Ivan Cleary.
Ivan Cleary. Greg Bowker - NZ Herald

Team sheet versus the field

THERE'S a story that occasionally bounces around footy circles about a journalist who once compared the merits of a Manly line-up to that of the Warriors before the first game of an NRL season.

The upshot of the piece was that not many of the Manly side would get a run with the Warriors. Manly coach Des Hasler allegedly pasted the story to the Sea Eagles' dressing room wall, and later identified it as motivating his side to post an emphatic victory.

Hardly a surprise, then, that Warriors captain Simon Mannering was reluctant to enter into a discussion about the relative strengths of the Melbourne Storm team sheet post salary cap scandal.

Mannering was particularly sensitive to suggestions that the Storm pack isn't what it used to be.

"It is easy to look at a team list and say 'we are better than them'," Mannering said. "But it is a matter of doing the job on the field.

"I am definitely not going to talk down their forwards at all. They have done a job for them all year. It is not how good their team looks on paper, it is what they do on the field. And it is going to be a very tough battle [tomorrow night]."

All true enough. Also true, however, is the fact the Warriors wouldn't swap many of their forwards for those in the Melbourne line-up. The Storm may still be a major power, but they aren't the star-smothered side they were before being to forced to dump a good few hundred thousand bucks of illegal salary.

Consider the names missing from the Storm side that somehow lost to the Warriors the last time these two sides met in the finals in 2008. Gone from the starting line-up that day are Greg Inglis, Israel Folau, Dallas Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Michael Crocker, Jeff Lima and Brett White. On the bench, somewhat incredibly, sat Jeremy Smith, Adam Blair and Antonio Kaufusi.

A 2011 replacement corps that includes Bryan Norrie, Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor and Jaiman Lowe may have more than held its own this year, but they aren't about to put the fear of god into any side or, for that matter, blow out too many wage bills.

"They stick to the same structure that has worked for them before and obviously they are very well coached and very well directed around the footy field," Mannering said. "So I don't think they have changed too much."

Maybe not, but the Warriors certainly have. Just five players remain from the side that beat Melbourne on that famous Sunday afternoon when Michael Witt, to the consternation of every Kiwi watching, held the ball aloft in triumph before grounding it for the winning try.

One area where the Storm most certainly will have an advantage is conditioning. Having been battered in Brisbane and surviving a heart-stopper in Sydney, the Warriors will surely be weary when they pitch up in Melbourne. The Storm, by contrast, have had two weeks to ensure they are primed to book their grand final spot.

"That is the advantage of finishing top of the table," Mannering said. "You get the week off between games. ... But we are here now and you can't be looking back or feeling sorry for yourself because you have travelled [to Australia] and back a few times. It is game on. It is a big occasion and one we have to be up for."

Cleary interprets a rugged schedule that has sent his side across the Tasman for five of the last six weekends and pitted them against finals contenders in five successive weeks as a positive.

His players, he said, should be well-used to the rigours of life on the road.

"It is an issue but you can see the finish line, so you try to put that sort of thing to the back of your mind," he said. "There are certainly no excuses about being match fit for this game."

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