Will the Dream live on ? Saturday night at AAMI is the Eels’ first grand final. “It’s getting tickly now - squeaky-bum time,” to quote the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
The meta-human Storm machine are rightful favourites at $1.38 to $3.00. On paper, historically and statistically – the Eels have no right to win. The Storm are still the benchmark - the no.1 defence and no.2 attack. That's premiership material.
But, the game is played on grass over 80 minutes, men against men.
Last week, the Eels massacred and embarrassed the once-mighty Broncos 58-0 in a bloodbath, where they were hungry and skilled. And, the Storm were upset by the Raiders in a spiteful match they Storm could have and perhaps should have won. But, the Raiders were aggressive, bustling and hustling on their way to victory.
Last week’s form suggests the Eels may within nuclear striking distance of upsetting the Storm at AAMI, in a night game – which would not be any less an incredible sight than, perhaps, when Moses parted the Red Sea.
A factor could be the weather. The predicted rain won't help the Eels razzle dazzle hot-potato football, and make it a little harder for us.
The Eels haven’t beaten the Storm for 2 years anywhere – losing the last 3 straight.
The Eels have only won 2 from the last 9 matches against the Storm – in 7 years. But, interestingly both those wins were at AAMI at night (22-6, R18, 2017; R14,2015).
The last time they met in the R9 very un-magic round at Suncorp it was a 64-10 bloodbath to end all bloodbaths. But a lot’s happened since then. Including, last week’s Eels record breaking rout of the Broncos 58-0 which should give the Eels confidence and some momentum to counter the might of the Storm.
Also, alarmingly, the Eels have yet to win an away match against a top-8 side this year – night or day.
Storm’s night record is much better (14W-5L) than ours (7W-8L).
The Eels have lost 5 from 6 away games at night.
The only away game at night the Eels have won was against the wooden spooners (Titans, R22, 36-12 at CBUS). Even at Bankwest, the only two games they have lost were at night.
And there is bad blood. The 2009 Grand Final loss sums it up. From the Eels of 2009 only Tim Mannah remains at the club – and I wonder whether he will be at the ground, like he was last week’s Broncos finals’ match – refusing to do any media interviews, despite requests by various journalists. He remains largely quiet these days (though he spoke at the Gala dinner recently – refusing to mention Brad Arthur when he was reflecting on all his years at club).
But, perhaps it’s some superifical comfort knowing the losing margins in finals matches between the Storm and Eels have always been close to date: 2, 2,6, 7, 10.
Another interesting note is that the Storm have now lost 2-straight finals games since last year’s GF. In their proud 22 history over 47 finals appearances (every year except 2001-2,2010) that is only the third time that has happened. Are these the symptoms the Storm are losing their once almost invincible aura? Some statistics at AAMI add weight to that argument.
Storm: good home record at AAMI; but are they becoming more vulnerable?
The Eels don’t have a happy record at AAMI, last winning here 2-years ago: 22-6, R18, 2017.
The last time the Eels played at AAMI they lost 20-4, on a Friday night, R23, 2018.
This year, Melbourne has now third best home record in the competition at AAMI (9W-4L behind us and the Roosters) after last week’s loss. They were the equal best before that.
Also, after the Storm’s tight loss against the Raiders last week, there are suggestions Melbourne are looking a little vulnerable at home – losing 3 from the last 5 at AAMI – albeit, by tight margins (1-4 points) to the Roosters, Manly and Raiders.
Storm have lost 5 games all year – 4 of those were at AAMI to top-8 sides: Manly, Roosters, Raiders twice.
Also, the Storm almost lost to the Tigers, Dogs and Warriors too, just piping those three between 1-2 points. Don’t forgot the Eels only two wins against the Storm in 7 years were at AAMI too. And this new look Eels have yet to play at AAMI year.
Melbourne will aim to make a statement: can we go up a few more gears?
With their home record slightly tarnished and losing the last week’s final match - Melbourne will want to make a thunderous statement and draw a line in the sand on Saturday night.
The Storm machine doesn’t malfunction nor get beaten all too often – especially twice in a row or more. They are the heavyweight champions of bounce-backs.
