Slater says Munster still the man
Melbourne Storm custodian Billy Slater has no doubts Cameron Munster has the quality and temperament to become the dominant half now that Cooper Cronk has left the Victorian capital.
Recent media reports of a scuffle between Munster and Bent Hunt while the pair were on World Cup duty together for the Kangaroos, have been dismissed by both players.
But Munster was sent home for a brief break from the team hotel in Darwin, where Australia played its quarter-final match against Samoa. The talented five-eighth then returned to the Kangaroos camp.
Slater spoke in Melbourne on Monday and was asked if Munster possessed the qualities yet that Storm wanted in their senior leadership group.
Munster is about to enter his fifth year of NRL after making his Origin and Test debut last season, along with winning a premiership.
"Cameron Munster is not in the leadership group as yet, but he's in our emerging leaders," Slater told reporters at AAMI Park, where Storm plays a closed-door trial against the Newcastle Knights on Wednesday before facing the Leeds Rhinos in the World Club Challenge on February 16.
"He's been impressive since I've come back into training. There's been no signs of complacency there," Slater added.
"I think it (leadership) will naturally happen for him. Look he's a natural football player; he's a brilliant football player at that.
"He'll evolve into becoming a leader at this club. With Cooper leaving he'll take that on board and move into that role. Cooper orchestrated everything and directed most things out on the field. Myself and Cam Smith will have to step up and take a little bit of that role as well."
Wednesday's game against the Knights is a little too soon for Slater to pull on the No.1 jersey again, since he and Smith only returned from their post-World Cup rest two weeks ago.
But Slater, who enters his 16th season of NRL this year, will be there for the WCC.
"It's come around pretty quick. I've only been back for a couple of weeks. But the opportunity to play in WCC is a privilege," he said.
"I feel I've been privileged enough to play in three – this will be my fourth. I'm looking forward to playing it home for the first time.
"The title of world champions in club land is up for grabs and we take that as pretty important to us. I'm sure Leeds do as well. Leeds are a very proud club so it should be a good game."
He assumes his 'twin' Cameron Smith – both men share the same June 1983 birthday – will present himself for the Leeds game.
"I've not spoken to Cam about playing but I think Cam would put his hand up to play as he enjoys the big games.
"This is certainly a big game. It is as the start of the year which is a little rare, but at the end of the day it's a World Club Challenge. You've got to win the competition to be able to play it, so it's a privilege to be able to play in a game like this."
As for who will wear Cronk's No.7 alongside Munster at No.6, Slater deferred to coach Craig Bellamy.
"Who partners (Munster) in the halves is still up in the air and I'm sure Craig will look at all options during the trials," Slater said.
Slater is undecided about his playing future beyond 2018, with his contract is up for renewal.
"Naturally you do have thoughts. But I haven't made a decision what I do past this year. You'll probably have to annoy me all year," Slater said smiling.
"I'll make that decision down the track. I don't think I'd leave it to the end of the year but at the moment I'm just enjoying being back at training and looking forward to the start of the season.
"I've said in the past this is more than likely be my last year, and maybe it will be. But I'm not going to put a definitive answer on that yet.
"It's always been a physical thing with me. I've been mentally okay to play on and I'm still hungry; I still want to compete. But the body is starting to tap me on the shoulder as I'm 34… 35 this year.
"As long as the body can keep holding up I'll be okay to go on."
An addition to the list of who is impressing Slater most at training is Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs recruit, Sam Kasiano – the prop forward with the silky hands.
"He's looking pretty fit at the moment. He can pass and he plays like a halfback. He's another guy who's been really impressive during the off-season.
"He's shown a lot of commitment to get himself in great shape. I've never seen Sam look this good.
"We all know what type of player he is and what he possesses on the field so I'm really looking forward to playing alongside him."
Finally, the dreaded 'Can the Storm go back-to-back?' in Telstra Premierships question raised its head.
"I'll answer that in two ways. Obviously with some big names going – Cooper, Tohu (Harris) and Jordan (McLean) – they are huge losses to the club. But that gives opportunities to someone like Sam. We get Ryan Hoffman back. We had a lot of depth last year and those guys are really stepping up again.
"In terms of defending the premiership we don't really look at it like that. This is the 2018 side and everyone is at the starting blocks again. We're certainly not in front of anyone else. Everyone is starting from the same starting line.
"It's important we get a good start and focus on this year. Of course 2017 was a fantastic year for us and will always be a part of our history and we acknowledge that. But it's important to focus on what we can achieve this year."