Storm v Raiders preview

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Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders Saturday 7:35pm at AAMI Park

The NRL's return hits Melbourne on Saturday night as the Melbourne Storm play host to the Canberra Raiders in what is set to be a tough clash as the season resumes for two of last season's top four at AAMI Park.

Melbourne have started the season with two wins in the opening two rounds - first over Manly where they impressed late at Brookvale, then went back-to-back with a scratchy win over Cronulla at Kogarah prior to the season suspension. The form of the opening two rounds is important to build on for the Storm who always start a season well and it could be expected that they would do that with this season restart.

The resumption of the season is set to be a test for the Storm who had their attempts to recommence their 'pre-season' hampered, having to spend a controversial period in Albury after COVID-19 restrictions meant that they couldn't start training in Victoria - and then were not welcomed in Albury with a local council motion banning them from the use of public grounds. Now comfortably back at home after a lifting of Victorian restricitons, the Storm will also need to deal with the changing rules that look like they could have a big effect on the grinding game that the Melbournians like to play.

The Raiders have also started the season with an unbeaten opening fortnight, with wins against the Titans at home in Canberra and the Warriors away on the Gold Coast. The upcoming clash against Melbourne will be their toughest match to date and will be a big test to restart the season. Last year's runners up will be looking to build on the form from those first two matches.

The season suspension has been mixed for Canberra, with several players coming into the anti-vaccination debate that hit the league, as well as the recent off-field contract drama featuring John Bateman. Onfield though, these matters shouldn't pose too much trouble. While he's not named in the 17 this week, the Raiders have been boosted by the return of Jordan Rapana who is back from a very brief stint in Japanese Rugby.

The Raiders have actually taken victory in both the last two clashes between the sides, with the latter of those two victories being in Week 1 of the 2019 NRL Finals Series, delivering the Raiders a home preliminary final.

Last meeting: Finals Week 1 2019 - Storm 10 Raiders 12

Who to watch: Storm captain Cameron Smith will be the player to watch given his role as the second referee… (we kid). The Storm captain's work from dummy half will be important given the expected increase in pace of the game, and it will be interesting to see how the veteran provides quicker service out of dummy half. At 36, Smith isn't the sprightliest of dummy halves the League has, but his service is still one of the best in the game and will be a big benefit to Melbourne.

Englishman Josh Hodgson has been a revelation in the 9 jersey for the Raiders since moving to Australia. Hodgson has an uncanny knack of being able to find the weak spots out of dummy half for Canberra, and with the extra importance of the rake in the new "faster" game, his running from the play-the-ball and service to his big men is going to be ultra-important. The other factor that Hodgson is lethal at is the sneaky 1-on-1

The favourite: Melbourne have been installed as the heavy favourites to win the game given their dominance at AAMI Park.

My tip: The Storm's strong record at AAMI Park not withstanding, the Raiders have won their past two matches over the Storm with both having been in Melbourne. The Raiders look to me as if they will be able to exploit the faster game better than the Storm. The game will be tight, it will no doubt be fiery but the Raiders should take it narrowly. Raiders by 4.

1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Justin Olam 4. Marion Seve 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Brandon Smith 15. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui 16. Christian Welch 17. Max King

1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 18. Jordan Rapana 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Curtis Scott 5. Nick Cotric 6. Jack Wighton 7. George Williams 8. Josh Papali'i 9. Josh Hodgson 10. Dunamis Lui 11. Joseph Tapine 12. Elliott Whitehead 13. Corey Horsburgh 14. Siliva Havili 15. Emre Guler 16. Iosia Soliola 17. Michael Oldfield

Referees: Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials: Todd Smith, Gavin Badger; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Bryan Norrie;

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