IT’S doubtful whether new coach Wayne Bennett could have been dealt a stiffer test in his maiden first grade game at the helm of the Dragons, coming up against the benchmark side of the past three years and a team St George Illawarra have not beaten in Melbourne since 1999.
Of course, the Storm are also the side that bundled Bennett’s Broncos out of the 2008 premiership race in dramatic fashion in the last seconds of last year’s semi-finals.
But a new year brings new faces and new hope – for both sides.
Already the Red V have shown signs they have taken to Bennett’s directive to “toughen up” with some impressive trial form. They thumped the Roosters 54-6, displayed good attack to overcome a not-shabby Bulldogs outfit 24-12, before losing 18-6 to the Rabbitohs in the annual Charity Shield (where they appeared flat).
From those games Bennett has calculated two things: new recruit and former Bronco Darius Boyd is his best option at fullback (which consigns Brett Morris to NSW Cup duties for the moment), while Ben Hornby is the best man for the job at halfback (beating out the enigmatic Mat Head). Also, the captaincy will sit well on Hornby’s steadying shoulders.
Elsewhere, Chase Stanley gets his chance to cement a regular centres spot and ex-Raider Michael Weyman will start at prop. Former Storm back-rower Jeremy Smith goes up against his former team for the first time, locking the scrum for the Dragons.
Melbourne, meanwhile, are hitting their straps at the right time. They were rusty in a 24-12 loss to the Warriors, showed good attack in a 32-24 win over the Knights and then beat the Broncos 20-6.
Question marks remain over their depth after they shed some talent in the off-season but they remain a star-studded outfit. In the backline, their centres pairing takes on a new shape in the form of Will Chambers (back after a horror season out with injury) and Willie Isa. They are the weak link and will be tested.
Watch out Storm: Darius Boyd looms as a danger man. He was in devastating form for the Broncos last year, scoring 12 tries and making the most line breaks by any Bronco (15). Bennett knows Boyd has a creative mind – he also contributed seven try assists – so moving him from the flank to fullback could give the Dragons some much-needed flair.
Watch out Dragons: The St George Illawarra defence will need to hold tight from the word go. Despite losing Israel Folau to Brisbane the Storm have brilliance all around the park. They have the settling influence of the world’s best hooker in Cameron Smith, a consistent and reliable no.7 with a great kicking game in Cooper Cronk and arguably the two most devastating attacking weapons in fullback Billy Slater (averaged 140 metres a game in 2009) and five-eighth Greg Inglis (14 line breaks and 16 tries).
They also have prolific point-scorers on their flanks in Anthony Quinn (11 tries) and Steve Turner (nine tries). It’s no surprise Melbourne were the first try-scorers in nine of their 12 home games last season – the Dragons need to ‘weather’ the Storm early.
Where it will be won: The Dragons will target the inexperienced Storm centres. The loss of Folau is a huge blow, and Chambers (15 games) and Isa (0) will have their work cut out for them up against former Test centre Matt Cooper (nine tries and nine line breaks in 2008).
Add to that Jamie Soward’s cunning kicking game (17 try assists) and the Dragons are in with a heck of a show of a major upset.
The History: Played 21; Storm 15, Dragons 5, drawn 1. The Storm have won eight of the past nine; the Dragons sole win in that time came in round 10 last year with a 36-12 demolition over an Origin-depleted Storm outfit in Wollongong.
Conclusion: The Storm need to be prepared for a much tougher Dragons pack to the one they’ve matched up against in past years. It should be remembered the last time these sides met the Dragons went into the game determined not to be unsettled by the Storm – with the result that referee Gavin Badger (who officiates as second ref here) found it necessary to send off Dragons prop Jason Ryles for kicking.
While Ryles is no longer in the team there’s no question some niggle exists between the sides and Bennett will be itching for former Stormer Jeremy Smith to make a stand. Smith started in just 14 of his games for Melbourne last year and an increased workload is expected of him in 2009. While the bookies have the Storm firm favourites this is closer to a toss-of-the-coin affair. Expect total points to exceed 40.
Match officials: Referees Shayne Hayne & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Adam Devcich & Russell Turner; Video ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm (NSW), delayed 9.30pm (Qld). Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.