South Sydney players are on alert to counter Cameron Smith’s increasing role as a playmaker for Melbourne in Friday night’s top of the table clash at ANZ Stadium.
The Storm will be out to equal the Rabbitohs' recent nine-match winning streak and claim outright leadership of the Telstra Premiership, without the services of star halfback Cooper Cronk, who moved to the Sydney Roosters in the off-season.
Jahrome Hughes has assumed the No.7 jersey after Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy started the season with Brodie Croft at halfback before handing the role to Ryley Jacks.
However, the loss of Cronk has been offset by Smith taking on more of the play-making duties. Statistics from matches this season show he is handling the ball at first receiver more than three times as often as he was two years ago.
Fullback Billy Slater is also more involved at first receiver and he laid on a try for winger Josh Addo-Carr with a grubber kick in last weekend’s defeat of Canberra, while it was a long pass from Smith which led to centre Curtis Scott scoring just before half-time.
While Smith wasn’t officially credited with any try assists in the 44-10 win at AAMI Park, the veteran hooker had a hand in all but one of the Storm’s seven tries against the Raiders.
"I think Cameron might be doing a bit more there, he is an experienced player, he has played so many Origins, Australia and is the leader of that club.
"Billy is at the back and they have got some big boys up the front who have played some big matches. So even though they have lost Cooper I don’t think they have lost too much."
As Hughes is more accustomed to playing fullback, with five-eighth Cameron Munster also considered a ball runner rather than an organising half, Smith and Slater have taken on more of the play-making duties.
According to statistics for the past three years, Smith is spending more time at first receiver than in previous seasons and has already received the ball more often in that role than he did in 2017 or 2016.
In 2018 matches, Smith has handled the ball seven times at first receiver on one occasion, six times in two other games and five times in another two matches. He is averaging 3.3 receipts per match at first receiver compared to 0.9 per match in 2016 and 2.0 last season.
"I think the three halves who have come in for them have done a good job for them and I think the young fellow there at the moment is doing a terrific job," Souths halfback Adam Reynolds said. "I think he is a traditional fullback but he is playing with a lot of confidence.
"They are all similar players, they have got good running games and are selective with their passes. Cam Smith has got a great kicking game and when you throw in Billy Slater, who is a great player as well, they have got strike all over the park."
After winning nine in a row, the longest winning streak of the season so far, the Rabbitohs crashed to Wests Tigers two weeks ago before coming from behind to beat last placed Parramatta last Saturday.
In an encouraging sign, Reynolds believes Souths’ best football is ahead of them and he said they were confident of ending Melbourne’s eight-game streak on Friday night.
“We have had a good look at them and we have come up with a game plan we think can put a stop to them but it comes back to execution on the night. We need to be clinical and turn up ready to play,” he said.
“I don’t think we have put a good performance on the field yet. We need to put in a good 80-minute performance otherwise teams like Melbourne will put points on us and make it tough to win the game.
“I see that as an upside for us because we know we can get better and that is what we plan to do.”