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Even stevens in a clash of the titans

On a high: The Storm's Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater celebrate a try in their win against the Manly Sea Eagles.

On a high: The Storm's Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater celebrate a try in their win against the Manly Sea Eagles. Photo: Getty Images

The Storm and the Bulldogs have made the grand final with vastly different game plans.

THE two best teams following the 26 home-and-away rounds of the premiership have safely negotiated the treacherous waters of semi-final football to make their way to the big show on NRL grand final day.

The thing I like about these two teams is they are different; and in their own way, quite unique.

THE STORM

They were far too good for Manly on Friday night. The Sea Eagles produced one of the worst finals performances I can remember. It was horrible. But then again, we said the same thing about South Sydney three weeks ago when they succumbed meekly in the first week of the finals.

The common denominator for both teams was they were playing Melbourne. Coincidence? I think not. Forget salary cap dramas and all the negative connotations that go with them; the Storm, under the leadership of coach Craig Bellamy, have been the No. 1 club in the NRL for the past seven seasons.

You know you are the best around when just about every other team in the competition tries to duplicate what you do. Often copied, but rarely reproduced, the Storm's style of football has withstood this most stringent test of time.

Melbourne's military-like, mechanical, meticulous and clinical form of rugby league excellence, not only wins a lot of games; it stands up under pressure; it teaches individuals within the team to stand up; it makes good players of average players; great players of good players; it turns great players into champions. Basically, it produces championship teams.

Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater have been with the coach the longest. It is no coincidence this is the best playmaker combination in the world; maybe even in history. But even these champion individuals will tell you they are nothing without the people and the systems around them.

The thing that seems to set the Storm apart from most other clubs is that every player who goes to play for them, young or old, buys into the Melbourne program. It is a culture, an attitude, a lifestyle, a way of life. It has got nothing to do with how much you pay them. Just because you pay a footballer more money, it won't make him a better player. It has more to do with the time and energy Bellamy invests in their character, their personality, their skills and technique. And they don't do things by half. Close enough is nowhere near good enough.

THE BULLDOGS

No coach has confronted the Storm in big games more than Bulldogs mentor Des Hasler. He knows them inside out. So much so that Hasler has learnt that trying to copy them usually results in consistently running second to them.

It is no surprise then that Hasler has created a new and unique style of football for the Bulldogs. There's an old saying: ''If you want to predict the future, you need to create it.'' Hasler has blown up many of the conventional rugby league theories of the past and produced a manner of attacking football that has taken the game to a new dimension.

I guarantee you that much of the Bulldogs' style of ball movement will be copied by every other coach in the NRL during this off-season's training camps; with the probable exception of Bellamy, of course.

Hasler realised that tackling techniques, gang-tackling, wrestling and grappling were threatening to paralyse modern-day football. To counter the dominance of well-drilled defences, Hasler created a style of attack that uses his forwards as the chief playmakers; and his halves simply as a link between the team's big men in the middle of the field and the athletic flyers down the edges.

The forwards no longer engage in a ''head-down-bum-up, ball-tucked-under-the-arm'' battle to make tough metres over the advantage line in the hope this will create time and space for their halves in which to operate. Instead, they line up side by side, with strategically placed width, in a constant rush of chain-passing that brings the whole team into motion on just about every play.

It is unique and effective, a system that grew in expertise and confidence as the season progressed. It will certainly test the Storm's defensive philosophy, which relies heavily on three-man tackling techniques to strangle opponents and slow down their opponents' attacking momentum.

While attack should not be a problem for the Bulldogs, Hasler will need to address a few of his side's defensive deficiencies that were given a work over by the bigger South Sydney players during Saturday night's contest. The Rabbitohs put up a real fight and had the minor premiers on the back foot for most of the first 35 minutes. Had they not lost their halfback Adam Reynolds just before half-time, things would have been a lot closer at the finish.

The productivity Souths enjoyed during this good period of the game will not be lost on Bellamy. He will dissect the Bulldogs' defensive line, isolate the players he needs to attack, and work them over until they crack.

Hasler will know they are coming. He will steel his men for the challenge. I love this stuff.

CONCLUSION

The fortnight's break leading into last weekend's preliminary finals proved highly beneficial to both clubs and presents them with the perfect preparation going into the title decider.

Both the Storm and Bulldogs had the result well in hand a long way from full-time and were able to enjoy the final minutes of their respective matches stress-free and high on life.

It is a wonderful feeling knowing you will be there on the last day of the season, playing for the right to hold up that trophy and head off on a victory lap with your teammates. This is why we play this great game.

With both clubs so well versed in the madness and mayhem that comes with grand final week, one can only assume the teams will be at their peak for the big occasion.

I doubt either side can expect their opponent to lose this grand final. You will have to come ready to win it for yourself. It is an even-money bet for mine. Good luck to both teams.

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