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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
Premiership heavyweights kick-off 2019 season
Qualifying for a second consecutive Grand Final last September, only to have no answers for the tour de force produced by the Roosters, the Melbourne Storm will begin 2019 in uncharted territory.
Spending close to two decades with Billy Slater making his presence known in the number one jersey and Cooper Cronk directing play with distinction, Cameron Smith stands as the last member of the iconic big three at Craig Bellamy's disposal, in a sign the era of Melbourne dominance may soon be drawing to a close.
Unbeaten in opening round fixtures dating back to 2002, the Storm will be hoping to continue one of the more remarkable records in the NRL, having won 22 of 26 clashes against the Broncos in the years following the 2006 Grand Final.
Largely unchanged from the squad beaten by Sydney in the premiership decider, Jahrome Hughes has been named to start at fullback, Fijian prop Tui Kamikamica will fill the role formerly held by Tim Glasby, while in a move to overpower the Broncos with size, Patrick Kaufusi has clinched the final bench position ahead of former Penrith lower grader Tom Eisenhuth.
Eliminated in the first week of the play-offs by a roaring Dragons side last year, the Broncos will be out to capitalise upon years of unrealised potential under the watch of new coach Anthony Seibold.
Brought to the Queensland powerhouse club due to declining results during Wayne Bennett's second stint at the helm, Seibold boasts an impressive resume as the incumbent Dally M Coach of the Year, having taken the Rabbitohs from also-rans to preliminary finalists in the space of twelve months.
Experiencing mixed results in the opening round throughout the 2010s with scores ranging from comfortable wins to emphatic losses, the Broncos will need to overcome a poor record at AAMI Park having recorded a disappointing 30% success rate from ten appearances at the venue.
Naming a strong squad for the Thursday night encounter, Seibold has opted against making significant changes from the side fielded by his predecessor, with underrated journeyman Shaun Fensom the only notable signing included as part of an extended bench. After missing extended periods throughout 2018 due to injury, Jack Bird, Jadyn Su'a and Matt Gillett have all been named to start, while 19-year-old prop Thomas Flegler will make his NRL debut off the bench.
Last meeting: Round 14 2018 - Storm 32 Broncos 16
Who to watch: Touted as the man most likely to inherit the prestigious Melbourne number nine jersey when his namesake finally calls it a day, Brandon Smith will be out to increase his game time in 2019. Starring for the Kiwis during the end-of-season tour of England last year, the 22-year-old utility showed his class as a starting hooker on the international stage, but will have to be content making his mark in the backrow under Craig Bellamy's watch. Known for charging at opposition defences with no thoughts of self-preservation, look for the younger Smith to provide the Storm with a jolt of energy when he comes onto the field on Thursday night.
Enduring a 2018 to forget after joining from Cronulla on big money, Jack Bird will be out to make up for lost time on Thursday night. Plagued by injuries, middling team form and an inability to nail down a regular position last year, the 23-year-old New South Wales representative will be looking to make the Broncos number four jersey his own under new coach Anthony Seibold, while forcing his way back into representative honours. Regarded as one of the finest players in the competition after claiming Rookie of the Year accolades in 2015, look for Bird to form a lethal combination alongside Corey Oates on the left edge having fully recovered from a serious sternum issue that saw him miss two-thirds of last season.
The favourite: Winning all bar two opening round matches since entering the premiership in 1998, the Melbourne Storm are expected to extend that record on Thursday evening despite conceding low-scoring losses against the Warriors and Cowboys during the trials.
My tip: While history suggests Melbourne will prove too strong given their opening round record and overwhelming form over Brisbane, the performances delivered by both sides during the pre-season should see the visitors finish on top due to superior attack. Broncos by 8.
1. Jahrome Hughes 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. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11. Felise Kaufusi 12. Kenneath Bromwich 13. Dale Finucane 14. Brandon Smith 15. Christian Welch 16. Tui Kamikamica 19. Tom Eisenhuth
1. Darius Boyd 2. Corey Oates 3. James Roberts 4. Jack Bird 5. Jamayne Isaako 6. Anthony Milford 7. Kodi Nikorima 8. Matthew Lodge 9. Andrew McCullough 10. Joe Ofahengaue 11. Alex Glenn 12. Jaydn Su'a 13. Matt Gillett 14. Kotoni Staggs 15. David Fifita 16. Thomas Flegler 17. Tevita Pangai
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Matt Noyen; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Galea;