Smith having a major bearing on the market for Sunday's fixture, the inclusions of the esteemed hooker has Melbourne favoured at home.
My tip: In a contest pitting two of the dominant teams of recent years together, the prospect of a high quality affair should be the least for audiences to expect on Sunday afternoon. Separated by two competition points on the premiership ladder, the stakes at play could see the result go beyond 80 minutes. Storm by 1.