If their record against NRL finals rivals over the 26 premiership rounds this season is anything to go by, Melbourne Storm are the team to beat in the battle for the premiership.
In a head-to-head breakdown of matches this season between the eight finals team, the Storm have emerged with easily the best record of 8-4.
Premiership outsiders St George Illawarra have the worst record: 4-9.
Canterbury will have to rely on all of coach Des Hasler’s finals experience because their 4-7 record against their fellow title contenders is the second worst.
If not for two early season losses to Manly, when the Sea Eagles were running last, a defeat to Wests Tigers, when they were on the bottom of the NRL ladder and a capitulation to wooden spooners Newcastle, the Storm could have claimed a top two finish.
As it is they have proven to be big game performers throughout the season.
Storm have flown under the proverbial rugby league radar for much of the season. But with one of the NRL’s most seasoned performers in Cameron Smith at their helm, they can give the finals a real shake starting with Friday’s qualifying final with Sydney Roosters at Allianz Stadium.
Storm’s long-time rivals Manly’s upset win over Cronulla on Sunday opened the way for Melbourne’s top four finish. Utility Ryan Hinchcliffe said the Storm were determined to make the most of it.
“Manly did us a bit of a favour by beating the Sharkies yesterday … It’s a huge advantage for us to finish in the top four,” Hinchcliffe said.
“It’s an advantage but it’s only an advantage if we use it. We’ve got a big challenge coming up here on Friday night against the Roosters who have shown they’re the form side of the competition in the second half of the year.”
The loss of fullback Billy Slater due to a season-ending shoulder injury suffered during State of Origin was expected to be a blow to the Storm’s title aspirations. But Cameron Munster has more than capably filled the fullback role at Melbourne including key roles in crucial late-season wins over top eight sides Cronulla, North Queensland and Brisbane.
“We were always confident and Bill’s an important part of our side but young Cameron Munster has been able to come in and do a really good job for us and we never try to rely heavily on one person,” Hinchcliffe said.
Cronulla boast the second best record: 7-4. Skipper Paul Gallen said they would lean on that following their upset loss to the Sea Eagles in the final round of the regular season.
“We are in the finals now, there are a lot of other teams who would love to be where we are and we have to make the most of it,” Gallen said.
“We can certainly take confidence from the way we have played against the other finals teams during the year.”
The Bulldogs have played in two of the past three grand finals and will have to call on all that experience, after some disappointing efforts against their finals rivals during the season.
The Bulldogs have won five straight heading into September but captain James Graham warned past finals success was no guarantee of victory in their elimination final against St George Illawarra on Saturday.
“We can’t just go out there and expect it to happen,” he said.
Top two sides the Roosters and Brisbane both boast 7-6 records against their finals rivals this year. South Sydney are 6-6, North Queensland are 5-6.