The Storm only lost 2-matches-in-a-row - twice over the last 4 and-a-half-years - since R19, 2015.
And they like to belt teams in their bounce-back week. One just has to go back to R8. We had just come off a reasonable win at home (Dragons,32-18) and the Storm had just lost a tight game ( Sharks, 20-18 away). The next week Storm went nuclear. They also belted other teams right after a loss (Broncos 40-4, R20, 2019).
Fast starts and half time comebacks, against top 8 teams
Much has been made of the fact that the Eels need to make a ‘fast start’ to the game – like last week, jumping to 16-0 after 21 minutes and a 24-0 half time score. Gus Gould has on more than one occasion (over the years) called the Eels “the fastest starters” in the competition.
Considering the Storm will want to make a statement it’s very likely they will try and blow the Eels off the park early on like they did in R9, being up 14-0 after 22minutes, Munster starting the rout, leading to an unassailable half-time lead of 24-6.
The Eels haven’t come back from many half-time deficits this year.
Both comebacks were home games and were in the game at half-time behind no more than 6 points. The Canberra game was our best comeback this year we were down 16-0 after 31 minutes, but we were in the game at half-time only 4 points behind.
Consequently, the Eels will need to be in the game early on and at half-time, or ahead preferably – to give themselves a decent chance.
Blueprint to victory: Attacking with and without the ball
Raiders, Manly, Sharks and the Roosters have shown us a blue print to beat the Storm. Attack both with and without the ball.
As Blue and Gold noted: "Don't let them play their game".
Those 4 teams that conquered the Storm - won on the back of aggressive bustling, hustling, confronting, up-in-your-face, take-no-prisoners defence and creative footy taking the opportunities presented because you won’t get as many as the Broncos offered us last. Those teams also offered outstanding attacking kicking games especially near the line – and exploiting Storm’s right hand defence. It won’t be surprising if that’s the exact game plan the Storm will adopt on us, as well.
The Eels will need to match or win the battle of collisions against the Storm and be physical. A few weeks ago I would have thought that next to impossible, but after last week I'm not so sure.
Against the Broncos - we did just that. Our defence was aggressive, energetic, working together, not bunched in the wrong places and with great work off the ball. This allowed us to dominate the Broncos in the ruck, and across the park, eventually submitting. Then our attack was free to roam largely unimpeded, even with Haas trying his best and coming up with some incredible try-saving tackles. The long-30m spiral passes, constant lightning quick switching from left to right, right to left, then sometimes back into the middle, including switching cross-kicks from Moses and Brown – was a sizzling display. What makes rugby league great.
We’ll need to up the ante as the Storm won’t allow us as much latitude for 30m spiral passes switching points of attack.
And we’ll need Moses’ goal-kicking to be on – to take every opportunity.
Lucky the finals are a different beast to the regular season, as statistically, the Eels defence is the worst from all the remaining contenders (Melbourne conceded 52, Roosters 60, Raiders 65, Souths 74, Manly 78, Eels 79). Meanwhile, Melbourne have the second best attack and the Eels the third-best attack (Roosters scored 114, Storm 105, Eels 101, Raiders 90, Manly 89, Souths 83).
Eels Right side is the best up against the best left-side defence
The Eels still have best right side attack of remaining teams (Eels scored 41 tries, Manly 33, Roosters 30, Raiders 29, Storm 27, Souths 22) with Moses.
But it’s up against the best left-side defence this week (Storm conceded 13, Roosters 18, Manly 20, Eels 22, Raiders 30, Souths 32). So, too - our left defence is reasonable. Vunivalu’s dangerous right wing hasn’t been as effective as it was when Cronk was running the show, but Hughes, Munster, Smith will still likely try a few kicks for the Fijian giant – and it’s started to click lately. That should be an absorbing battle with Sivo. As should the other side.
Sometimes the Left is right
With the likes of Munster and Josh-Addo-Carr, it’s not surprising Melbourne have the second-best left side attack – whilst the Eels with Sivo, Jennings, Lane, Dylan offer the fourth best (Roosters scored 56, Melbourne 50, Raiders 41, Eels 39, Souths 34, Manly 33).
