The Melbourne Storm are one of the most consistent sides the game has seen. Nine finals series in 10 years this decade, four grand finals and two premierships. All whilst dealing with a generational change amongst their playing group.
But they aren’t the invincible juggernaut they once were. For the first time since 2014 when they lost to the Bulldogs at AAMI Park, they’ve been beaten in the first week of the finals. That year they were eliminated immediately, having finished sixth. In 2013 they also lost in the first week of the finals, bowing out the following week to Newcastle in Melbourne.
However in 2015-2018 they were undefeated in the first week of the finals, making the grand final on three of those occasions.
The Canberra Raiders have, in the space of a few weeks, defeated the Storm in Melbourne twice and provided a blueprint that the Eels can exploit in this weekend’s sudden-death semi-final.
Their first try in the qualifying final, illustrates perfectly how to upset the normally robotic Storm defensive line.
They begin by punching down the middle with their two biggest players in Sia Soliola and Dunamis Lui, sucking in three Melbourne defenders on both occasions and forcing their defensive line to compress.
Then they go through the hands, down their right edge with a set play, allowing Joe Tapine to make easy metres and again sucking in three defenders including Cameron Smith who is usually in the middle.
Melbourne defend their line with their fullback in the defensive line to try and prevent overlaps, what happens here though, is Tapine’s run has messed with the Storm’s defensive numbers. They line-up with four men defending their left edge against only three Raiders.
They do realise this but the pass from Charnze Nicholl-Klokstad means Melbourne’s attempt to shift defenders to the right is playing catch up.
What the Raiders do incredibly well and it’s a tactic also used by the Eels, is they avoid the settling tackle on the following play. Instead of finding a middle forward to have a dig at the line, they immediately throw passes to their left edge.
Good hole running by Elliott Whitehead holds up the Melbourne defence in the form of Jahrome Hughes and as already mentioned, they’re effectively one man short on their right edge because of Tapine’s run.
The Storm’s default setting is to come up and in on their line to try and cut the play off. But the amount of time afforded to Jack Wighton because Melbourne’s inside defenders are too busy pushing across rather than coming up means that Vunivalu is left stranded between Cotric and Simonsson. In the end the Fijian makes effectively no decision and Simonsson crashes over.
Here’s the play at full pace:
Now the Eels like this left edge sweeping play as well. It’s usually anchored by Dylan Brown who has the option of hitting Clint Gutherson out the back or Shaun Lane at the line. Brown has also got a nice grubber in his arsenal.
Looking at Maika Sivo’s first try against Manly, the Eels go to the line with a three man short side, up against a three man defensive line. Sivo’s presence means winger Brendan Elliott can’t drop back otherwise he risks retreating against an oncoming opponent that he won’t be able to stop. Brown notices this, notices the lack of a fullback and puts the ball on the deck for Sivo to score.
For Sivo’s second, the Eels flood the short side using a number of moving bodies and the addition of Brad Takairangi whose size, footwork and unpredictability virtually freezes the Manly defenders on the inside. This time Elliott squeezes on Michael Jennings, Gutherson picks out Sivo who bulldozes the fullback, Reuben Garrick to score.
All of this space, however, relies on the Eels middle forwards at the very least holding their own. If they lose the middle, they lose the ability to shift the ball quickly and isolate defenders on the edge.
The Storm clearly aren’t unbeatable, but the Eels will have to play with the enthusiasm and energy they showed throughout the 80 minutes against Brisbane.