Round 2: Storm v Wests Tigers preview
Tigers eye off another scalp in Slater's 300th
Returning from their Western Australian venture with two competition points in hand, the Melbourne Storm will look to commemorate an historic occasion for one of their favourite sons, with Billy Slater returning from injury for his 300th appearance in first grade. As a result of Slater's return, Cameron Munster takes the place of Ryley Jacks in the halves in an otherwise unchanged side, which will see off-season purchase Sam Kasiano make his first appearance at home. While the occasion will be focused primarily on the feats of arguably the greatest ever fullback, Saturday night also marks a century of games for underrated forward Kenny Bromwich. Having been overshadowed by older brother Jesse throughout his career, the 26-year-old boasts an enviable resume with appearances for the New Zealand and a premiership since debuting against the Wests Tigers five years ago. Winning their past three matches against the joint venture, coach Craig Bellamy will be wary of the threat posed by the Tigers while stressing the importance of producing a collective performance worthy of the occasion at hand.
Given the most minute of chances against the Roosters last week, the Wests Tigers emerged from the opening round as the surprise story of 2018. Fielding just six players from the corresponding fixture last season, a pre-game hamstring injury suffered by high-profile recruit Josh Reynolds provided the joint venture with a multitude of excuses to justify a poor performance, yet in a vastly contrasted performance from the attacking enterprise associated with the Balmain-Western Suburbs merger, a defensive oriented game plan proved successful with a last gasp try and sideline conversion handing the Tigers a 10-8 win over one of the competition favourites. Retaining the same side with club legend Benji Marshall named to start at five-eighth for the first time since September, 2013, coach Ivan Cleary will be hoping to overturn a horrendous club record in Melbourne. Managing just one win over an Origin-affected Storm outfit over the past 18 seasons, the deck appears to be stacked against the visitors given recent history and the occasion, however as they demonstrated last week, the new-look Tigers are capable of thriving on low expectations.
Last meeting: Round 4 2017 - Wests Tigers 14 Storm 22
Who to watch: Debuting in first grade as a 19-year-old all the way back in 2003, the personal achievements recorded by Billy Slater prior to Saturday's clash only serve to reinforce the privilege contemporary audiences have in bearing witness to one of the finest careers produced in the history of rugby league. Returning from a shoulder injury sustained against Leeds in the World Club Challenge a month ago, Slater's 300th game for the Storm serves as a testament to the injury setbacks the remarkable fullback has faced in recent times. With serious doubts regarding his capacity to regain the brilliance that saw him star in the club, state and international arenas, the 34-year-old showed his class to play leading roles in securing successes for Melbourne, Queensland and Australia last season. With 2018 looming as his final season in the NRL, Slater will be eager to use the occasion of Saturday night as the launching pad for a season to exit the game with no regrets.
Having starred at Newcastle under Wayne Bennett, the past few seasons have been a frustrating series of injuries and middling performances for Robbie Rochow. Touted as a potential representative player at his height, the 27-year-old forward failed to make an impact during his time with South Sydney last year, while his mid-season transfer to Melbourne yielded a mere solitary appearance in what was a completely forgettable 2017 for the Maitland junior. Offered a lifeline by Ivan Cleary to get on board the Tigers bus, Rochow showed signs of his best against the Roosters having been afforded the opportunity to return to the back-row, having been used as a prop and centre with substantially less impact in preceding years. Facing off against the reigning premiers, Rochow will be eager to make a statement against his former employer and recapture the form that saw him command a starting position at Newcastle ahead of representative calibre players.
The favourite: With the return of Billy Slater only serving to strengthen a Melbourne outfit already exuding class, it should come as no surprise to see the Storm enter the fixture at the shortest odds of the round.
My tip: While the Tigers showed a tremendous amount of tenacity in securing an opening round upset, Melbourne's ability to generate points while limiting the attacking opportunities of opponents is too great of an obstacle for Ivan Cleary's charges to overcome. Melbourne by 16.