We can expect a lot of left-side attacking focus and switch-plays because the right-side defences of both the Storm and Eels have conceded the most tries and both teams have second worst RHS defence from the 6 remaining teams (Sydney concede 21, Raiders 22, Souths 28, Eels 32, Storm 32, Manly 41 worst). This side should be an absorbing battle with the Eels’ dangerous right edge of Ferguson, Blake, Moses, Ma’u pitted against Olam, Addo-Carr and the superstar Munster.
The Storm has been vulnerable to aggressive defence and a quality left-hand attack that catches them off guard:
- In R6 - at AAMI the Roosters shot to a 20-0 lead after 31’, largely to Mitchell and Tedesco terrorising the Storm’s RHS. And a sublime Keary grubber near the posts on the line, setting up JHW, just before he looked to set up his left side for another raid. Roosters ended up winning 21-20. Storm didn’t offer as many chances after that.
- In R8 - the Sharks followed a similar blue-print winning 20-18. Their left-side scored two tries to Kotoa and Uele. Then their third try was via a Flanagan grubber near the posts, on the line, setting up Nikora.
- In R19 - at AAMI Manly did it to them again winning 11-10. Manly shot to a 10-0 lead at half-time off a left-side try through a great DCE bomb and two penalty goals.
- In R22 - at AAMI Raiders also came from behind being 18-0 down after 29’. The Raiders comeback came from you guessed it: it started via quality left-hand side attack. Two Croker tries. Polished off by a RHS Rapana magic to get Raiders, before a stretched Storm defence let Papalii score under the posts in the 76’ to secure an incredible win 22-18.
- Last week in AAMI the Raiders scored down their left and were behind 10-6 for almost 77 minutes until a late opportunist try to Bateman. That winning try could be put down to Tapine’s brutal hit on Addo-Carr causing him to lose the ball near the line. Again the same mantra: attack with and without the ball.
Storm’s Middle will be dangerous
Unsurprisingly, Melbourne’s middle attack, orchestrated by Cameron Smith, is the best in the competition ( Storm scored 28 through the middle, Souths 27, Manly 23, Eels 21, Raiders 20, Roosters 18). The Storm will try to do some damage through our middle defence which is the worst from al 6 teams (Melbourne 7, Raiders 13, Souths 14, Manly 17, Roosters 21, Eels 25), wand second worst right side is equal with Melbourne as the second worst defence of the remaining 6 finalists (Manly have the worst).
We’ll need to really watch Storm’s middle threats especially: the two Smiths, , Finacune, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Bromwich to a degree, and Papenhuyzen who roams and adds another deadly dimension to their attack. Nathan Brown, Mahoney and the middle guys will be busy. But we saw last week we might have some middle attack of our own to add headaches to the Storm.
The Storm will almost certainly try to throw everything they have at us. And we will need to use our defence to attack them – to allow our attack the opportunity to use their skills.
This match has everything. Bad blood. Theatre. The dreams of two clubs are at stake. Both sides should be ready to play high-skill, high-octane, aggressive physical games. Also, perhaps history has room for karma.
Whilst, stats and history, by and large, points to a Storm win - it’s not beyond the Eels; as shown by last week's form guide. They have the dazzling attacking game both in attack and defence to beat the Storm. But the Eels will need to up the ante from that.
At the very least we should be full of confidence that we can do it. Gibson knew confidence was always the key - more important “than talent”.
Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked when players were confident they felt they could “climb Everest in their slippers”. This week the Eels are climbing Everest in slippers. Also, others have conquered the Storm. And part of that is the Eels conquering their own inner-demons and their all-too-often soft-under-belly when it counts - which they appear to be in the process of, as shown in a emphatic fashion last week. Completing redemption from the horrors of 2018 and the limp 2017 finals campaign.
But, this week is a greater challenge. Can they up the ante and the hunger when the pressure is on, against the might of the Storm? That will give us a clearer indication, as Melbourne will be hungry to show they have still got it.
Will the Eels' dream live on?