Who will it be on Sunday? The Bulldogs or the Storm?
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OPEN FOR DEBATE: The verdict from Storm man Michael Winkler and Dogs fanatic Daniel Ramus on the NRL decider
Our NRL writers Michael Winkler and Daniel Ramus have been on board for every thrilling second of the Telstra Premiership season and it just so happens they stand on opposite sides of the Melbourne-Canterbury divide.
Who else better to analyse 2012's biggest game than a Melbourne-based Storm fan with a keen feel for the game (Michael) and a born and bred Bulldog (Dan) who boasts an encyclopaedic knowledge of the sport?
Read on for their last words on why both Cameron Smith and Michael Ennis are red-hot shots at raising the premiership trophy on Sunday evening...
Why the Storm will win
Experience. Class. Destiny. These factors will carry Melbourne to victory.
The Bulldogs are an outstanding team, with seasoned players performing better than ever before (Krisnan Inu, Frank Pritchard, Greg Eastwood) and emerging superstars playing superbly (Ben Barba, Josh Reynolds). They are shrewdly coached, they have the best pack in the NRL, and blistering backline pace.
Despite this, they will be beaten by a side that is slower, boasts fewer stars and will have scant crowd support. The grand final is an overwhelming occasion. Some players freeze. This won't happen to the wise old heads of Melbourne, who will not let the occasion beat them. This is true of Billy Slater who will be playing his fifth grand final, but also true of greybeards Bryan Norrie and Jaiman Lowe who are playing their first.
The vaunted 'big three' form a winning trifecta superior to anything rugby league has seen. Everyone knows that Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are Melbourne's key, but their professionalism and resilience overcomes every attempt to blunt their combined effectiveness.
Slater started 2012 in scintillating form, was pole-axed by a knee injury, but has slowly returned to his best. He was good in the first final against Souths, and very good in the preliminary final against Manly.
Smith is arguably the most valuable player in the sport, soaking up a huge workload in defence, controlling the tempo of the game from dummy-half, and providing steady leadership. His goalkicking was awry in the first half against Manly, and he will need his kicking boots on for the decider.
Cronk is a new age halfback but he is just as tough as the terrier No.7s of the past. Against Manly he showed his ruthless side by exploiting the deficiencies of winger Jorge Taufua. Cronk's long kicking game is excellent, his short kicking game is precise, and his work ethic is first class.
Other key players are Ryan Hoffman, who has returned to Australia an even better backrower than when he left; Gareth Widdop, who plays a well-tuned second fiddle to Cronk; and bench players who can bend the defensive line (Lowe, Richie Fa'aoso) or punch holes in it (Sika Manu).
As for destiny – it's Melbourne's time to erase the horrors of the salary cap scandal. This group has a shot at redemption. They've earned it. Their coach deserves it. It's time to erase the heartbreak and return to glory. - Michael Winkler
Why the Bulldogs will win
With all the talk about the two sides' ability to wrestle, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a WWE bout rather than an NRL grand final on Sunday.
Referees' boss Bill Harrigan often kept his whistle in his pocket while officiating in grand finals. Presumably, he'll give the men in charge on Sunday the same directive. If he does, this is likely to play into the Bulldogs' hands.
The Storm will rely on the dummy-half scoots of Cameron Smith and carries from the forwards one or two passes wide of the ruck to eat up metres. If the referees allow wrestling, Melbourne's style of game won't be difficult for Canterbury to nullify, provided they keep a close watch on the big three late in the tackle count.
On the other hand, the Bulldogs' attack won't be hindered to the same degree if Melbourne slows the ruck down. Their fearless tendency to move the ball from side to side on any tackle, in any part of the field will enable them to target the weaker defenders in the Melbourne line, isolate them, and make more metres as a result.
Even if the Storm hold the Bulldogs down in the tackle, Canterbury have the strike power and game structure to create opportunities for themselves, rather than rely on quick play-the-balls to provide them with chances. Their depth in attack helps them in that area.
With the exception of Ben Barba, Canterbury could replace any player if an injury occurred without upsetting their structure. The same can't be said of the Storm. If Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk or Cameron Smith go down early with a game-ending injury, as Adam Reynolds did for the Rabbitohs, it will curtail the effectiveness of other two superstars, given they'll need to cover the loss, and it could well be curtains for Melbourne.
Canterbury coach Des Hasler worked out very quickly how to beat the Storm in a grand final during his time with Manly. Only 12 months after the Sea Eagles were thrashed 34-8 by Melbourne in the 2007 grand final, Hasler guided Manly to a 40-0 mauling over the Storm in the 2008 decider.
The Bulldogs play with a strikingly similar game plan to the one that was used by the Sea Eagles in '08. Manly ripped the Storm to shreds by going through the hands often, unsettling a Melbourne line that looked far more comfortable when defending against teams who ran one-out off the ruck.
The Storm was one-dimensional in attack that day too, and was easy prey for the Sea Eagles with their one-out running.
Yes, 2008 was a long time ago, but the style of Melbourne's game has changed little since then. - Daniel Ramus
The views in this story are those of the authors and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.
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