Of all the Vodafone Warriors’ match-ups this is the one that sits right up at the top of the most anticipated every season no matter where it is played.
This time the clash in the Victorian capital is on Easter Monday rather than Anzac Day and it promises to be another public holiday special.
It will have added significance for second rower Ryan Hoffman and for his legion of admirers from his time with the Storm.
Having seen him appear 245 times for the Storm from 2003 through to the end of last season (with a one-season break with Wigan in 2011), Melbourne members and fans will doubtless find it a strange experience watching one of the club’s favourite sons playing against his old side for the first time. Much more than that, he’ll also be making his 250th NRL appearance at the same time.
Hoffman has settled in outstandingly with the Vodafone Warriors, impressing from the outset as everyone anticipated he would. He’s a back rower of the highest quality and his impact has shone through on and off the park. On it he opened by scoring a try in each of his first three appearances and has delivered excellent contributions each week averaging 18 runs, 150 metres and 22 tackles a game.
Teamed up with fellow new signing Bodene Thompson and the exceptional Simon Mannering, Hoffman gives the Vodafone Warriors a much-envied back row combination.
He’ll have the satisfaction of playing in front of family and friends once again on Monday but his overriding ambition will be totally opposite to what it has previously been in this contest.
Hoffman has been on the receiving end of several shock losses against the Vodafone Warriors in Melbourne; now he wants to contribute to one of those efforts as a team-mate.
Much is made of the Vodafone Warriors’ ability to rise in clashes against the Storm. They did so on Anzac Day last year, confounding the form book and the tipsters by winning a typically tough encounter 16-10 to give Andrew McFadden his first victory in charge of the side after taking over three weeks earlier.
The form book suggests there’s nothing in it this time. Both teams have won two and lost two so far, the Vodafone Warriors coming off a defeat by Brisbane and Melbourne a golden point loss to North Queensland. The Storm’s two losses have been desperately close, though, by two points to Manly and one point to the Cowboys; the Vodafone Warriors lost by 10 to Newcastle and eight to the Broncos.
The odds setters see the match much differently, though. The New Zealand TAB has the Storm as the $1.40 head-to-head favourites with the Vodafone Warriors out to $2.70. That takes into account the injury issues they are battling, having lost Sam Tomkins and now Ben Henry while they’ve also been without frontline centre Konrad Hurrell and senior prop Sam Rapira as well as wings David Fusitu’a and Glen Fisiiahi.
Overall the Vodafone Warriors have a strong record against the benchmark side, in fact one of the best in the competition. They have won 15 of the 34 encounters between the two sides and have lost 17 with two drawn; they’ve won seven of 18 matches in Melbourne with nine losses and two draws; and they’ve won three of the five matches played at AAMI Park.
The record book doesn’t determine the result, though. As long as the Storm have Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater in harness they are always a huge challenge to handle; and they have so many talented players around them not least influential Kiwi prop Jesse Bromwich and fellow Four Nations champions Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris.
For the fourth week running the Vodafone Warriors are set to start with the same pack. Apart from Hoffman in his 250th game, Mannering will be playing his 217th, prop Jacob Lillyman his 191st and fellow front rower Ben Matulino his 157th. Hooker Thomas Leuluai has played almost 300 games in the NRL and Super League combined while second rower Bodene Thompson plays his 90th match.
This match also provides a tasty appetiser the Vodafone Warriors’ sixth-round clash against Wests Tigers at Mount Smart Stadium next Saturday, April 11 (7.30pm kick-off) when wing Manu Vatuvei is in line to play his 200th NRL game.
FIVE KEY FEATURES
#1 NGANI LAUMAPE | Laumape’s start to 2015 was delayed by a knee injury picked up in February. He finally appeared at New South Wales Cup level last week (166 metres from 17 runs against North Sydney) and has been quickly brought back into the NRL side.
#2 SIMON MANNERING | Mannering is proving as exceptional as ever. Already he has topped 200 tackles, three times making more than 50 to average 51.25 a game, and he is also averaging more than 13 runs and close to 112 metres game. Enough said.
