Friday, 22 February 2013

2013 World Club Challenge Preview

Freezing cold in Leeds tonight for the World Club Challenge, the regular showpiece match between the champion clubs of each hemisphere. Analysing the clash for the blog is regular contributor James Jack, @materialista27, who may just have a slight bias against Leeds; I'll leave that one for you to decide. You can read more of his work on his blog although it seems an irregular stream of content...

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2013 World Club Challenge Preview

Leeds Rhinos vs. Melbourne Storm
Headingley Carnegie Stadium
Friday, February 22nd 2013. 20:00 GMT


It's that time of year again where League fans on the other side of the world huddle around their radios to listen to their Champions, having triumphed through the previous NRL season travel to the old country to take on Leeds. This year it's the turn of the Melbourne Storm, coming off their “first” Premiership in over 10 years, the Storm come seeking their “second” WCC title.

This game is often referred to as Leeds vs. NRL (this may actually be the first time) as Leeds have featured in four of the last five renewals of the WCC, splitting those match-ups with Manly and Melbourne.

LEEDS RHINOS
So, Leeds. Well clearly they have the upper hand in this clash as the Super League season has already started, with Leeds picking up wins against Hull FC and Salford and losing to Castleford. They will also have home advantage as the WCC has been held in England every since 1998. The 1997 WCC was a farcical 22 team tournament which put the future of the competition in doubt, while the previous title was held since Wigan's victory at the old ANZ stadium in Brisbane in 1994. Not only do the Rhinos have a home advantage in this tie, they also have the “world's greatest player” in Sir Kevin Sinfield of Oldham. Sinfield has dragged this Leeds team to the majority of their success behind a strong pack and straight running backs that only seem to play organized and successful rugby in February, September and the first Saturday in October. Another thing to consider when looking forward to this clash of titans (but not shoulders) is that the “famous” Headingley pitch was relaid in the winter and in true Yorkshire style, many locals complained about the £1m cost. This is the first new pitch at Headingley since 1963, and despite the obvious need to provide a quality playing surface for our Australian visitors, the Rhinos declined to renovate their crumbling relic of a stadium with the uncovered West terrace and the 80+ year old South Stand getting a reprieve from modernization yet again, much to the delight of the whippet-fancying masses.

Leeds Squad (from):
Watkins, Moon, Hall, McGuire, Burrow, Leuluai, McShane, Peacock, Jones-Buchanan, Ablett, Sinfield (c), Ward, Delaney, Kirke, Clarkson, Achurch, Moore, Keinhorst, Vickery.

The main dangers to Melbourne are Danny McGuire, Ryan Hall and obviously Sir Kev. McGuire will be playing in his 300th game for Leeds and has racked up 224 tries, particularly impressive for a half back. Although he's lost a step of pace since his debut 12 years ago, McGuire is still a threat, especially as he has a knack of popping up on the inside when one of the outside backs makes a break, and more often than not, his tries are walk-ins under the posts. Hall can legitimately referred to as one of the world's best wingers, and with the exception of Wigan's Sam Tomkins and the world's best Sir Kev, Hall would be the only English player to make it into a World Dream Team. While McGuire may be Super League's all-time leading tryscorer, Hall is catching him at an alarming rate. With 100 tries in 119 appearances, the maths graduate will be a big danger on the wing and may cause problems for Melbourne's Mahe Fonua. Kevin Sinfield is clearly a cut above the rest on this field, and having watched him first hand drag Leeds into the Super League grand final, he then almost single-handedly beat Warrington at Old Trafford to lift his 5th Premiership. Despite being the world's greatest Five-Eighth, Sinfield has also played at hooker, lock, second row, full back, goalkeeper, defenseman, third-base and whatever other position he likes, although not quarterback as Danny McGuire usually plays there. He often referees games and although he may not be afforded that opportunity in this game, that won't stop a man like Sir Kev. Leeds will miss recently converted fullback Zak Hardaker, who sits this one out with a broken thumb.

Leeds will look to bulldoze Melbourne in a way that Canterbury couldn't in the Grand Final and key to that will be 40 year old prop and Great Britain captain Jamie Peacock. I would expect coach Brian McDermott to set his team's stall out to punish the Melbourne pack for five tackles then ask Sir Kev to make Storm fullback Billy Slater chase his kick on the last. Leeds will also try to pin Melbourne into a corner and force the error then spread the ball wide to Hall, Ben Jones-Bishop, Kallum Watkins and homesick Joel Moon to attack the in-experienced Fonua, Justin O'Neill, Will Chambers and elder statesman of the Storm back-line Sisa Waqa. If they can implement this game-plan and limit the effectiveness of the Melbourne spine, they will have a great chance of becoming the most successful side in WCC history.

