BRISBANE BRONCOS v MELBOURNE STORM
Thursday September 3, 7;45pm
A blockbuster between two old rivals opens the last round of the NRL season when Brisbane Broncos host Melbourne Storm on Thursday night.
The minor premiership is on the line for the Broncs while the Storm need a win to keep their slim top-four chances alive.
Both Melbourne and Brisbane are coming off important wins against finals opposition and look in good touch. Wayne Bennett’s side dismantled reigning premiers South Sydney 47-12 last round to send a warning shot to the rest of the competition while Melbourne bounced back from a shock loss to the Knights the previous week to record an impressive win at home over the Cowboys.
Bronco’s halfback Ben Hunt will miss with a ‘cork’ sustained at training this week and will be replaced by debutant Ashley Taylor. Hunt has been the star playmaker in the comp over recent weeks and was damaging last week in the big win over the Bunnies. Doubt exists over the legitimacy of Hunt’s injury with many questioning whether he is really hurt or if this is all a Bennett plan to rest his number seven ahead of the finals.
If what many belief is true and Hunt is being rested rather than injured, it’s a massive call Brisbane are making, even more so given his replacement Taylor is off to the Gold Coast Titans next season.
Taylor is one of the most hyped youngsters in the game with big wraps on him, but given he will no longer be at the club in 2016 and is coming up against the game’s premier halfback in Cooper Cronk, his inclusion will no doubt hold some risks.
Melbourne will take the same 17 that defeated the Cowboys into this one with Tim Glasby’s pushed into the starting side at the expense of Jordan McLean who moves to the bench.
Storm remain just in the hunt for a top-four finish despite a horrid home loss Newcastle Knights, who themselves are in a fight to avoid the wooden spoon, just two weeks ago. The last fortnight has highlighted Melbourne’s bizarre consistency issue.
Craig Bellamy’s men looked nothing like top-four contenders when they produced a horror display to fall to the lowly Knights in Round 24 but last week looked like legitimate title contenders against North Queensland, keeping the fourth-best attack in the league to just one try which was scored in the last minute of the game.
The Storm strangely seem to struggle against the bottom teams but excel against the top ones. Melbourne has recorded seven wins over teams currently in the top-eight but have only six wins from 12 games over sides who have failed to make the finals.
There has been some classic battles between these two sides in recent memory and this one looms to be no different. Two sides in prime condition heading to the time of year they love most. This game has beauty written all over it.
Even with Hunt’s absence the Broncos are still an extremely dangerous side with Anthony Milford finally growing accustomed to the five-eight role and a dangerous pack reaching their peak. Plenty of emotion will surround Justin Hodges in his final home game in a Brisbane shirt and will be keen to sign off with not only a big performance but also a win.
Melbourne have the edge over Brisbane in the wins department in recent games and have an incredible record at Suncorp Stadium. The boys in purple enjoy an all-time winning record against the Broncos with 24 wins from 37 matches including eight of the past 10. Brisbane did get the two points the last time they played in Round 15 of this year in a match Melbourne dominated and would have won nine times out of 10. Melbourne is just one of two teams to enjoy an overall winning percentage over the Broncos at 78 per cent, the other side being Manly.
Given their array of Queensland talent its little surprise Storm enjoy playing at Suncorp. Just three losses from 12 visits to the venue make it a happy hunting ground for them, having last lost in the Queensland capital way back in 2009.
With no Hunt in the side Betfair punters have gone right off Brisbane, sitting at 1.77 on the exchange after trading as low as 1.48, as highlighted in the below graph. North Queensland showed last week with Michael Morgan out facing Melbourne down a key half is dangerous stuff and despite Taylor’s potential and Milford’s hot form, no Hunt is a massive disadvantage.
On the flipside exchange punters seem understandably sceptical about getting too involved in a Melbourne side with serious consistency issues. Storm are now 2.28 after blowing out to 2.90 earlier in the week.
Even though these two side have the second and third best defences in the league, attack is their main go. Brisbane has recorded more points than any other side in 2015 and while Storm haven’t had as a prolific year that they are used to (only the ninth best attack), they have the means to put on big scores.
Points have been on the menu in the last four games at this venue between the two with totals of 38, 58, 37 and 51. Given the class of attacking players on park over 36.5 at 1.9 looks likely.
History also gives us plenty of ammunition to get involved in the winning margin market. With four of the past six clashes resulting in wining margins under 12.5, it looks like going ahead again in Melbourne’s favour at 3.65.
As mentioned throughout this piece, Hunt out is a huge blow that Brisbane will struggle to overcome. While they still have two quality halves at their disposal, coming up against Crank is always a huge task that Brisbane may struggle to deal with. Inconsistency has dogged Melbourne all year but it is this time of the year they do their best work.
Melbourne by 8