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Why Melbourne Storm has extra preliminary final motivation

Slater will play a key role in Friday's clash.

Slater will play a key role in Friday's clash. Photo: Getty

The impending retirement of rugby league icon Billy Slater is being embraced by Melbourne Storm ahead of Friday’s preliminary final against Cronulla, with coach Craig Bellamy hopeful it will inspire a famous victory for his side.

Storm has lost four of its past five matches against the Sharks, including the 2016 grand final, a statistic sure to fill Cronulla with confidence before the AAMI Park clash.

But instead of trotting out cliches and insisting that this match was ‘just another game’, Storm has highlighted Slater’s immense contribution to the club before what could be his final NRL game.

“All week, we’ve been giving him a bit of a sendoff,” Storm legend Robbie Kearns told The New Daily.

“They had a little presentation for Billy today [Thursday] on field, the playing group. It has been mentioned that it will be Billy’s last ever game in Melbourne.”

Next week’s grand final, if Storm progresses, is in Sydney.

“I have no doubt that Craig will have mentioned a few words in the huddle about what he means to this club and what he’s given to this club,” Kearns said.

“Not that the boys need any extra incentive to go out and play well, but I’m sure it’s in the back of their minds as well.”

Kearns, who started his career at Cronulla and played 75 matches for the Sharks, finished his career at Storm.

The prop played 169 games for Melbourne, including the club’s successful 1999 NRL grand final, and he played alongside Slater for three seasons in the early stages of the full-back’s career.

“Those three seasons feel like yesterday,” he said.

“He’s scored close to 200 tries, played over 300 games, won Dally Ms, golden boots, premierships, Origin series … he’s done it all. He’s got nothing more to achieve other than his want for more success.

“We’re just blessed to have him down here in Melbourne. We’re in an AFL-dominant town, so to have a marquee player such as Billy Slater to fly our flag for the game of rugby league – he’s just been enormous.

“We only just had a meeting earlier on [at the club on Thursday] … I got up and said my little two bobs worth and it was basically that he has been a really important part of the club and the club’s success over a number of years. But on top of all that, he’s just a wonderful human being.”

The rivalry between Storm and the Sharks is strong and Kearns, who works as a business development manager for Melbourne, is expecting another close and physical contest.

“It’s going to be a wonderful game of football. There’s been a lot of rivalry between the two clubs since the 2016 decider,” he said.

Melbourne Storm Cronulla

There is no love lost between the two sides. Photo: Getty

“Knowing Cronulla and the way they’ve been playing, they’ll be there right till the end.

“It’s going to be a tough brand of football … it will be a real arm-wrestle type of game. It’s going to be a bit of a dogfight.”

Kearns was quick to talk up Cronulla’s quality, too, insistent that the likes of Valentine Holmes, Chad Townsend and Matt Moylan made the Sharks a “quality side”.

“In the years gone by, the Sharks have only had one or two good players,” he said.

“That’s why they couldn’t get across the line [and win a premiership] for 50 years.

“They’ve now got a quality team from one to 17 on the park these days and they’re doing a real good job.

“I’m sure they’ll come down with nothing to lose … the Storm will have to play good football to beat them.”

The winner of the Friday night clash will meet either Sydney Roosters or South Sydney in next Sunday’s 2018 decider at ANZ Stadium.

South Sydney NRL

Can the Rabbitohs pull off an upset? Photo: Getty

And while the Roosters are favourites to win Saturday’s other preliminary final, Kearns is predicting an upset.

“I saw enough of South Sydney in week one of the finals – they are a quality side and they’ve got a big pack of forwards,” he said.

“At times, they were the better side [against Storm]. They could have quite easily had the week off.

“It’s a real flip of the coin, but I’d say the Bunnies are going to win a very tight game of football.”

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