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Storm v Sea Eagles: Brandon Smith starts; Hodkinson on bench

Remember when Melbourne had the big four of Smith, Slater, Inglis and Cronk and were almost unbeatable?

That killer quartet was trimmed to three when Inglis joined the Rabbitohs, but the Storm simply moved on and continued on their winning ways.

Now there's only Smith and Slater remaining after Cronk packed his bags for Sydney, but still the wins keep coming. And when you consider how much time Slater spent on the sidelines with injuries over the past two or three years, the one common denominator in all the premierships and minor premierships has been Smith.

Brilliant as the other three are, ever wondered what the Storm's record would look like if Smith had exited the club instead of Inglis? Or if Smith rather than Slater missed almost two full seasons of football?

When he eventually retires Smith will have a compelling case as the greatest rugby league player of all time. Yes he occasionally yaps too much to try and influence referees, but he's a one in a million player and the Storm are under pressure on Saturday to prove they can function without their illustrious leader, who is suspended this week over a dangerous contact charge on the Titans' Kevin Proctor.

For their part, Manly snapped a five-game winning streak with an impressive victory over the Broncos in Brisbane on Saturday night and will be sensing another upset here, with the Trbojevic brothers and Daly Cherry-Evans in form and Trent Hodkinson set to return to the club to boost the squad's stocks in the halves.

Key match-up: Just about everybody believes Cameron Munster is on a path to stardom (if he isn't already there). The Storm have a horrible record when Cam Smith doesn't play, and this game is an ideal opportunity for Munster to show he is ready to take the reins of this team in a couple of years when both Billy Slater and Smith have called it a day. Dylan Walker will line up directly opposite Munster in the No.6 jersey, but it's Sea Eagles halfback Daly Cherry-Evans that he has to out-play.

For the Storm to win: First and foremost, come out with the attitude to prove wrong anybody who says they can't win without Smith. The Storm still have some pretty handy players that Manly have to worry about, with Slater and Munster no doubt relishing the opportunity to cover for their great leader. Melbourne will have to play better than they did last week against the Titans.

For the Sea Eagles to win: They aren't back in serious finals reckoning, but after five straight losses, Manly breathed a big sigh of relief with last week's convincing win over the Broncos. If they can find holes and space in the defence like they did last week (though it's hard to imagine they will) and exploit any weaknesses arising through Smith's absence, the Sea Eagles are capable of making it two on the trot.

Storm stat attack: Josh Addo-Carr – a Blues certainty if the rumours are true – leads the NRL in tries (12) and line breaks (11). Prop Sam Kasiano was due to play his 150th NRL match but will have to delay the occasion after being suspended for dangerous contact to the head of Titans forward Jarrod Wallace.

Sea Eagles stat attack: Hooker Apisai Koroisau has made more tackles (428) than any other player in the 2018 Telstra Premiership, while Jake Trbojevic is the competition's most penalised player (16). Manly have lost five of their past six games in Melbourne.

And another thing: Tom Trbojevic might end up grabbing a spot on the NSW Origin team bench, but he's probably just a tiny bit behind James Tedesco in the battle for the No.1 jersey. Turbo Tom still has time to get the nod from Blues coach Brad Fittler and will certainly boost his chances with a big game against Slater – arguably rugby league's all-time greatest fullback.

Storm v Sea Eagles - Round 11

Melbourne Storm v Manly Sea Eagles, Saturday 7.35pm at AAMI Park

Storm: 1 Billy Slater (c), 2 Suliasi Vunivalu, 3 Will Chambers, 4 Curtis Scott, 5 Josh Addo-Carr, 6 Cameron Munster, 7 Ryley Jacks, 8 Christian Welch, 9 Brandon Smith, 10 Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 11 Felise Kaufusi, 12 Ryan Hoffman, 13 Dale Finucane

Interchange: 14 Tim Glasby, 15 Kenny Bromwich, 16 Joe Stimson, 20 Harry Grant

Brandon Smith starts at hooker for suspended skipper Cameron Smith, while Harry Grant joins the bench. Utility Tim Glasby (thumb) returns on the bench for Sam Kasiano (suspension). Patrick Kaufusi, Justin Olam, Jahrome Hughes and Brodie Croft dropped out of the initial 21-man squad.

Sea Eagles: 1 Tom Trbojevic, 2 Matthew Wright, 3 Moses Suli, 4 Brian Kelly, 5 Akuila Uate, 6 Dylan Walker, 7 Daly Cherry-Evans (c), 8 Addin Fonua-Blake, 9 Apisai Koroisau, 10 Martin Taupau, 11 Joel Thompson, 12 Shaun Lane, 13 Jake Trbojevic

Interchange: 14 Trent Hodkinson, 15 Frank Winterstein, 16 Lloyd Perrett, 17 Toafofoa Sipley

The Sea Eagles are 1-17, with Tom Wright, Lewis Brown, Jorge Taufua and Tevita Funa dropping out of the initial squad named on Tuesday. Mid-season recruit Trent Hodkinson will come off the bench.

Head-to-head: Played 32; Storm 18 wins, Sea Eagles 13 wins, 1 draw
Matches at venue: Played 6; Storm 4 wins, Sea Eagles 1 win, 1 draw
2017 results: Storm won 30-26 at Lottoland in round 7 and 40-6 at AAMI Park in round 21
Points per game: Storm 25.4; Sea Eagles 22.2
Points conceded per game: Storm 15.9; Sea Eagles 24.7
Televised: Live on Fox League

Steve Turner's prediction: Melbourne have been dealt a big blow with Cameron Smith to miss the match through suspension. It's a big loss for the Storm, but they're a club that for many years have been able to deal with adversity. Manly finally registered a win after five weeks of disappointment. The Sea Eagles win was thanks largely to Jake and Tom Trbojevic as well as Api Koroisau. When Manly play well, it's off the back of these three men through the middle of the ruck. Manly are up and about after their win, while the Storm will be out to prove the critics wrong that they can win without Smith and throw in the rivalry, Saturday night's clash should be a beauty.
Tip: Storm by 6

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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