Storm v Sea Eagles preview

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Melbourne Storm v Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles Saturday 7:30pm at AAMI Park

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.

Last meeting: Round 21 2017 - Storm 40 Sea Eagles 6

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.

The favourite: Despite missing their captain, Melbourne are well backed to account for the lowly-Eagles.

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.

1. Billy Slater 2. Suliasi Vunivalu 3. Will Chambers 4. Curtis Scott 5. Josh Addo-carr 6. Cameron Munster 7. Ryley Jacks 8. Christian Welch 9. Brandon Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Ryan Hoffman 13. Dale Finucane 14. Tim Glasby 15. Kenneath Bromwich 16. Joe Stimson 20. Harry Grant

1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Matthew Wright 3. Moses Suli 4. Brian Kelly 5. Akuila Uate 6. Dylan Walker 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 8. Addin Fonua-blake 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. Martin Taupau 11. Joel Thompson 12. Shaun Lane 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Trent Hodkinson 15. Frank Winterstein 16. Lloyd Perrett 17. Toafofoa Sipley

Referees: Henry Perenara, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Sideline Officials: Chris McMillan, Nick Morel; Video Referees: Luke Patten, Ben Cummins;

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