Schick Preview: Melbourne Storm v St George Illawarra Dragons
The Storm host the Dragons in the first game of Monday night football for the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership season.
Both teams suffered heart-breaking finals exits last year and will be looking to make amends.
Melbourne were one win away from their second Grand Final appearance in four years, but were unable to beat eventual champions North Queensland. St George Illawarra were beaten by Canterbury in amazing fashion, going down in golden-point of their elimination final.
The Dragons have gained some important players in the off-season, but none more so then Russell Packer, who will fill the void in the prop position. Kurt Mann has also made the switch from the Storm to the Dragons, and he will get the chance to face his old club when these two sides collide on Monday night.
The Storm's biggest inclusion is then Billy Slater, who missed over half of the 2015 season with a shoulder injury. Slater is named in the team but is still under an injury cloud, so a decision on him may not be made until game day. Jesse Bromwich is coming off a very impressive 12 months, and Blake Green will look to elevate his game to another level this season.
Watch out Storm: Former Storm player Kurt Mann will slot in at fullback for the Dragons, which pushes Josh Dugan into the centres to partner Tim Lafai. The pairing of Dugan and Lafai has the potential to cause problems for the Storm, as they are without Cameron Munster. Young Tonumaipea comes into the Storm line-up, meaning that the Dragons will be looking to exploit the inexperienced backline of their opponents.
Watch out Dragons: Cooper Cronk believes he has had the best pre-season since 2012, and one of the best that the squad has had in recent years, which is enough to strike fear into any opposition. If Slater does in fact play on Monday night, look out for the big three of Cronk, Slater and Cam Smith to try and put on a show for the season opener.
Key Match-up: Cooper Cronk v Benji Marshall. Both halfbacks have had stellar careers in the NRL, but both are entering the twilight of their journey. Cronk and Marshall are both beginning the final year of their current contracts, and although they have the ability to continue to play first grade football, neither has yet to put pen to paper on a new deal. This match could be won and lost in the halves, and these two superstars will be looking to get a leg up on one another and lead their team to victory.
The history: Played 31; Storm 22, Dragons 8, Drawn 1. The Storm's record against the Dragons is quite a favourable one for the Melbourne side, as they’ve won four out of their past five encounters against St. George Illawarra. The Dragons have also lost all three matches against the Storm at AAMI Park.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters are quite interested in the big odds available for the Dragons, who are holding slightly more money than the Storm as far as head-to-head is concerned. There’s actually more money on St George-Illawarra to win 1-12 than there is on any other margin option, and Jason Nightingale has been the most popular in the first tryscorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds. Touch Judges: Jon Stone, Anthony Elliott. Review Officials: Ben Galea, Jared Maxwell. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports (Live) – 7.00pm AEDT
The way we see it: Both sides will be itching to start their season off on the right foot, and this match may be a lot closer then the odds are suggesting. Melbourne has a very strong overall record against the Dragons, and add in a home ground advantage for the Storm, and they should do just enough to get the win. Storm by 8.