Dragons v Storm preview
St George Illawarra Dragons v Melbourne Storm
We can finally stop playing the will he or won't he game now that Storm skipper Cameron Smith has been named to play against the Dragons on Monday night.
The inspirational Queensland and Australian captain's early return from an ankle injury, which was supposed to rub him out for the first month of the season, is undoubtedly a huge boost for Melbourne as they gear up to play against a hugely renovated St George Illawarra outfit.
Dane Nielsen and George Rose will make their Red V debuts while Rory O'Brien and Eto Nabuli will make their NRL debuts against the Storm. The Dragons' spine of Benji Marshall, Gareth Widdop, Josh Dugan and Mitch Rein could make life difficult for Melbourne.
After signing with the Panthers this week, Trent Merrin will start on the bench with coach Paul McGregor preferring a back row of Joel Thompson, Tyson Frizell and captain Ben Creagh.
For Melbourne, Kurt Mann was selected in the centres over Mahe Fonua who will start 2015 in the Intrust Super Cup while Blake Green will join Cooper Cronk in the halves. Dale Finucane will make his Storm debut at lock with Felise Kaufusi (NRL debut) and Ryan Hinchcliffe (150th NRL appearance) also racking up milestones from the interchange.
Watch out Dragons: While Melbourne come face-to-face with one of their former chargers in Widdop, a secret weapon in Green is set to rejuvenate Craig Bellamy's team. With Ben Hampton and Ben Roberts struggling to keep up with Cronk last season, Green may prove to be the answer to the Storm's troublesome five-eighth role. In the former Dog, Shark and Eel, the Storm have a veteran who earned the Harry Sunderland Trophy – England's answer to the Clive Churchill Medal – thanks to his show stealing performance for Wigan in the 2013 Super League Grand Final.
Watch out Storm: His one season stint in Melbourne last year didn't quite go the way he wanted, but with coach McGregor trusting veteran prop George Rose to start in the Red V jumper for the first time, expect the 31-year-old to shine. A man of the match performance in the NRL All Stars fixture – where he made 14 tackles and ran for 148.2 metres – was something special.
Key Match-Up: Josh Dugan vs. Billy Slater – In what could be a sneak peak at the State of Origin fullback matchup later in the year, Dugan and Slater's showings will be vital. Slater certainly has the edge considering he played 22 games at fullback in 2014 with Dugan playing half the year in the centres. Regardless, in key areas from last season, Slater and Dugan posted similar stats in terms of tries (Slater 12, Dugan 10), tackle breaks (Slater 92, Dugan 89) and metres gained (Slater 144.1 per game, Dugan 121.2 per game).
The History: Played 29, Dragons 8, Storm 20, Drawn 1. Since 2008, every time the Dragons have beaten the Storm they have lost the next two fixtures against them. In what could be seen as bad news for the Red V faithful, the Dragons accounted for Melbourne 24-12 back in Round 16, 2014. Does this mean another two losses against their more fancied opponents beckon?
What are the Odds: The Dragons have attracted double the punts for the match with the Storm getting little interest with their line of -2.0. Marika Koroibete and Eto Nabuli are dividing the punters money for first try scorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Adam Devcich; Assistant Referee – David Munro; Sideline Officials – Rick McFarlane and Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live (7pm)
The Way We See It: With Smith overcoming his ankle injury, it is very hard to go past the Storm against a Dragons team hosting plenty of new faces. Don't think for a second that the Red V will be pushovers though. Storm by 4.