Andrew Pelechaty previews the qualifying final (first v fourth) at AAMI Park.
TEAM FORM GUIDE
A week after sealing the minor premiership, Melbourne (20-4) warmed up with a comfortable win over North Queensland, extending their AAMI Park record to 9-3. Despite resting a few players, the Storm won 26-18, scoring four tries (Sandor Earl, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Will Chambers, Max King) and leading 12-4 at halftime. It was a good tune up for the finals and demonstrated the Storm’s professionalism and experience. The 12,000 crowd was good considering they were competing with the massive AFL qualifying final at the MCG.
With a top four spot secure after the big Golden Point win at Shark Park (and Parramatta winning last Friday night), would Canberra (15-9) finish third or fourth? Canberra responded by resting a few stars for the Warriors game back at Bruce. They led 20-12 in the second half after Michael Oldfield’s great runaway try (which sadly ended in injury), but tries to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Blake Green gave the Warriors a surprise 24-20 win. Canberra finished fourth, a letdown after working so hard against fellow finals teams this past month. The bigger controversy was Hudson Young’s apparent eye gouge. It was a bad look for a player who’s already served five weeks for an earlier eye gouge.
Just one change for Melbourne, with Cameron Munster returning.
Melbourne Storm’s squad: 1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Will Chambers 4. Justin Olam 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Brandon Smith 15. Tui Kamikamica16. Max King 17. Joe Stimson.
Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad, John Bateman, Jordan Rapana and Iosia Soliola return after a week off, while Joey Leilua returns from suspension.
Joe Tapine (ribs) and Corey Horsburgh (knee) are in doubt, while Hudson Young looks set to serve a lengthy suspension.
Canberra Raiders’ squad: 1. Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad 2. Jordan Rapana 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Joey Leilua 5. Nick Cotric 6. Jack Wighton 7. Aiden Sezer 8. Josh Papalii 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Iosia Soliola 11. John Bateman 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Joe Tapine 14. Bailey Simmonson 15. Dunamis Lui 16. Corey Horsburgh 17. Ryan Sutton.
HEAD TO HEAD
The round 22 game between these two was memorable for Canberra fans. In a vital top four clash, Canberra looked gone trailing 18-0. A double to captain Jarrod Croker, and the winning try to Josh Papalii, sealed an unlikely 22-18 win. Despite that win, Melbourne have dominated Canberra, with 31 wins to 12 since 1998.
Cameron Smith vs Jarrod Croker
The battle of the goalkicking captains at AAMI Park. Cameron Smith is the ultimate professional, and will be getting ready for another finals campaign, motivated by last year’s grand final loss to the Sydney Roosters. The list of records Smith has broken is almost as amazing as Steve Smith single-handedly carrying Australia to Ashes victory. Expect Smith to ramp up the intensity on Saturday night.
While Croker is a Raiders legend, there have been murmurings about his goalkicking (with a 74.6 per cent conversion rate this year). He kicked just two from five against the Warriors, but kicked two from two at Shark Park the previous weekend as Canberra erased a twelve-point deficit, as well as three from four in the last win against the Storm. Croker is likely to break almost every Raiders record before he retires, but he’ll need to stand up to get Canberra one step closer to a coveted grand final. Croker does have premiership-winning form, playing in Canberra’s under 20 Toyota Cup team in 2008.
THE IMPORTANT DETAILS
Date: Saturday September 14th.
Venue: AAMI Park, Melbourne.
WHO WILL WIN?
While Canberra won the last clash, expect Melbourne to increase their intensity for the finals. Was Canberra’s loss to the Warriors a momentum killer following a tough month of footy, or a minor stumble? The important factor is finals experience: Melbourne haven’t missed the finals since 2010, while Canberra haven’t played since 2016. Though Canberra welcome back their big names, Melbourne should be too professional and will book a home preliminary final.
Melbourne by six.