Melbourne Storm (1st) v North Queensland Cowboys (4th) @ AAMI Park
The Storm and Cowboys lock horns in an NRL Finals blockbuster at AAMI Park on Saturday night. Currently both sides are rated the two favourites to take out the title and the winner of this game will without doubt become the outright favourite for the title with the right to host a home Preliminary Final in a couple of weeks. Last season the sides met in an explosive Preliminary Final in Melbourne with the Cowboys belting the Storm 32-12 to advance to the Grand Final. The defending premiers will come up against a far more polished and dangerous Melbourne side this year that have added strike power and precision in claiming the Minor Premiership.
The Storm name the same 17 that convincingly beat Cronulla last week in the battle for the Minor Premiership. However big Nelson Asofa-Solomona is free to return from suspension and Craig Bellamy may make him a late inclusion. The Storm will take confidence to the clash having won both contests between the sides this year in gripping low scoring struggles. The Storm won the double-header clash at Suncorp Stadium 15-14, before winning in Townsville 18-8 with Johnathan Thurston missing the clash through injury. The Storm proved in both clashes why they are clearly the best defensive side in the NRL by shutting down the Cowboys attack. The Storm are conceding just under 13 points per game this season and last week they saved a number of tries against the Sharks with their last ditch scramble defence. While the Storm are known for their water-tight defence, it has been their attack that has really improved this season. With two huge threats on the wing in Koribete and Vunivalu and some punch through the middle, the Storm have been able to outscore teams as well as get in the grind as per normal.
The Cowboys are hoping for a huge inclusion with Matt Scott named in the starting side but still in some doubt to take his place. Scott Bolton drops back to the bench with Patrick Kaufusi the unlucky man to miss out. The Cowboys Top 4 hopes looked in quicksand a month ago as they dropped three straight games against the Storm, Tigers and Roosters. However they have since been building their momentum nicely with 3 wins of increasing value against the Warriors, Bulldogs and Titans. It is incredibly difficult to go back-to-back, however crucially the Cowboys do get that double bite of the cherry. The likes of Michael Morgan, Lachlan Coote and Jake Granville will have to do better in attack than they did in the previous two games against Melbourne this year. The Cowboys average just 11 points per game in their 2 losses to Melbourne and will need to find some creativity to get past the Storm's brick wall.
Verdict - What a belter this game will be. I expect this game to have the most intensity of the 4 finals games, in terms of defence and both teams getting in the grind. I do not expect either team to beat themselves or give up cheap tries or have poor discipline. I think these two teams are the best two teams in the competition and will meet again in the Grand Final in October. I am going to give Melbourne the slightest edge given they are at home and will be looking for some revenge after the Cowboys beat them in Melbourne in last year's preliminary final. While I think, like Cronulla, the Cowboys might create more opportunities and look the better side for longer periods, I think Melbourne can frustrate them and be more clinical when given opportunities. I can see these teams scoring 3 tries each and the margin never being greater than about 8 points for either side. Storm to win it with a late penalty goal. Storm by 2.