Manly must break the Storm's rhythm and put them off their game if they are going to win tonight. The way to do this is to attack, attack, attack.
Melbourne own percentage-based footy. They have been the masters of the grinding, field-position game for the past seven or eight years, and it is very hard to beat them at their own style. We saw Souths try this a fortnight ago, and the result wasn't pretty. Manly must learn from this and throw the ball around.
Let's be clear, I'm not saying that discipline and ball control aren't important for Manly tonight, because they are. You can't make a lot of errors and beat the Storm. In fact, you can't make a lot of errors and beat many NRL teams. But running one-out to ensure no mistakes are made won't work either. Making no mistakes and grinding out a win is the Storm's game, and they are very comfortable with that. What they aren't comfortable with is an open, end-to-end type of game. Melbourne like it controlled, they like it predictable - Manly need to make it unpredictable.
This week I heard some expert discussion about how best to score tries against the Storm's strong defence. The view was that the Storm's defence gives the illusion that you can go around them to score points, when in fact you can't. Therefore, Manly should persevere with trying to play through Melbourne rather than trying to spread the ball.
I think it's more subtle than that. When Canberra racked up 40 points against the Storm in round 18, they shifted the ball around the end of Melbourne's line repeatedly. When Manly last played the Storm they scored two tries by going around the end of the Storm's defensive line, one by going through it and one from a kick. In truth, it isn't so much about going through or around Melbourne, but how to create scoring opportunities, whatever form they might take.
You see, the Storm's discipline is very good; they don't invite you into their territory very often. It is when you couple this with their excellent try-line defence that they become so difficult to score against. When Manly were down 12-0 to the Storm after 25 minutes last time, Manly created opportunities by attacking from further out from the Storm's try line. Manly had received the ball from Melbourne on their own 20 metre line in the lead-up to their first and third tries. Their second try was from a kick, on the first play, from a scrum. This sounds like catch-up footy, but it worked. They went into half-time 15 minutes later leading 18-12.
The fact that we didn't see much more of this from Manly in the second half until they again fell behind on the scoreboard confirms it was probably more due to the score than a plan. However, if it wasn't the plan last time Manly played Melbourne, it certainly should be tonight.
Picture one is the lead-up to the try that put Manly ahead of the Storm just before half-time. Manly fans will be familiar with this play as Brett Stewart has received the ball from Kieran Foran on a second-man play. Stewart now has the Melbourne defence short for numbers and another two passes ended in Jorge Taufua scoring a great try. This is Manly's best play, and they should get it on as often as possible tonight. The key to this try was that although this set of six started deep in Manly's half they still had an attacking mindset. Instead of playing safety-first with a kick into the corner, they put on one of their signature plays and scored a try. Melbourne won't like this attitude.
Picture two has a lot more risk involved but it shows the space on the end of Melbourne's line isn't an illusion. Manly prop Brent Kite is in the process of throwing a cut-out pass to Taufua, who makes a 50m break. If Manly are prepared to back themselves, breaks can be made, particularly from inside their own half. As you can see on the game clock on this picture, Manly were behind on the scoreboard and in need of some points, and every team is prepared to take some risks when time is running out in sudden-death footy. However, for Manly to win tonight, I believe they have to play that way from minute one. It would be the last thing the Storm expect, and the last thing they'd want.