Hello everybody and welcome to the most satisfying feast of footy of the season, preliminary final weekend. First up we have live coverage of Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders. Kick-off at Suncorp Stadium is 7.50pm (AEDT).

It’s a mouthwatering match-up to determine the first of this season’s grand finalists. Melbourne Storm are here again, they’re always here. Under Craig Bellamy’s leadership they have become an NRL winning-machine with an irresistible capacity to get the job done season-in season out. And not for the first time in recent years they face Canberra Raiders, the club that just refuses to give in. Led by the indomitable Ricky Stuart the Raiders have bounced back from a cruel grand final defeat at the end of last season, survived a host of injuries that would have derailed a lesser side, and now stand 160 minutes away from a first title in 26 years despite ending the campaign fifth on the ladder.

Melbourne, operating at near full capacity and well rested after a week off, will begin as favourites. They won back in round nine, the last time these sides met, they dominate in Queensland – winning their past 19 matches in the Sunshine State, and they have a clear advantage at their temporary home of Suncorp Stadium with the Raiders not tasting victory at the venue since 2010.

Key figures have all shown good form in recent weeks with Cameron Smith showing no signs of slowing down, Ryan Papenhuyzen blossoming into an Origin certainty, and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui demonstrating he is more than an impact substitute. Cameron Munster has been passed fit to start at five-eighth and there’s even a chance vice-captain Dale Finucane could return from a calf strain. As the Storm prepare to end the most incredible of eras, Smith and Bellamy will see this as a golden opportunity to leave Victoria on the highest of highs.

The Raiders thrive as underdogs. They defied the odds to reach last year’s grand final, they upset the Roosters last time out, and they have been going against convention all season, brushing off injury after injury to hit the finals in peak form. They’ve only lost one of their past nine matches and are playing a brand of unpredictable effervescent footy that is a nightmare to defend against. Even Trent Robinson and his formidable Roosters had no answers to the Green Machine last time out with Josh Wighton furthering his case to be named finals MVP, Josh Papalii showcasing why he’s the only forward shortlisted for the RLPA player of the season award, and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad matching the great James Tedesco metre for metre.

The match-up will hold no fears for Stuart’s crew. The Raiders defeated the Storm 22-6 in Melbourne in round three, while in the first week of finals last season they snatched victory at the death at AAMI Park (in fact, tonight will be the third time in five years this fixture has occurred in the playoffs). But if Canberra are to celebrate a first premiership since 1994, they will have to buck a long trend. In the previous 13 finals series all but one (Cowboys 2015) premiership has been claimed by a qualifying final-winning side from the top four on the ladder.

Among the many subplots tonight the longstanding friendship between the rival coaches will get plenty of attention. After crossing paths during their playing careers in the nation’s capital the relationship between Bellyache and Sticky is as close as can be envisaged in such a cutthroat environment. Both spoke to Margie McDonald at NRL.com during the week, each providing uncharacteristically sentimental insights into their characters. “In the end it is only a game of football,” Bellamy said. “We have a little tradition that the winner brings a beer into the loser and we meet as friends – we don’t rub it in.” As for Stuart: “The hardest thing is that I love him as one of my close mates, and usually when one of your mates wants something you try to get it for them.”

I’ll be back in a short while with line-ups and whatnot. If you want to get in touch at any point, you can reach me on Twitter or email.

428 NRL appearances ago a skinny teenager took his first steps into first grade rugby league.

source: theguardian.com

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