Tolman wary of junior Stormers
Workaholic Bulldogs prop Aiden Tolman knows, through experience, not to underestimate Melbourne Storm's 'B-team' at ANZ Stadium on Sunday – he cut his teeth in the NRL in the same circumstances the Storm’s ambitious youngsters confront in the grand final replay that is without six State of Origin reps.
Tolman was a 19-year-old with just one NRL appearance behind him when he had to stand up as an interchange forward in 2008 when, for the only time, the Storm had to play without their stars before all three Origin encounters.
It was without doubt their most difficult mission without eight Origin players and Blues coach Craig Bellamy for two games – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Israel Folau, Brett White, Ryan Hoffman, Anthony Quinn and Dallas Johnson and nine for another when Steve Turner was added to the NSW line-up. Those were three of Tolman's first four NRL experiences.
Melbourne are decidedly better prepared five years later with the numbers down to four, albeit their 'Big Three' of Slater, Smith and Cooper Cronk along with Hoffman, and Tolman knows it is an opportunity for talented up-and-comers to prove their worth and try to snare some high-profile scalps, just as he was determined to do in his debut season.
The Storm under Bellamy are as good as any NRL outfit in bringing in newcomers and having them look comfortable with their roles and not be overawed by any occasion. Tolman expects nothing different in a match the Bulldogs simply must win to create any momentum towards the finals after the following week's bye.
And it's in the forwards where he knows the Storm still measure up. Kevin Proctor made his debut in Tolman's second NRL game as a fellow fill-in before Origin I in '08. Joe Tomane, now a Wallaby winger, also debuted as the Storm B-team that season when they almost upset Parramatta, then running eighth (going down 24-22 away), before Origin III.
The following year the Storm, without Smith, Inglis, Slater and Johnson, beat Wests Tigers 14-12 when the Tigers were desperate for victory to keep touch with the eight. So he knows there is no room for complacency.
"They have blooded a lot of young players already this this year in Tohu Harris, Jordan McLean and Ben Hampton as they've had a few injuries and players out in Origin before this," Tolman tells NRL.com. "And you look at their pack and Jessie Bromwich is an international and Bryan Norrie, Ryan Hinchcliffe and Kevin Proctor have been around for a while.
"Their young guys are doing a good job for them, so we have to be strong in the forwards; that is where we have been lacking this year. I thought last week we out in a pretty strong performance, but didn't come away with the points.
"One thing about Melbourne is that when one player is out there always seems to be another ready to come in and do the job which is a credit to the Storm and Craig Bellamy as coach; I know it is something they pride themselves on as it was a goal when I was there.
"We're not sitting in the eight and we need to put some points together and get some confidence in the side to make the finals series. The experienced guys have to do a good job this weekend and we have to win; we have to turn up."
Tolman has been the rock for the Bulldogs this season. He has not missed a match and his 16 appearances match the combined tally of his three fellow specialist props Sam Kasiano (six games), James Graham (three) and Martin Taupou (seven).
With fellow Graham now with some match fitness after three games since suspension forced his late start to the season and Kasiano back after struggling with injuries, Tolman has the armoury around him with Tony Williams, Frank Pritchard and Greg Eastwood giving Canterbury, on paper, a pack that rates second to no-one.
However if they underestimate the likes of Bromwich, Hinchcliffe, Norrie, Proctor, Harris and Siosaia Vave, they could be in danger of becoming a casualty against this young Storm side.
"I don't think we've been so bad in the past couple of weeks (losses to the Roosters and Knights, after four straight wins) but the two losses were very disappointing," he said. "As a whole team we need to stand up, be accountable for our performances and start to put some consistency."
Tolman hopes Kasiano's return is the start of a long run of appearances which has the capacity to give the Dogs an edge in a pack that was almost unmatchable at this time in 2012.
"When Sam is playing well he is one of the most damaging players in the game but he has some injury problems this year but when he has played, he's been playing well. He just needs to string a few games together and get his confidence back. He's so hard to stop and is a ball playing forward and that's what makes him so dangerous.
"And James has been one of our most consistent since he's come back.
"This is definitely massive game for us, it's a four-point game as we don’t want to be going into the bye with three straight losses, we need to get the win to keep in touch with the eight and have the confidence going into the bye."