Schick Hydro Preview: Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos
The big storyline in this Round 3 Telstra Premiership match is the return of Billy Slater for the Melbourne Storm against the Brisbane Broncos at AAMI Park on Thursday night.
Slater has only played eight games in the past two years. He played seven in 2015 before succumbing to a shoulder injury and reinjured his shoulder in the Storm's season opener in 2016.
It's a huge morale boost for the undefeated Storm in their first home game of the season.
However, they take on a Brisbane side determined to bounce back after their unlucky 21-20 extra-time loss to the North Queensland Cowboys last Friday night.
The Broncos have been taking extra time practising their field-goal kicking at training this week, in anticipation of another tight encounter, and it's sure to be a close finish.
Why the Storm can win: Aside from the inspiring return of club icon Slater, the Storm are riding a wave of confidence after earning gritty wins on the road over the Canterbury Bulldogs and Warriors. Melbourne looked comfortable despite torrential wet-weather conditions in both of their victories. Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are in strong early-season form, guiding the side around the park and capitalising on their opportunities to score. Their back three of Josh Addo-Carr, Suliasi Vunivalu and Cameron Munster are firing on all cylinders, and no matter where Munster plays he is a constant threat. In a further boost, Jesse Bromwich is a possible addition, named in an extended squad two weeks earlier than predicted after a dislocated thumb injury. In their home opener for 2017, Melbourne will be eager to remain undefeated.
Why the Broncos can win: The Broncos' tough early-season schedule doesn't get any easier with their third consecutive match-up against a top-four side from 2016. Playing the reigning premiers Cronulla Sharks on the road in their season opener before last week's slim golden point loss, Brisbane are expecting another tight tussle in Melbourne. The Broncos forward pack has been impressive to start the season. Behind Sam Thaiday, Josh McGuire, Korbin Sims, Adam Blair and Matt Gillett, Brisbane's key to victory lies in dominating the forwards battle. Moreover, the last time the two sides met, the Broncos claimed a vital 26-16 win at AAMI Park in Round 25 last year. They'll be motivated to avoid a 1-2 start to the season.
Key match-up: Billy Slater v Darius Boyd. While it's extremely early to consider State of Origin selection, it will be interesting to see how fit Slater is in his first match back in almost 12 months. According to club officials, he has trained the house down in the pre-season and all has gone to according to plan in his comeback from a second shoulder operation. Boyd is the Maroons' current number one and will be determined for an impressive showing against the Origin legend in retaining his favoured fullback position.
 Telstra Premiership: Storm vs Broncos
The history: Played 40; Broncos 26; Storm 13; Drawn 1. The Broncos hold the advantage winning twice as many games against the Storm, and will also carry the psychological factor of beating Melbourne in their last meeting 26-16 at AAMI Park in Round 25 in 2016.
What are the odds: Sportsbet is holding around 50 per cent more money on the Storm in the head-to-head market, however in terms of individual bets, it's neck-and-neck between the two sides. 85 per cent of money bet on the winning margin is either the Storm or Broncos to win 1-12 so punters don't believe we'll see a runaway victory for either team. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Gerard Sutton, Matt Noyen. Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Rickey McFarlane. Video Referees: Ben Galea, Bernard Sutton
Televised: Channel Nine - Live coverage from 7.30pm; Fox League - Live coverage from 7.00pm.
NRL.com predicts: The Broncos are expecting this match to go right down to the wire, and rightly so. The Storm are resilient and always in the contest. This will be a thrilling high-quality contest featuring several Origin stars, and it won't disappoint. Brisbane will be motivated to avoid two straight losses and spoil the Storm's home opener. Broncos by one point.