MELBOURNE STORM
Melbourne came over last week to acclimatize to the British conditions and trained in London for a week before traveling to Leeds via Huddersfield where most of their squad took in the Super League game between the Giants and Brett Finch and Ryan Hoffman's old club Wigan. The Storm are yet to play a competitive match this season and during their trial matches, they have featured mixed squads of young players including the U20s and a sprinkling of experience. This game will be their 4th appearance in the WCC and 3rd in the past 6 years, losing 11-4 to Leeds in 2008 and “winning” the title in 2010 with a 18-10 victory over the Rhinos. Both of those game were played at Elland Road, so for many in the squad, this will be their first taste of Headingley. Interestingly enough, the two players who have featured at Headingley Finch and Hoffman have never lost there, playing out a 22-22 draw in 2011 and Finch's last visit resulted in a 50-8 victory. Good omens for anyone wearing purple tonight. The Storm have a good mixture of youth and experience with the average age of the starting 13 just over 25 with the elder statesman of the side Billy “The Kid” Slater. Despite the youth on display, the starting line-up have accrued 75 international caps as well as 60 Origin appearances and there are two Golden Boot winners; Melbourne, Queensland and Australia captain Cameron Smith and Billy Slater. They also boast England five-eighth of the future in Halifax lad Gareth Widdop who will add to his total of 8 caps whenever the world's greatest player steps aside.

Melbourne Starting Line-up:
Slater, Fonua, O'Neill, Chambers, Waqa, Widdop, Cronk, J Bromwich, Smith (c), Norrie, Harris, Hoffman, Hinchcliffe Replacements (from): Ryles, Finch, Vave, Moors K Browich, Setu

Melbourne were successful last season by grinding out the hard yards and playing mistake free football then allowing Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater to bamboozle defenses from 20m out. That formula has served them well and although they may be lacking in match sharpness, once the forwards get a few carries under their belt, they'll be ready to perform. The ability to offload will be key for Melbourne as Leeds have a tendency to tackle by mob in order to attempt to set the tone in these big games, and running at Jamie Peacock has to be their aim. Although he has been a class player throughout his illustrious career, he is vulnerable and if the Storm can isolate him and force him to make 40+ tackles in this game, he'll be spent. Another key to Storm victory is limiting Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow, Burrow especially has a lightning dart of pace and cannot be allowed to run from dummy half. The markers will have to be alert at every play-the-ball and get Burrow to ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. When defending their own line, the Storm must be careful not to buy any of McGuire's dummies and look to defend the flat pass to an outside runner cutting back across the field. These predictable moves from the Rhinos seem to be missed by all of their opponents in the big games, and should Melbourne neglect to pay attention to them it may be their downfall.

VERDICT
This has all the hallmarks of a classic (well I would say that wouldn't I) the experience and “been there before” know-how of Leeds against the youth and international star quality of Melbourne. Burrow vs Smith, McGuire vs Cronk, Sinfield vs Widdop. There are key match-ups all over the field, but this game will be won and lost in the same place it always is, the pack. Melbourne have the physical ability and experience of a much quicker game to dominate Leeds. If they can maintain a quick play-the-ball and offer regular service to the outside backs, then the excellent kicking game of Cronk, Widdop and Smith should put them over the top. The Storm showed in the Grand Final that they have plenty of bite and determination, while an appetite for defense under the stewardship of Craig Bellamy continues. This is the team that shutout the Doggies in the second half of the NRL Grand Final, Slater is one of the greatest fullbacks to play the game and second only as a defensive fullback to Kris Radlinski. Leeds will come out of the gates fast and look to rile the Storm and involve the Headingley crowd, Sinfield will once again come to the fore and direct his troops all over the field. Do not be surprised if they force a couple of goal line dropouts early and pin Melbourne in their own 20 for large periods of this game. In the end the difference for me is the play-making ability of the Storm spine. Cronk and Widdop in the halves creating overlaps and holes in the Leeds line for the back five to exploit and Smith's kicks from dummy half to Slater in the in-goal have been a highlight of their play and that will continue in this game. Leeds are a champion side and they won't go down easily. Sinfield won't allow that to happen, and with big performances from Peacock, Hall, Burrow and Jones-Buchanan they will be in this one for at least 60 minutes. An accurate kicking game is always key in a game of this magnitude and with the world's greatest five-eighth, Leeds will be able to turn the Melbourne pack around time and time again and make Slater return the ball from inside his own 10m line. If Burrow and McGuire are allowed to consistently make meters from the play-the-ball, then the big Leeds forwards will be able to take the Rhinos close to the Melbourne line and with Hall on the field, there's a chance they can score at any time. The rotation of impact forwards for Leeds will allow them to continue to hit the ball up at pace and like with Melbourne, if they can offload in the tackle, there will be mismatches out wide and Moon, who has been in impressive scoring form now that he's closer to Sydney has the pace and ability to get through the Melbourne line.

At the end of this match, I think Melbourne will come out on top, and I think their defensive ability will allow them to beat the spread and with the game-breakers in their side, I think they'll have too much firepower for this aging Leeds side.

ADVICE
4 pts Melbourne -6.5 points (Evens William Hill)
2 pts Melbourne to win by 6-10 points (5/1 BlueSquare)
2 pts Mahe Fonua first tryscorer (10/1 Paddy Power)
1 pt Joel Moon first tryscorer (16/1 Paddy Power)
0.25 pts Ryan Hall first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 6-10 points (45/1 Bet365)
0.25 pts Mahe Fonua first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 11-15 points (45/1 Bet365)
0.25 pts Joel Moon first tryscorer and Leeds to win by 1-5 points (50/1 Bet 365)
0.25 pts Ryan Hoffman first tryscorer and Melbourne to win by 11-15 points (115/1 Bet 365)

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