Stars align in Townsville
Melbourne star back-rower Ryan Hoffman says this is one of those weeks when the Storm have to try to cope with a dose of their own medicine.
It doesn’t happen very often that the opposition fields a player capable of matching it for magic tricks with Melbourne’s stars, but there is no question that North Queensland halfback Johnathan Thurston, who confirmed on Monday he’ll be staying in Townsville for four more years, is among that rare breed.
The Storm travel to Townsville to play the Cowboys at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday, and Hoffman says Thurston, provided a timely reminder of his brilliance with his display in North Queensland's 24-12 first-round win over Canterbury.
"'JT' is one of those guys you simply have to worry about," Hoffman told NRL. "I watched the Cowboys against the Bulldogs and you could tell that JT's enthusiasm was rubbing off on all of his teammates. It was a really professional performance from the Cowboys, and he led the way."
Melbourne's trio of superstars – Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk – grab most of the headlines on behalf of the club, but the Storm are no different to any other team in that they have to be able to compete through the forwards in order to help set up wins.
Second-rower Hoffman, who had a terrific match in Melbourne's rousing 30-10 win over St George Illawarra at AAMI Park on Sunday – he ran 116 metres, made a line-break and set up Justin O’Neill’s first try in the 34th minute – said he and his fellow Storm forwards would treat a game against the Cowboys as a means of judging where they were at as a pack.
"The Cowboys are going to be a very tough side to beat this year," Hoffman said. "They're very strong in the forwards, with guys like (James) Tamou and (Matt) Scott leading the way, and Thurston and (Matt) Bowen are very dangerous out wide, coming off the back of that.
"This is going to be a great game for us to really test ourselves early in the season. You want to play high-quality opposition to get a genuine gauge on how you're going, and we know how big a team they are and how difficult it's going to be.
"But we enjoy going up to North Queensland to play. We love the challenge."
Apart from the first-round rust that all teams suffer from, the Storm were impressive against the Dragons. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for the club was that the players appeared fresh in the wake of their trip to England for the World Club Challenge.
Hoffman said he finished the game feeling good, despite having played the full 80 minutes on a hot day.
"It's been a seamless transition for us, from England back to Australia," he said. "The only difference has been the weather, but we've handled the two extremes of that pretty well.
"We were preparing from weeks ahead for the trip to England. Our sports science department had us following a regimented plan, to do with sleep, hydration, diet and training, and we followed all the protocols on the flight over and once we got there.
"That sort of trip can flatten a team for the start of the season, but we seem to have gotten over it pretty well. We were given a bit of time to let our hair down and enjoy ourselves as well, while we were over there, and the trip hasn't been the shock to the system that it can be."
Hoffman's great form towards the end of last season won him a return to the Australian team for the post-season Test against New Zealand. It was his first Test since 2009. Now, the 29-year-old is poised to press for a return to the NSW team this year. His last State of Origin game was in 2008.
"I feel like I've still got a lot to give to NSW and Australia," Hoffman said. "But my focus has got to be on playing well for Melbourne. I got caught up in making the rep stuff my focus in the past, and I was worrying too much about making the rep teams rather than what I had to do to get into the teams.
"That distracted me from concentrating on my job at Melbourne, and had a negative effect on my football. I was focusing on the outcome rather than the process, but I've since gone back to focusing purely on the process. If you're playing well enough, you'll make the rep sides.
"I'm confident I've got some really good football ahead of me. I really enjoyed my stint overseas with Wigan in 2011 – that was probably the freshen-up I needed. I felt really good last year, and I think it showed in my football. I think the best years of my footy career are still ahead of me."