Round 11: Storm v Sea Eagles preview
Ah, Melbourne v Manly. This should be good.
It wasn't so long ago (probably only 3 weeks, really) that you could look at the fixtures ahead and mark this in as an easy two points for the Storm. Fast forward to Round 11 and the result of this is anything but a forgone conclusion.
Let's get one thing straight - Melbourne are still a very good footy team. But this Saturday they lace up for a clash against long-time rivals Manly (who can forget the 07-08 Grand Finals, not to mention the Battle of Brookie in 2011?) without most of the players who've been there along the way for those key matches. Greg Inglis is long gone, a premiership winner in the cardinal and myrtle some four years ago. Cooper Cronk packed his bags for Sydney before this season kicked off, and just this week Cameron Smith was suspended after a dangerous tackle on Gold Coast's Kevin Proctor.
That leaves the custodian - Billy Slater - as the remaining "big four" member of the Storm from that era to take the field this weekend. The boys from the south will have a tough time without their captain, but will also be keen to prove that life's not all gloomy in the post-Smith era - which most know is coming up in the near future.
Strangely, on the other side of the fence, it's come full circle for Manly. This week they picked up Trent Hodkinson after he was released by the Sharks, the veteran half returning to the club for which he debuted in 2010. He'll come off the bench in his 25th game for the club, having spent five years at Canterbury and two at Newcastle before making just four appearances for Cronulla over the opening ten rounds of this season. His arrival is timely as well, with Manly's halves depth taking a serious hit after long-term injury to first-choice five-eighth Lachlan Croker. Dylan Walker maintains the spot he held last week when Manly downed Brisbane, although he may well find himself in the backline before kickoff if Barrett is keen to start 'Hodko' with DCE in the halves.
These two have a famous history but at AAMI Park it's Melbourne's joy, winning four games to one from six encounters, one match drawn. Overall the Storm lead the way with 18 wins from 32 matches. Last year Melbourne won both clashes with a four-point victory early in the season at Brookvale, before smashing Manly 40-6 at AAMI Park in Round 21.
Who to watch: It goes without saying there's a bit of pressure on hooker Brandon Smith coming into this one. With Smith Sr's retirement from representative footy limiting Smith Jr's chances to audition for the permanent role in the future, this is the perfect opportunity for the young number nine to show why he's the man for the job once Cameron calls it a day. Along with Munster and Jacks the bulk of the spine for the Storm is relatively young - a far cry from the premiership winning outfit just eight months ago.
Manly second rower Joel Thompson attracted a bit of controversy after an off-again, on-again move to the Sea Eagles from former club St George Illawarra. A much-loved figure in his time at the Red V, he's taken a few weeks to hit his straps in a Sea Eagles side that's struggled for form this season, but he turned in one of his best ever games to help the maroon and white down the Broncos last Saturday at Suncorp Stadium. If he can put in anything resembling that effort again this weekend, he'll be helping Manly to a surprise victory.
My tip: I have no doubt Manly will make a red-hot contest of this. The question for them lies in how their halves structure adapts to the arrival of Hodkinson. But at the end of the day it's Melbourne at AAMI Park and with Billy Slater captaining the Storm for the first time I have to think they'll get the chocolates here. Storm by 4.