NRL Semi Finals – Week 2, Part 2

Storm vs Knights

I had to pause before I wrote that. Knights?

Yep, that’s them. The team whose form was going downhill faster than Franz Klammer on a winter’s day in Kitzbuehl. The team whose form couldn’t even be described as mutton dressed up as lamb because it was more roadkilll dressed up as mutton.

The Knights nearly blew a Top 8 spot blessed with one of the easiest draws in the NRL  six weeks out from the finals. If they had played any team other than the foundation stone of the NRL ladder in Round 26, it’s debatable whether they would’ve made it all!

For all intents and purposes, they looked to be to the NRL semi finals what the chiko roll is to the culinary world.

And yet, there they were last week, and here they are this week, one of the five remaining teams and still not having beaten a Top 4 team, but expected by some hardy souls to go on a tear and beat three of them consecutively.

As romantic a notion as that may be, I won’t be lighting a candle and preparing duck a l’orange for them tonight. Maybe a chiko roll. Parramatta made them look like world beaters, and the Bulldogs last week followed on from a Round 26 defeat by the Broncos – the Broncos! – to remind everyone they were a tired team. Tired of a long season, and tired of each other, especially the troublesome little hairdresser at fullback.

From about the 10th minute mark last Sunday the Doggies wouldn’t have beaten an egg, but the Knights are somehow being anointed as the team ‘on a run’ having beaten them. I guess each finals series needs the underdog to capture the public’s imagination seeing as they can’t seem to be bothered actually going to a game, and the Knobbly Knights fit the bill now that the Cowboys lost on a TKO decision.

Now, I like an underdog, particularly an old one with old tricks whose leg shakes when you tickle them on the tummy. And I can appreciate the concept of experience being invaluable, or some other similar cliche, but I’m not sure what Dane Gagai is going to do with pointers on ‘feet across’ and ‘loose arms’. And what the hell is ‘shepherding’?

We are about to see a fast-starting Knights get taught a lesson in finals football, I think. I seem to remember them having a bit of experience too!  Beating Melbourne in a finals context is going to be harder than chewing a mouthful of hair.

The Knights have lost their last 7 games against the Storm, and haven’t won at AAMI. The sheer weight of finals experience within the Storm team, and distinct lack of it in recent years at the Knights, should become quite apparent during the match, even if the stats this year are remarkably similar in many respects. Who’d have thought?

The following numbers are expressed (per match, mostly) as Knights/Storm (you’ll see what I mean):

They receive and give about 6 penalties per match.

Both teams make about the same amount of runs (159/158) and tackles (317/320), and miss a similar percentage of them (8.3%/7.3%).

Sets per game average around 38, and they complete similarly (78.3%/76.5%).

Errors are 9.3/10.5, and line breaks 4/4.8.

Tries are almost matched at 96/102, and ‘net’ tries are 22/27.

And yet, the Knights can’t crack them! Still, the equality of these metrics and recent close games mean that Melbourne won’t be taking them lightly, and will be on higher alert than Jessica Simpson on a cold night.

A lot is being made about the coach, Wayne Bennett, but I think he and Craig Bellamy cancel each other out to the point of dropping it entirely as a subject. In terms of TV viewer entertainment though, Bellamy is a cracker. I’m praying for some dud calls and will have popcorn at the ready. I just hope Kevin Walters has a chamois for the perspex.

As I see it, the Knights will be hoping for a match where the play-the-ball is as slow as last night’s Manly-Sharks game given the Storm thrive on speed (not that kind …). And they will be hoping to control over 50% possession because they are a team that thrive with the ball (they can’t win the ‘Roosters way’), while doing relatively poorly if they are asked to defend for extended periods.

And the idea floating about that the Storm looks vulnerable is preposterous on its face. Here’s a team that put 60 points on two different teams within a month, is beaten controversially by the Rabbitohs, but is suddenly ‘out of form’. Sorry, but they will be far too classy for the Knights, and a ferocious match for the Roosters Next week.

Here’s another stat, but one that splits the teams like an enormous wedge – the Storm have played only 9 matches out of 24 with possession under 50%. The Knights have played 15 with less possession than the opposition. As Gussy would say, “That’s finals football!” As we all know, possession is 9/10ths of the law, and illegal in most jurisdictions (depending upon who you know), but in rugby league, it is a considerable virtue.

How quickly people forget the Big 5 (where I include Hoffman and Chambers). It’s a bit like looking at the Raiders team in the 80s and 90s in the context of talent pool. Smith and Cronk lay a fast platform for the likes of the other members of the Big 5 to menace opposition defences while the other storm trooper clones make sure the defensive structure is tighter than a fish’s backside.

The odd fart joke is guaranteed to break big Willie Mason’s concentration, while waving a prescription pad usually does the trick to a few of the older gentlemen on the Knights roster. If that doesn’t work, a few undetectable forward passes back on the inside will do the trick, or sending a few troops BJ’s way, whose strength is not counting.

The Knights have more potential to make things happen in their forward pack as far as I’m concerned given the presence of Mason, Scott and Smith. They are unpredictable, but can generate some awesome forwards rolls at times. The Storm? Well, they’re very effective, but workmanlike.

The Knights’ real thrust and danger to opposition sides is, of course, the enormously gifted Jarrod Mullen, who is just one letter away from mullet, and one exceptional game from locking in a major preliminary final. Now, rugby league players are a funny lot, and it seems it only took a masterful comment from Wayne Bennett to unleash his full talent. If only previous coaches had thought of this before!

Melbourne will want to watch his scheming ways that ignite his pacy and elusive backline, but he would be a lot more effective if he ran more often. after all, he is strong, he has pace off the mark, and has an arse in the Joey Johns mould. These critters are pretty hard to tackle when they’re covered in reef oil.

Like last night, this match looks set to be eventful, skilful and pulsating. I think the Storm will prevail well in the end, but have some nervous moments in the 3/4s of the match.

Enjoy. I will be!

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