Round 17: Storm v Dragons preview
Competition heavyweights face off minus stars
Producing a clutch victory over the Roosters in a contest tailor made for rugby league purists, the Storm will have high hopes against the competition leaders despite the omissions of six New South Wales and Queensland representatives. Holding a 30% record since 2010 in matches directly impacted by Origin, Thursday night will mark the first time in 15 years that Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith has featured for the Storm in the round leading up to the revered interstate series. With Melbourne notoriously suffering without their star players over the years, the good fortune of drawing a Dragons' outfit missing their own swath of stars should ensure a closer than expected contest. With just five members of the 2017 premiership winning team available for the Round 17 affair due to Origin, injury and player transfers, the reshuffle brought on by Craig Bellamy will see Brodie Croft return to the NRL for his first appearance since April, prop Christian Welch feature in his 50th game for the club, while Young Tonumaipea will line up at fullback for his final appearance before embarking on a two-year Mormon mission. Tied on 22 competition points alongside Penrith and New Zealand, the reigning premiers should have little trouble amassing the necessary wins to feature in the play-offs with eight rounds to play, but with top four positions at a premium, the opportunity to capitalise upon the depleted Dragons should inspire a strong showing from the spare parts Storm side.
Salvaging an undeserved victory against the luckless Eels in Wollongong last Thursday, the Dragons will be fully aware of the need for a greatly improved showing if they are to break a horror record in Melbourne. Winless at every venue the Storm have called home throughout the 21st century, the absence of Origin quintet Ben Hunt, Paul Vaughan, Tyson Frizell, Jack de Belin and Blues debutant Tariq Sims will test the side's depth, but having blooded several rookies throughout 2018 in preparation for Thursday's affair, coach Paul McGregor will have optimism in the fresh faces stepping up to the pressures of first grade. Handing Jacob Host, Luciano Leilua, Hame Sele and Blake Lawrie increased responsibility given the side's decimated forward pack, Thursday night will serve as a reward for perseverance when halfback Darren Nicholls make his NRL debut at age 29 having spent the past decade in the NSW and QLD state leagues. Securing a place in the finals having shown their class consistently over the first two-thirds of the competition, the response produced by the Dragons following last week's get-out-of-jail win should prove telling in determining whether the Parramatta result was an anomaly or dangerous signs of an imminent slump capable of once again conjuring accusations of ‘chokers' upon the joint venture.
Who to watch: Granted a first grade recall after spending the past three months relegated with Easts Tigers in the Intrust Super Cup, Brodie Croft will be looking to make the most of his long-awaited opportunity back in the NRL. Touted as the heir apparent to Cooper Cronk while still a teenager after showing glimpses of promise in limited game time, the 20-year-old halfback was made the scapegoat for the Storm's middling form over the opening rounds with his proficiency to execute set plays and manage the flow of matches resulting in an overhaul of Melbourne's post-premiership expectations. Faced with the unenviable task of replacing one of the greatest playmakers of the fulltime professional era, the weight of expectation upon the young Queenslander was unrealistic for any player boasting first grade appearances in the single digits, however in being granted a reprieve and further honing his skills in the less scrutinous environment of Queensland's state league, Croft may prove to be the long term playmaker Melbourne need having experienced the hardship of being dropped only to emerge with the resilience needed to succeed as a first grader.
While he may be ineligible for the Rookie of the Year title having featured in seven matches for the Dragons at the end of 2017, Matt Dufty has proven to be the newfound spark needed to transform the joint venture into genuine premiership contenders. As the only Dragons player to consistently threaten the Eels in last week's undeserving victory in Wollongong, the 22-year-old speedster demonstrated instances of innate talent combined with determined application culminating in the match-winning play to touch down underneath the posts with mere minutes remaining on the clock. As the undisputed fastest man at St. George Illawarra and among the elite flyers throughout the entire competition, Dufty's defining attribute may not be as potent should injury befall him, but in a side that has lacked the pace to turn half chances into four-pointers in the years that have followed Brett Morris' Red V departure, the presence of the most-prolific try-scorer in the history of the National Youth Competition should prove pivotal as the Dragons march towards their first genuine tilt at the title since Wayne Bennett's tenure.
The favourite: Despite missing six players to Origin commitments, the presence of Cameron Smith has Melbourne well supported to record a fifth straight win.