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Melbourne begin life without Billy Slater as they prepare to take on Brisbane in the season opener for 2019 on Thursday night.
For the better part of two decades, Melbourne have operated with Slater and Cooper Cronk steering the team around the paddock, but after Cronk’s departure at the end of 2017, Slater has joined him after retiring at the end of last season.
It means Cameron Smith is the only member of the iconic ‘Big Three’ left remaining at the Storm, but as long as he’s there – along with master coach Craig Bellamy – Melbourne will always be a threat and among the leading contenders for the title.
Jahrome Hughes is the man to replace Slater at fullback, while Cameron Munster and Brodie Croft start the season in the halves.
Brisbane meanwhile begin life with new coach Anthony Seibold, who arrives at the club following an impressive debut season with the Rabbitohs.
The Broncos have been underwhelming for a number of years now, and that continued last season as they were eliminated in the first week of the finals by the Dragons.
Much will be expected of Jack Bird after the utility suffered through an injury-prone 2018, while there will be a debut off the bench for 19-year-old prop Thomas Flegler.
Melbourne have had the wood over Brisbane over the years, winning 22 of their 26 meetings since the Broncos beat them in the 2006 Grand Final. The Storm also traditionally start the season on fire, and with a full off-season under their belt, Bellamy will have his team fine-tuned to the maximum for this match. Expect the Storm to open 2019 with a win.
Every year it seems Melbourne face a crossroads with their squad future – and every year Melbourne defy their doubters. In 2019 they enter a season where arguably the sport’s greatest fullback Billy Slater has retired, where they have made no notable recruitment – and yet are deservedly a Premiership favourite. In coach Craig Bellamy the Storm have NRL’s longest tenured coach, they possess a ruthless forward pack and in wingers Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr two of the game’s best finishers.
A disappointing 2018 Grand Final performance will have left a sour taste in the Storm’s mouths – and with the motivation to go one better in 2019.
New Broncos coach – new Broncos era. 2018 Dally M Coach of the Year Anthony Seibold left South Sydney in somewhat acrimonious circumstances to move north and take on the challenge of breaking Brisbane’s Premiership drought. No titles since 2006 is unacceptable for Brisbane, will a coach with only one full season of NRL head coaching experience be the man to bring the Premiership back to Red Hill?
Only two tries scored in 160 minutes is a red flag for Melbourne– and Scott Drinkwater’s torn pectoral muscle inadvertently answers Bellamy’s fullback conundrum as Jahrome Hughes is now given first chance to fill Slater’s shoes.
There’s no doubting Tevita Pangai Junior’s talent – but unfortunately another hamstring injury suffered by the Tongan international means the Broncos will be relying heavily on Matt Gillett making a seamless return to NRL level from a broken neck to lead their forward pack loaded with young talent.
Storm: 1 Jahrome Hughes 2 Suliasi Vunivalu 3 William Chambers 4 Curtis Scott 5 Joshua Addo-Carr 6 Cameron Munster 7 Brodie Croft 8 Jesse Bromwich 9 Cameron Smith (c) 10 Nelson Asofa-Solomona 11 Felise Kaufusi 12 Kenny Bromwich 13 Dale Finucane.
Interchange: 14 Brandon Smith 15 Christian Welch 16 Tui Kamikamica 17 Patrick Kaufusi. Reserves: 18 Ryan Papenhuyzen 19 Thomas Eisenhuth 20 Billy Walters 21 Marion Seve.
Broncos: 1 Darius Boyd 2 Corey Oates 3 James Roberts 4 Jack Bird 5 Jamayne Isaako 6 Anthony Milford 7 Kodi Nikorima 8 Matt Lodge 9 Andrew McCullough 10 Joe Ofahengaue 11 Alex Glenn 12 Jaydn Su’A 13 Matt Gillett.
Interchange: 14 Kotoni Staggs 15 David Fifita 16 Thomas Flegler 17 Tevita Pangai Junior. Reserves: 18 Shaun Fensom 19 Patrick Carrigan 20 Sean O’Sullivan 21 Gehamat Shibasaki.