Round 17: Storm v Sharks preview
Rivals face off as Smith breaks new ground
Having contested some of the most memorable clashes in recent memory, the Melbourne Storm and Cronulla Sharks will lock horns once again on Saturday evening in a match that sees Cameron Smith become the first player to reach 400 first grade appearances.
Coming away with a hard-fought 16-14 victory over the Dragons in wet conditions last Thursday, the Melbourne Storm will be out for payback on Saturday evening having produced their worst performance of the season against their 2016 grand final foes back in May.
Recording seven consecutive wins in the weeks following the 20-18 defeat at PointsBet Stadium, the competition leaders will strengthen their claims for a third minor premiership in four years with a win against the Sharks after establishing a six-point lead atop the competition ladder.
Describing the occasion as arguably the most important club game in the Storm's history, coach Craig Bellamy will have high expectations of his team, especially in light of the disappointment felt following last year's shock loss to the Tigers in Billy Slater's 300th appearance.
Naming all six representative players missing from last Thursday's win in Wollongong, expect to see changes to the final 17 should injuries strike in the aftermath of Wednesday night's Origin decider.
Desperate to atone for a run of three losses where they have scored more tries than their opponents, the Cronulla Sharks will have no shortage of motivation on Saturday night.
Squandering a ten-point lead to go down 24-22 to a vastly understrength Broncos side last Sunday at home, coach John Morris has opted against making mass changes in responses to his side's inability to close out matches despite calls to drop underperforming marquee players.
Holding an impressive record against the Storm over the past three years with six wins from their past nine clashes, the Sharks have also performed strongly at AAMI Park in recent times to come away with wins in their past two regular season appearances.
Clinging to eighth position due to a superior for-and-against differential, the Sharks will need to improve their completion rates to stand a chance against Melbourne, along with addressing the goal kicking woes that have proved so costly in losses to Canberra, Canterbury-Bankstown and Brisbane.
Who to watch: Making his first grade debut as a replacement halfback while still a teenager in 2002, few could have envisioned the career led by Cameron Smith over the past 18 seasons. Holding a claim to almost every NRL record imaginable, the Melbourne captain will become the first player in more than a century of Australian Rugby League history to play 400 games on Saturday evening. Showing no signs of slowing down despite his status as the second-oldest current player - second only to injured rival captain Paul Gallen - the 36-year-old hooker showed plenty of class to get the Storm home last Thursday in Wollongong with superb game management. Eager to lead the Storm to victory following the disappointment of coming up short against Cronulla back in May, look for Smith to produce a memorable performance befitting his reputation as one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Touted as a star of the future before making his NRL debut, Cronulla speedster Bronson Xerri has shown plenty of promise in his rookie season. Among a host of young players handed a chance at the top level by coach John Morris having come through the club's lower grades, the Australian Schoolboys and New South Wales Under 20s sensation has taken to the NRL in style less than twelve months after helping the Sharks claim their first Jersey Flegg title. Scoring seven tries in 12 appearances since coming into first grade at the start of April, the 18-year-old has provided the Sharks with an attacking threat capable of turning half a chance into points through his blistering speed. Signed up in the Shire for the next two seasons, look for Xerri to stand up against emerging centre Marion Seve in one of the key match-ups on Saturday night.
My tip: While the Sharks will be much-improved following two disappointing performances, the enormity of the occasion should inspire the home side towards a victory long remembered in the club's history. Storm by 14.