Oates in doubt, Hunt to start for Broncos
Brisbane Broncos winger Corey Oates is in major doubt for Friday's clash with the Melbourne Storm after waking on Thursday morning with a mystery illness that is bringing pain to the lower half of his body.
It is a major blow to the Broncos' chances of snapping an eight-year winless streak against the Storm at Suncorp Stadium, with Oates's match-up with Melbourne flyer Suliasi Vunivalu of vital importance to Brisbane's winning hopes.
Vunivalu scored three tries in Oates's absence this time last year, putting on a clinic as the Storm ran out 48-6 winners.
He marked utility Kodi Nikorima that night, a makeshift winger who covered for Oates after the former Queensland Maroon left the field with concussion in the 18th minute.
The 174cm Nikorima faced a tall order against one of the best finishers in the competition, with Vunivalu using his 18cm height advantage to terrorise the 23-year-old.
However, the Broncos are better prepared this time around, with the talented Jonus Pearson set to start opposite Vunivalu if Oates fails to run out on Friday night.
Although Oates is still a slim chance to play, coach Wayne Bennett said it is very unlikely at this stage.
"It is probably an inappropriate word to use but he has a virus. Something has affected his lower back, legs and groin," Bennett said.
"He woke up with it and he's not real mobile. We'll get him checked out today but at this stage he's not playing.
"If he wakes up tomorrow morning feeling good then we'll play him but that doesn't look like being the case. It was just an overnight thing.
"We aren't really sure what it is. It has just affected his lower limbs.
"We had a similar situation with Ben Hunt a couple of years ago. I don't think it's too serious."
Brisbane have made another change to their line-up, with halfback Ben Hunt coming into the starting side at the expense of Nikorima who will come off the bench as a utility.
It caps off a dramatic month of football for Hunt who has gone from Broncos outcast to the team's first-choice halfback in just a matter of weeks.
However, Hunt is no guarantee to stay a starter, with Bennett hinting that his sliding doors approach to the Broncos' halves conundrum may continue.
"Ben will start tomorrow with Kodi on the bench. His performance last week was pretty important," he said.
"I'll keep rotating them around a bit for a little while as we head towards the end of the season.
"Ben's performance against Canberra was as good a performance as he's had for 18 months. He has to try and maintain that now."
Hunt was instrumental in Brisbane's 10-point victory over the Raiders, laying on two try assists and forcing four dropouts in an inspiring performance off the bench.
The 27-year-old now gets a chance to cement a starting position for the rest of the season and Bennett will be keeping a keen eye on his halfback as the master coach looks to solidify his starting line-up heading into the back end of the season.
"It's not a battle. At the moment I'm just trying to determine who does the best job there," Bennett said of his options at halfback.
"Ben gets an opportunity this week after doing a great job last week. Kodi has been good as well.
"It's not a crucial time of the season yet, but in the next five or six weeks we will have to finalise what our best 17 is and go from there."