#3 SAM LISONE AND ALBERT VETE | The former Vodafone Junior Warriors head into their fifth straight appearances in the NRL having impressed with their consistent contributions from the bench, both averaging a shade over 90 metres and adding punch with their work.
#4 JONATHAN WRIGHT | The experienced Wright makes his 95th NRL appearance but just his fourth for the club. Ngani Laumape will be his fourth different centre on the right edge after previously working with Tuimoala Lolohea, Ben Henry and Matt Allwood.
#5 SEBASTINE IKAHIHIFO | Extensively used at NRL level last season, Ikahihifo has been producing full-hearted efforts in the middle for the club’s New South Wales Cup side earning him a first-grade recall for his 31st appearance replacing the injured Ben Henry.
TOP STATS | SUNDAY, MARCH 29 v BRISBANE LOST 16-24
Most runs | Chad Townsend 21, Manu Vatuvei 18, Tuimoala Lolohea 18, Ryan Hoffman 17, Ben Matulino 16, Simon Mannering 14, Solomone Kata 13, Shaun Johnson 13, Jacob Lillyman 12, Jonathan Wright 10.
Most metres | Tuimoala Lolohea 173, Manu Vatuvei 169, Ben Matulino 168, Ryan Hoffman 143, Chad Townsend 129, Simon Mannering 118, Jacob Lillyman 115, Solomone Kata 115, Jonathan Wright 100.
Most tackles | Bodene Thompson 56, Simon Mannering 54, Ben Matulino 33, Jacob Lillyman 31, Thomas Leuluai 30, Ryan Hoffman 27, Chad Townsend 21, Nathan Friend 21, Matt Allwood 19.
Missed tackles | Simon Mannering 54, Ben Matulino 0, Jacob Lillyman 0, Nathan Friend 0, Manu Vatuvei 0, Tuimoala Lolohea 0.
RECORD | v MELBOURNE STORM
Overall | Played 34, Vodafone Warriors 15, Melbourne 17, Drawn 2.
In Melbourne | Played 18, Vodafone Warriors 7, Melbourne 9, Drawn 2.
At AAMI Park | Played 5, Vodafone Warriors 3, Melbourne 2.
500 Games | The Vodafone Warriors play their 495th match since entering the competition in 1995.
250 NRL Games | Ryan Hoffman plays his 250th NRL match against the club he played 245 games for.
200 NRL Games (all for Vodafone Warriors) | Manu Vatuvei plays his 199th NRL match.
200 NRL Games | Jacob Lillyman plays his 191st NRL match.
150 NRL Games for Vodafone Warriors | Jacob Lillyman plays his 129th game for the club.
100 NRL Games (all for Vodafones Warriors) | Shaun Johnson plays his 88th NRL match.
100 NRL Games | Bodene Thompson plays his 90th NRL match.
50 NRL Games | Chad Townsend plays his 43rd NRL match.
150 NRL Tries | Manu Vatuvei has scored 137 tries in 198 games.
MELBOURNE STORM v VODAFONE WARRIORS
AAMI Park, Melbourne
5.00pm, Monday, April 06
Referees: Adam Devcich and Gavin Reynolds
1 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA
2 JONATHAN WRIGHT
3 NGANI LAUMAPE
4 SOLOMONE KATA
5 MANU VATUVEI
6 CHAD TOWNSEND
7 SHAUN JOHNSON
8 JACOB LILLYMAN
9 THOMAS LEULUAI
10 BEN MATULINO
11 BODENE THOMPSON
12 RYAN HOFFMAN
13 SIMON MANNERING (c)
14 NATHAN FRIEND
15 SEBSATINE IKAHIHIFO
16 SAM LISONE
17 ALBERT VETE
18 SIONE LOUSI
HEAD COACH: ANDREW McFADDEN
BETTING – CHECK OUT ALL THE ODDS WWW.TAB.CO.NZ
Head to head | Melbourne Storm $1.40, Vodafone Warriors $2.70
SKY SPORT 2: Live from 7.00pm NZT, Monday, April 06.