Storm sneaking under the radar

NRL News: The late R1 mail

THEY’VE almost been forgotten amid Manly’s World Club Challenge success and subsequent off-field downfall, but Melbourne Storm captain Cameron Smith has warned rivals not to under-estimate his side in 2009.

The Storm’s three-year dominance of the NRL came crashing down following last year’s humiliating 40-0 grand final loss and they have been further weakened over the off-season by the loss of Michael Crocker, Israel Folau, Matt Geyer and Jeremy Smith.

Yet Smith said he still expected his side to compete for top honours this season.
 
“I think we’ll still be up there for a few more years to come,” he said ahead of tonight’s season opener against St George Illawarra at Olympic Park.

“We still have an excellent roster and our key players all signed long-term now – Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, myself, Ryan Hoffman and Greg Inglis.

“We’ve got some others too that have experienced winning a World Cup with New Zealand now (Sika Manu and Adam Blair).

“So I still think we’ll be in the top four for a few more years.

“Even though we’ve lost players we’re still a quality side and I think there are plenty of other sides that wouldn’t mind having the players that we have.”

Smith five-eighth shock

Still, some questions are yet to be answered, such as how much time will Smith spend away from his favoured dummy-half position this season, and can the club cope with such an inexperienced backline?

The loss of Geyer and Folau, in-particular, has seen youngster Will Chambers and rookie Willie Isa named in the centres against the Dragons – although Inglis is tipped to spend more time in the centres in 2009 with Smith moving to five-eighth and new buy Ryan Hinchcliffe taking over at hooker.

Again, it throws up even more questions about the Storm’s title aspirations, with suggestions that they may be on a gradual downward spiral and mentally scarred from last year’s grand final thumping.

“But that won’t stop us trying to go out and win another premiership this season,” Smith said.

“Manly are still the team to beat, being premiers, but we’ll be out there trying to make sure that we’re back again in 2009.”

And that is essentially what this opening round is about – figuring out the favourites, the cellar-dwellers, the under-achievers and the disappointments.

Hayne gamble continues

Take Parramatta, for example, where new coach Daniel Anderson has taken the extraordinary step of moving former State of Origin and Test winger Jarryd Hayne to five-eighth and won all three trials in the process.

Asked today if Hayne could expect to see at least a little game time in his favoured fullback spot this season, Anderson said he had no plans to play mind games with the 21-year-old.

“I hope not anyway,” he said as the Eels prepare for an opening-round battle with his former club the Warriors in New Zealand.

“I’m hopeful that I can settle him in the one position and let him grow in that position. That’s the aim.

“You can never say with complete certainty that that’s it, because injuries and form dictate selection. But time will tell.

“I think over the first four to six weeks we’ll see every team putting in place their systems and structures and every coach gambling on debutantes.

“Especially for new coaches with new clubs, they’re going to take a fraction longer to get a grasp of the talent they have at their disposal.

“But everyone is fairly fit across the competition – nobody is really playing with injury – so it will be a very difficult opening round for everyone.”

Breaking News

In late team news, Steve Michaels will start in the centres for Brisbane with Alex Glenn moving back to the bench while Sika Manu is out of the Melbourne team after pulling up with hamstring soreness at training.

It's expected Wairangi Koopu will slot into Craig Bellamy's starting line-up.

Gold Coast pair Preston Campbell (ankle) and Ashley Harrison (shoulder) will turn out for the first time this year against Newcastle on Sunday after missing the trials.

NRL News: The late R1 mail