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9 hours ago
Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk says ongoing contract negotiations have not affected Israel Folau and expects the Test centre to again star for the Storm in 2008.
Folau will start his NRL season on Monday night against the New Zealand Warriors at Telstra Dome knowing he has only a few more days to make a decision on his future.
The 18-year-old Queenslander has an offer to re-sign with the Storm or return home and join the Brisbane Broncos, whom he was rumoured to be close to agreeing to terms with late last week.
Storm officials had wanted the saga put to bed before Monday's kick off, but won't get their answer until Tuesday at the earliest.
Cronk, however, says Folau's indecision isn't having any effect on the rising star and he's ready to have another stellar season with Melbourne.
"What Issy wants to do is entirely up to him ... whether he is going or staying here or whatever, every player at the Storm is right behind him," said Cronk.
"He is still doing all the hard work and nothing has changed here at training. That's the principles that made Israel have a big year last year and nothing is different there.
"He is still doing the hard work in the gym. He is getting bigger, getting fitter and getting stronger so his attitude is fine."
The Storm will start 2008 raging hot favourites to defend their premiership, but face a stern first-up test against the Warriors, who are one of the few teams to consistently trouble Melbourne.
Brent Tate will make his first appearance for the Warriors in the centres, while 22-year-old fullback Aiden Kirk is on debut replacing Wade McKinnon who has been ruled out for the season with a knee injury.
Cronk said the Storm won't deliberately target Kirk, but he can expect a thorough examination in his first NRL game.
"We're not going to go out of our way or anything like that. We're focused on what we want to do, the structures and our style of play," he said.
"But whenever there's a young kid introduced to first grade, you want to sort of test things out."
The Warriors had a very good 2007, qualifying fourth before losing both playoff matches to Parramatta and North Queensland.
Skipper Steve Price said there was high expectation for the club in 2008 to end years of fluctuating finishes.
"Mentally, we're a lot stronger. The Warriors have always been known to lose games from brain explosions, but I think last year we put that to bed a little bit," he said.
"Our biggest challenge is to back up what we did last year. The Warriors' history has been a bit of a heartbeat - there's been a bit of success, there's also been some terribly low lows, and I think that's the biggest thing that our challenge is going forward."