Round 12: Storm v Sea Eagles preview
Hughes returns as Turbo-less Manly looks to make statement against Melbourne
Melbourne and Manly were two genuine premiership contenders last season and entered this year with optimism of going one step further. But both have hit hurdles in recent weeks, although fortunately for the Storm, theirs does not appear to nearly be as permanent.
Melbourne is bolstered by the return of halfback Jahrome Hughes, allowing Harry Grant to return to hooker after struggling in the halves last week. That also sees Brandon Smith push back to the bench, where he will offer greater impact.
Melbourne has been a shadow of its former self in the past couple of weeks, clearly at a loss to find answers in attack with both Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen sidelined. More than anything though, Hughes' return is crucial this week because it allows Grant and Smith to go back to their natural positions - the less disruption, the better.
But regardless of who is missing, Storm coach Craig Bellamy would have been livid with his side's defence last week. While Xavier Coates produced a stunning try-saving tackle to stop Murray Tuilagi, his other Storm teammates were guilty of folding far too easily on the defensive line. The points may not be coming like they were earlier in the season but look for Bellamy to put all the focus on defence this week.
As for Manly, this week is the ultimate test in how it will fare without fullback Tom Trbojevic. Last year's Dally M medalist obviously has the ability to break games open himself but he also makes everyone else around him better by attracting attention from the defence.
The Sea Eagles will need all of their playmakers to step up in Trbojevic's absence, with Reuben Garrick moving to fullback in the only change to the spine. That sees Jorge Taufua recalled for his first game since Round 17 in 2020, although Jason Saab is lurking on the reserves as he nears a return from a toe injury. In other team news, Martin Taupau is sidelined with Ethan Bullemor joining the bench in his place.
There is added motivation for the Sea Eagles this week as Kieran Foran celebrates his 250th NRL game.
Who to watch: Justin Olam single-handedly humiliated Morgan Harper in their last match-up, scoring a try, running for 123 metres and busting six tackles in a barnstorming display. And their face-off before that one saw Olam erupt for two tries, over 140 metres and again six tackle breaks. Put simply, Olam has a history of exposing Harper's defensive weakness and even if the two don't match up this time around, it will be a tough task for rookie centre Tolutau Koula to contain the PNG sensation.
As for the Sea Eagles, they will need to find some extra ball-playing out the back with Trbojevic sidelined and Josh Schuster shapes as the best chance of filling that void. Trbojevic had four linebreak assists and two try assists when Manly took it right to Melbourne in Round 21 last year, eventually falling 28-18. Schuster has had an injury-disrupted start to the season but he will have to increase his involvement off the bench if the Sea Eagles are any hope on Friday. Obviously the focus for Schuster should simply be on getting back into the rhythm of the game, with this just his third NRL match this season. But even still, the 21-year-old shapes as Manly's next option at five-eighth when Foran leaves and this is one chance to prove why he deserves the role long-term.
My tip: No Trbojevic makes this tough for the Sea Eagles. Facing Melbourne off two-straight losses just before the Origin period makes it near-impossible. Not impossible but as close as it gets. Storm by 20.