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Domestic premiers vie for International supremacy.
Four months on from their emphatic Grand Final triumph over North Queensland, the Melbourne Storm will be eager to flaunt their credentials as the premier rugby league side as they face off against Super League champions Leeds Rhinos in the World Club Challenge. Marking the fourth occasion the two sides have faced off in the acclaimed fixture, the match will take on additional significance for the Victorian outfit by marking the inaugural time the club has hosted the WCC, along with the first time in over a decade Cooper Cronk has not been apart of the squad. In the absence of Cronk, promising playmaker Brodie Croft has been afforded the first shot at halfback, beating out Ryley Jacks, in one of four changes from the side that downed the Cowboys 34-6 last October. In the absence of fellow departed campaigners Jordan McLean, Tohu Harris and Slade Griffin; Ryan Hoffman returns to the Storm for his third stint, young New Zealand rake Brandon Smith takes over the bench utility role, while Christian Welch will make his return from injury after sustaining a ruptured ACL ten months ago. Joe Stimson, Young Tounamaipea, Tui Kamikamica and Ryley Jacks have also been rewarded for their 2017 contributions by being included on an extended bench for Friday's encounter. With the WCC being the first time a number of the Storm players have taken the field in 2018, the Storm will need to overcome a lack of match fitness, but with the benefit of hosting the fixture in Australia, the Storm will be confident in their ability to pick up where they left off.
Starting their 2018 Super League campaign with wins over Warrington and Hull KR, the Leeds Rhinos will make their first appearance in Australia since the ill-fated 1997 World Club Challenge Tournament in search of their fourth WCC title. Producing a clinical display to down minor premiers Castleford 24-6 in the Grand Final, the Rhinos will be without the services of two of their legendary playmakers Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire, while the duel between fullbacks pits teenager Jack Walker against two-time Clive Churchill medallist Billy Slater. Among the faces familiar to Australian audiences, former NRL journeymen Joel Moon, Adam Cuthbertson, Matt Parcell and Brett Delaney will feature, while the wing battle between prolific English try-scorer Ryan Hall and Suliasi Vunivalu should produce plenty of moments for the highlights reel. As the dominant team in Super League with eight premierships since 2005, Leeds can be seen to resemble the success of Melbourne with several long-serving campaigners making significant contributions to the quality of the overall squad, but with a changing of the guard brought on by recent departures of McGuire, Burrow, Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock, the challenge posed by facing the Storm in Melbourne is unlikely to be comparable to any presented in Super League.
World Club Challenge, 2013 - Leeds Rhinos 14 Melbourne Storm 18
World Club Challenge, 2010 - Leeds Rhinos 10 Melbourne Storm 18
World Club Challenge, 2008 - Leeds Rhinos 11 Melbourne Storm 4
Who to watch: Producing arguably the finest season in rugby league history in 2017, Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith will be eager to further his legacy with a leading role against the Rhinos. Exhausting all superlatives with his on-field feats, the future immortal is set to return to his roots as a first-receiver and take on the responsibility of guiding his rookie playmakers towards consistent form over the duration of the season. With Craig Bellamy including future hooker Brandon Smith on the bench, the reigning Dally M medallist is set to enter the final stages of his career wherein his value to the club won't solely be measured in how he personally fares, but in how the future stars of the Melbourne Storm develop into players capable of forging their own successes. Facing off against former Manly and Brisbane rake Matt Parcell, Smith's involvement throughout the contest will likely determine whether Melbourne replicate their previous WCC triumphs over Leeds in 2010 and 2013.
As the most experienced NRL player within the Leeds ranks, Adam Cuthbertson will need to be at his best for the Rhinos to cause an upset. Producing various degrees of success during his nine-year stint with Manly, Cronulla, St. George Illawarra and Newcastle, the 32-year-old has impressed during his time in Super League, with his offloading ability creating countless opportunities for support players to thrive. With Leeds needing to score tries in order to finish on top of Melbourne, Cuthberston's ability to create second-phase play will be a primary threat for the Storm to contend with, while his capacity to make yardage and remain resolute in defence will provide the visitors with an experienced forward capable of unsettling the home side. In the final year of a four-year deal with Leeds, the former City Origin representative has achieved the success his potential in the NRL alluded to, but with a final opportunity to make a statement against Australia's best club side, look for Cuthbertson to lead from the front.
The unknown: While much of the focus in the lead-up to Friday's clash has centred on the void left by Cooper Cronk, a departure with potentially far greater implications can be seen in Jordan McLean's decision to shift to the Cowboys. Developing into an International forward during his time at the Storm, the starting void left by McLean has been handed to reliable interchange prop Tim Glasby, while Christian Welch, who returns to first grade after a significant stint on the sidelines, fills the newly vacated bench position. While it may seem like an overreaction to highlight the impact of this change, the effect of McLean's departure won't be felt by Glasby's ability to lay a platform during the initial stages of a match, rather how Melbourne's interchange rotation maintains pressure on opposing sides. As has been shown by the high turnover of premiership winning squads in recent season, when bench players are forced to start due to premiership winners cashing in on their increased worth at other clubs, the absences left often eventuates in diminished on-field results. Notably, the long-awaited Dragons premiership at the start of the decade was aided greatly by the efforts of Neville Costigan and Jeremy Smith. With the duo signing lucrative contracts elsewhere for 2011, the ensuing effect for the Dragons meant Matt Prior was elevated to a starting position, while Dan Hunt returned from a long-term injury with immediate expectations to the eventual detriment of the side as a whole. While Craig Bellamy has shown his ability time and again to turn discards into success stories, the way in which the Storm adapt their forward rotation will be vital to their aspirations of becoming the first team to record consecutive premierships in over two decades.
The favourite: Installed at prohibitive odds, the Storm are expected to account for their English opponents, despite the World Club Challenge being the first major hit-out for the side in 2018.
My tip: Recent history indicates English teams fare poorly in the Southern Hemisphere and while Melbourne are likely to prove too strong for the Rhinos, the lack of match-fitness and unknown implications of roster changes should see the end result finish closer than local pundits anticipate. Storm by 12.
1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Will Chambers 4. Curtis Scott 5. Josh Addo-Carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Brodie Croft 8. Jesse Bromwich 9. Cameron Smith 10. Tim Glasby 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Ryan Hoffman 13. Dale Finucane 14. Brandon Smith 15. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 16. Kenneath Bromwich 17. Christian Welch
24. Jack Walker 2. Tom Briscoe 3. Kallum Watkins 4. Liam Sutcliffe 5. Ryan Hall 6. Joel Moon 7. Richie Myler 8. Adam Cuthbertson 9. Matt Parcell 10. Brad Singleton 11. Jamie Jones-Buchanan 12. Carl Ablett 13. Stevie Ward 15. Brett Delaney 23. Jack Ormondroyd 18. Jimmy Keinhorst 14. Brad Dwyer
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Ben Cummins; Sideline Officials: Chris Sutton, Nick Beashel; Video Referees: Ashley Klein, Ben Galea;