It was only a month ago that Wests Tigers faced off against the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park, with the visitors stunning the home crowd for their second straight victory to start the year — a potential warning shot for what was to come in 2018.
Three weeks later and Ivan Cleary’s side can count themselves unlucky not to be sitting on top of the ladder with an undefeated record; a controversial Golden Point defeat to the Brisbane Broncos in Round 3 standing the only blip on what has been an otherwise perfect start to the year.
While many might have penciled Wests Tigers in for a less than perfect record given their tough start in 2018, tonight’s game is all that stands between Cleary’s men and a remarkable four-and-one record — an achievement that would be quite special given the quality of opponent they've faced in the first five weeks.
Melbourne will be hungry after last week’s loss and desperate to correct the wrong from Round 2, but will that be enough to stop this new-look Wests Tigers outfit tonight at Mount Smart Stadium?
Here’s the five biggest storylines you need to keep an eye on…
1. Can Wests Tigers do the unlikely… twice?
They were the heaviest underdogs of any game so far in 2018, but that didn’t stop Wests Tigers from springing the mother of all upsets when they went down to Melbourne and stunned the Storm in Billy Slater’s 300th. They might not be quite the outsiders this time around, but Melbourne are still short-priced favourites in terms of odds for this one — meaning Wests Tigers will need to do the impossible twice if they are to do the double over the defending premiers. In history, Wests Tigers have never won twice against Melbourne in the same year, while the Storm haven’t been beaten twice by the same side in a year since the Sea Eagles in 2015 — a record that could well fall later tonight.
2. Will Melbourne lift for another milestone game?
We all know the record that Melbourne have in their milestone matches, and there’s been no shortage of special occasions for the Victorians so far this year. Slater and Kenny Bromwich both had milestones when the two sides met in Round 2; this week it’s Craig Bellamuy (400 games as Storm coach) and Ryan Hoffman (250 club games) who are being celebrated. Comments from the Storm camp after the defeat to Wests Tigers earlier in the year reflected how disappointed they were in failing to win that milestone game, so expect the visitors to be even more focused when they take the field tonight.
3. What’s the go with Cameron Smith?
The rugby league world went in to shock last week when Cameron Smith — arguably the greatest player in action at the moment and potentially even of all time — was sin-binned for the first time in his 15-year career. The Storm slumped to a disappointing 14-4 loss to the Sharks as a result, with the Storm skipper officially taking over the mantle as the most penalised player in the league so far this year in the process. Interestingly, he didn’t kick goals in that game, and reports suggest that the champion hooker will again hand duties over to Joe Stimson as he battles a minor quad injury. The niggle is not expected to keep the veteran off the field for today's game, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on late mail and even the substitutions later this afternoon with young gun Brandon Smith potentially set to take time off his namesake. We’re not for a minute going to doubt Smith and his ability to break a game wide open — even with a niggling injury — but it’s definitely an interesting storyline to keep an eye on this afternoon.
Final training run in Auckland!
4. How will the five-day turnaround affect Wests Tigers?
On the surface, Wests Tigers have perhaps the toughest test in rugby league this week when they face the defending premiers, in New Zealand, off the back of a five-day turnaround. The short break isn’t ideal at the best of times, but when you throw in a flight and fan activities tomorrow for the NRL’s doubleheader, preparation time hasn’t been in abundance for Coach Cleary this week. This is a more resilient Wests Tigers side in 2018 with added experience across the board, so expect them to handle the challenge well. Having said that, if it’s a tight game as expected with 10-15 minutes remaining on the clock, those extra two days of training will certainly come in handy for the visitors from Melbourne...
5. What will the penalty count be?
We don’t want to hark on about penalties here, other than to say it’ll be fascinating to see if both sides are pinged as much as they have been in previous weeks. Wests Tigers infamously had 18 penalties against them when they took down the Storm in Melbourne earlier this year — a number Craig Bellamy’s side incredibly surpassed last week with 19 infringements against Cronulla. Cleary’s men were much more disciplined on Easter Monday against the Eels with just three penalties against them, and you get the feeling that if they are going to spring another upset here, the penalty count will need to stay low. By now, all players should know the strictness that referees are bringing this year, so hopefully we can have a nice, free-flowing game of footy that showcases the attacking talent and skill we know is in both teams.