Finals Week 3: Storm v Raiders preview
Storm eye another grand final amid fears of a Raiders ambush
With a grand final spot up for grabs, Craig Bellamy and Ricky Stuart's long-term friendship will count for little when a stealth mode Raiders hit Brisbane seeking another Storm ambush.
Refreshed and holding all the aces, a full-strength Melbourne last tasted defeat back in round 6. Subsequent losses to Parramatta and the Dragons came minus stars including Cameron Munster, whose suspect knee leaves the door ajar for Canberra to repeat last year's finals upset in Melbourne.
Since 2003, Bellamy has taken the Storm to eight grand finals. Now chasing a fourth in five years, of late his former Raiders teammate has caused the most headaches. Although one apiece this season, it's Stuart's nous in orchestrating victories in three of the past four clashes that will be keeping the Storm coach awake at night.
The return of busy bench forward Tom Eisenhuth will temper Bellamy's anxiety. And he'll breathe much easier if Dale Finucane's calf allows the tackling machine to take the field for his 200th NRL game, because if the Storm have a weakness, it's the un-Melbourne like 20-plus points conceded in each of their past four starts.
Marginally better in the defensive department over the same period, Canberra are flying high on a five match winning streak. More importantly, the injury gods have finally smiled on the Raiders who will fly north with the same side that dashed the Roosters' three-peat.
And with last year's Clive Churchill Medalist in Jack Wighton leading the way alongside Josh Papalii, Raiders fans should feel optimistic about a consecutive grand final appearance for the first time since the Green Machine glory days of the early nineties.
On the flipside, with a 20 from 24 strike rate at Suncorp, Melbourne can't get enough of the Queensland sun. Canberra are poles apart with only one win at the venue since 2005. But if 2020 has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected, and with the likes of John Bateman and George Williams the Raiders' unpredictability is in safe hands.
Although no hands are safer than Cameron Smith's, and as the future Immortal rounds out his 19th season, there is every chance this match will be his 429th and last. In the end, it could prove to be the inspiration that puts Melbourne on the road to another grand final.
Who to watch: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad trumped James Tedesco in the clash of the fullbacks at the SCG, now against Ryan Papenhuyzen fans are in for another treat. Having drowned the Eels with a try double, the nippy Storm custodian is sure to burn holes on Ricky's radar. Sizzling with nine try assists in his last four starts, Melbourne will need his best and more should Munster finish the encounter on one leg.
Experts reckon there's no better prop than Josh Papalii. And with mullet bouncing and pistons pumping, for the Roosters the message was clear. Unstoppable with the opening try and an offload for the next, the premiers were left gasping then exiting. It seems the grander the occasion, the better the 10-year veteran performs. Now smashing his own performance benchmarks, he's sure to be Bellamy's priority target.
My tip: Even with doubts over Munster's health, ordinarily a fresh Melbourne would be on target to smash out a 20th straight victory in the Sunshine State. But in Canberra there's something that's difficult to shake. That ‘Sticky' glare, the write us off at your own peril glint. The one that followed Josh Hodgson up the tunnel in round 9 that has motivated the Raiders ever since.
But surely after recent stumbles, Bellamy will recognise the familiar trap. So in what promises to be another classic barnyard stoush, watch for Melbourne to rise from the dust with the converted grand final ticket in hand. Storm by 2.