Parramatta return to the finals for the first time since the 2009 grand final, and who better to welcome them back than the side who defeated them on that day, the Melbourne Storm. Melbourne have played in 13 finals since then, only missing the 2010 finals series due to the salary cap breach.
Last Time Out
Melbourne head into this years’ finals series on the back of seven straight wins and were convincing winners over Canberra last week (32-6). Melbourne never looked troubled against the Raiders as they notched up win number 20 for the season despite resting forwards Dale Finucane and Tim Glasby.
Melbourne raced to a 20-0 lead after 20 minutes and a repeat of the previous week’s romp against the Rabbitohs looked on the cards. But with possibly one eye on the finals Melbourne took their foot off the pedal and when Canberra scored in the 58th minute through Jordan Rapana the game was back on, but Melbourne scored two late tries to run away with the match. Coach Craig Bellamy was relieved to get through the game with no injuries and the players enjoyed being presented the JJ Giltinan Shield for finishing as minor premiers.
Parramatta also seemed to be thinking about finals football last week and almost slipped up against the Rabbitohs after trailing twice in the match. Parramatta started well with a try to Michael Jennings inside 10 minutes but from that point on were in an arm wrestle.
Parramatta were a shadow of the side that had put 50 points on the Broncos in the previous round and were lucky to get away with the win, a loss would have cost them a top four spot and a second chance in the finals. One player who resumed where he left off against the Broncos was Eels winger Semi Radradra, scoring a hat-trick against the Bunnies after crossing for four against the Broncos. Semi will leave the NRL after this finals series to take up a rich deal in French rugby and although he has left the door open for a return Radradra is primed to leave the NRL with a bang.
It’s easy to sit here and say the game will be won or lost in the forwards because that’s generally how it goes, a side can’t win a game if they lose the forward battle and with the two in-form sides of the competition matching up, both forward packs will be ready to go.
Instead let’s look at the other key match-ups, starting with the battle of the flying Fijians Semi Radradra and Suliasi Vunivalu, who will match up on the wing. Both players have amazed fans this season with their impressive athleticism and freakish ability to find the tryline. Vunivalu leads the league with 23 tries with Semi not far behind on 20 and with this game set to be tight towards the end it could come down to either of these fine finishers to produce something special and score the winning try.
The other match up that will be vital is in the ‘key positions’ or the ‘spine’. For the Storm they have Billy Slater, Cameron Munster, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith who bring so much experience and composure to the side; despite being still quite young Munster has shown he can step up in the big matches as he did in his origin debut earlier this season. The ‘Big Three’ have done it all before at club and Origin level, they know what is needed in these types of games and won’t be intimidated by the occasion.
On the other side, Parramatta’s spine have played three games together as a combination after Will Smith became the third fullback used this season by coach Brad Arthur, hooker Cameron King has come into the side after Kaysa Pritchard was injured, whilst halfback Mitch Moses has played just the 14 games for Parramatta since crossing over mid-season from the Tigers.
Despite the massive mismatch on paper, the Eels’ spine holds the key to causing a huge upset. Moses and five-eighth Corey Norman have a formidable combination in the halves since Moses’ arrival, which has sent the Eels on an impressive run, winning 11 of 14 matches.
The Eels’ pack have punched well above their weight all season and should be able to match the Storm pack so it will come down to which side’s key players can handle the big moments better and who can put on a play to possibly give Radradra or Vunivalu a chance to score the winning try.
Coach Brad Arthur will know his side can’t win the game in the first 20 minutes but they sure could lose it if they let the Storm get away to a fast start, Melbourne have done it so many times before and if Parramatta aren’t careful they’ll be down 18-0 before they’ve even touched the ball.
Melbourne are primed for this occasion, they’ve been the best side all season and after losing last year’s grand final they have that burning desire to go one step further. If Parramatta can go with Melbourne early they can take the game down to the final 10 minutes and then it’s anyone’s game, but I expect the Storm to control the game early and despite the fact the Eels will fight back I predict Storm to win by 10 points.
There has been plenty of talk surrounding this match about Cameron Smith breaking the all-time record as he goes past fellow Queensland great Darren Lockyer (355 matches), the NRL has even got a special medal to present to Smith after the match.
Smith has remained focused on the match though and rubbished claims Melbourne are home and hosed this season. Smith talked about being through similar situations before and knows just because they finished the season first doesn’t mean they can cruise to the final.
“We’re in a new competition now and whoever is the best team over the next month will win the premiership,” claimed Smith.
The coaches also have been swapping barbs at each other with Brad Arthur again bringing up the Storm and their wrestling tactics in the play the ball, Bellamy took offence to the comments and returned serve.
“Brad made the point f they’re allowed to come down and play Footy, well at the end of the day they can play any footy they like when they come down”.
Melbourne will welcome back forwards Tim Glasby and Dale Finucane after they were rested against the Raiders, whilst Robbie Rochow and Nate Myles drop out of the 17.
Parramatta have named the same 17 that played last week against the Rabbitohs with the only change being Daniel Alvaro will start for Siosaia Vave.
Storm: 1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. William Chambers 4. Curtis Scott 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Cooper Cronk 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Jordan McLean 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Tohu Harris 13. Dale Finucane 14. Kenneath Bromwich 15. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 16. Tim Glasby 17. Slade Griffin 18. Jahrome Hughes 19. Robbie Rochow 20. Joe Stimson 21. Young Tonumaipea
Eels: 1. Will Smith 2. Semi Radradra 3. Michael Jennings 4. Brad Takairangi 5. Kirisome Auva’a 6. Corey Norman 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Daniel Alvaro 9. Cameron King 10. Tim Mannah 11. Manu Ma’u 12. Tepai Moeroa 13. Nathan Brown 14. Beau Scott 15. Kenny Edwards 16. Siosaia Vave 17. Suaia Matagi 18. Kaysa Pritchard 19. Josh Hoffman 20. David Gower 21. Frank Pritchard
Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton. Touch judges: Brett Suttor and Tim Roby. Review official: Ben Galea. Senior RO: Jared Maxwell.
Saturday 9th of September, 4.10pm