With eight teams on a bye this week, round 17 will kickoff with a Thursday night top-4 clash, when the Melbourne Storm take on the league leading St George-Illawarra Dragons at AAMI Park in Melbourne in what is sure to be a blockbuster.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
The Storm are coming off the back of four straight wins, including last week’s 9-8 nail biter over the Sydney Roosters in Adelaide. After their previous two wins came by 18 and 16 points respectively, last week’s game against the Roosters was one of the more tightly contested games of the season. The two teams were locked at 2-2 at halftime, and the first try wasn’t scored until the 59th minute when Nelson Asofa-Solomona broke the deadlock. The Roosters responded quickly with a try of their own through young winger Matt Ikuvalu. For the next 16 minutes the game was tied at 8-8 and looked destined for golden point, until Storm captain Cameron Smith nailed a long distance field goal to guide his side home in the final minute of the game.
St George Illawarra Dragons
After their own round 13 bye, the Dragons have won their previous 3 games coming into this one, however all 3 wins have come against teams currently outside the top 8. They made it difficult for themselves last week, as they were forced to come from behind to beat the Parramatta Eels in a rain-soaked battle at WIN Stadium. The Eels jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, but Dragons fullback Matt Dufty was able to finish off a great team try to make the score 12-8 going into the break. It came down to the final few minutes of the game, but the Dragons were able to find the match winning try when Dufty scored his second of the night under the posts to secure a huge 20-18 comeback victory in what was a big scare for the ladder leaders.
The Storm have lost a number of key players to Origin duty for this clash, including Billy Slater, Will Chambers, Cameron Munster, Tim Glasby, Felise Kaufusi and Josh Addo-Carr. Young Tonumaipea, Justin Olam, Ryley Jacks and Cheyse Blair replace them in the starting lineup, with Joe Stimson moving to the starting back row and Brodie Croft coming onto the bench.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The Dragons will travel to Melbourne without many of their stars as well with Tyson Frizell, Jack De Belin, Tariq Sims, Paul Vaughan and Ben Hunt all being selected for Origin. They are replaced in the starting side by Darren Nicholls (who will debut at halfback), Leeson Ah Mau, Luciano Leilua and Blake Lawrie, with Hame Sele and Reece Robson coming onto the bench.
This will be the second meeting between the two teams this year. Their previous meeting was in round 9, when Dragons centre Euan Aitken scored 2 tries in a convincing 34-14 win over the Storm at Jubilee Oval. Josh Addo-Carr scored all three of the Storm’s tries in that game, so they will need to look elsewhere for some points come Thursday night, in the hopes of scoring some more points against a solid Dragons defence giving up 15 points per game this year. This game will have a slightly different feel to it, as both teams will be without many of their stars who were selected to play in Origin Game 3. Never the less, the Storm will be looking to defend their home ground and stay in touch with the top 4, whilst the Dragons will be looking to keep their 3 game win streak alive and extend their lead at the top of the competition ladder.
The key battle in this game has got to be the battle of the two captains, Gareth Widdop and Cameron Smith. These two are former teammates, so both will have an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s games. With both sides being depleted this week, look for these two to lead their teams from the front and take on some extra responsibility with the play-making duties. Goal kicking could be a big factor in this game if it is close, and these two will be going head-to-head in that regard as well as two of the best goal-kickers in the competition.
Interestingly, both players played a significant hand in their side’s respective match winners last week. Cameron Smith kicked the winning field goal for the Storm against the Roosters, and Gareth Widdop put through the kick for Matt Dufty to score with 4 minutes remaining to complete the comeback against the Eels. If this game goes the distance, these two will most certainly be the players in the spotlight with the game on the line once again.
The Dragons are yet to win a game at AAMI Park in Melbourne, losing all four games they have previously played at the venue.
Melbourne Storm: 1 Young Tonumaipea, 2 Suliasi Vunivalu, 3 Cheyse Blair, 4 Curtis Scott, 5 Justin Olam, 6 Ryley Jacks, 7 Jahrome Hughes, 8 Christian Welch, 9 Cameron Smith (c), 10 Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 11 Joe Stimson, 12 Ryan Hoffman, 13 Kenny Bromwich
Interchange: 14 Brandon Smith, 15 Tui Kamikamica, 16 Patrick Kaufusi, 17 Brodie Croft
Reserves: 18 Scott Drinkwater, 19 Lachlan Timm, 20 Albert Vete, 21 Sandor Earl
St George Illawarra Dragons: 1 Matthew Dufty, 2 Nene Macdonald, 3 Euan Aitken, 4 Timoteo Lafai, 5 Kurt Mann, 6 Gareth Widdop (c), 7 Darren Nicholls, 8 James Graham, 9 Cameron McInnes, 10 Leeson Ah Mau, 11 Jacob Host, 12 Luciano Leilua, 13 Blake Lawrie
Interchange: 14 Jeremy Latimore, 15 Jason Nightingale, 16 Hame Sele, 17 Reece Robson
Reserves: 18 Patrick Herbert, 19 Jai Field, 20 Jordan Pereira, 21 Mitchell Allgood
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Thursday July 5th
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Kick-off: 7:50pm AEST
WHO WILL WIN?
Despite the Origin stars missing this game, it still has the makings of a Thursday night blockbuster. It’s going to be a close game, with both teams are very well matched for talent across the park. The Storm will be looking for revenge after the Dragons beat them earlier in the year, and they always seem to play better at home. Add that to the fact the Dragons have never won at AAMI Park, and the Storm may just have the slight edge they need to come away with a win in this one. Storm by 2.