Melbourne are working on a secret plan for skipper Cameron Smith in 2019 that will help rejuvenate their attack in the absence of Billy Slater.
Storm officials are remaining tight-lipped about their plans for the captain, however it is understood he will be playing out of his regular hooker position at times throughout this season.
NRL.com understands he may be used as a ball-playing lock or as an extra half while Brandon Smith is on the field in the hooker role.
It won’t change his defensive load, but it could ease the pressure on Cameron Munster having someone with Smith’s experience sitting behind the ruck and directing traffic.
Kiwi hooker Brandon Smith has been told he will get an opportunity to spend some time at hooker off the bench this year, but the Storm won’t want their captain off the field unless the result is beyond doubt.
It’s why coach Craig Bellamy is tinkering with a number of options to utilise the former Australian and Queensland international.
In previous years Brandon Smith has come on as an extra forward, but the time has come for him to spend some time at hooker.
With Cameron signing for another two years, the Storm don’t want Brandon to be cast aside and allow any thoughts of departing Melbourne to creep in.
Their latest plan will keep Brandon happy, lessen Cameron’s workload and provide spark to an attack already oozing with strike power.
"I’ve been training at hooker for a bit and he’s been sitting out," Brandon said.
"Hopefully I get a little shot (at hooker). I think it will all depend on how the game is going. If the games are tight I don’t think they are going to pull Cameron Smith off and pull me in.
"He’s getting older, he’s not looking it. He doesn’t feel it, I don’t think. They’ve said to me they want me to play a lot more hooker this year and if I get that opportunity I will take it with both hands."
Dogs hook into player market
The Bulldogs have highlighted the hooker role as a priority in recruitment for 2020, identifying three potential targets for next season.
The club has begun making enquiries with Cronulla’s Blayke Brailey, St George Illawarra’s Reece Robson and Wests Tigers rake Jacob Liddle.
All three players are off contract at the end of 2019, while current hooker Michael Lichaa is also on the final year of his deal with Canterbury.
The Sharks are desperate to keep Brailey, but his older brother Jayden is the starting hooker and is contracted until the end of 2020.
It is expected both brothers will work in tandem for John Morris’s side this year, with Blayke tipped to make his Telstra Premiership debut following the departure of James Segeyaro.
The Dragons have a huge opinion of Robson, who was picked by Mal Meninga in the Prime Minister’s XIII team that played in Papua New Guinea last year. However Cameron McInnes appears to have a mortgage on the St George Illawarra No.9 jersey.
The Tigers want to hold on to Liddle, with Robbie Farah likely to hang up the boots at the end of the season.
The Bulldogs are starting to free up some money in the salary cap and the No.9 role is deemed a vital cog in their recruitment plans for 2020 and beyond.
Stadium signs to get switcheroo
There has been a bit of conjecture over the naming of the stands at the new Western Sydney Stadium to be opened on Easter Monday. Unlike the old Parramatta Stadium, there will be no permanent signs erected in the venue. Instead, the Eels are looking at installing temporary signs for each match.
That will allow clubs like the Wests Tigers and Canterbury Bulldogs – as well as the A-League’s Western Sydney Wanderers - to rename the stands when they host matches. NRL.com understands the Eels are planning to respect the history of the old Parramatta Stadium by retaining the same stand names, which include Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny, Mick Cronin and Ken Thornett.
US plan unlikely to be revived
The NRL made no secret of its desire to open this season in Los Angeles with a match featuring Russell Crowe’s South Sydney. Unfortunately the exercise was deemed too expensive and was put on the backburner. It was hoped the NRL would look at it again with the potential of playing a game on US soil in 2020. However no plans are in the pipeline to take a premiership game to the States.
Gus back on Panthers call
Phil Gould’s self-imposed ban on calling Penrith Panthers games will come to an end. The Panthers have convinced the club’s general manager to commentate the live stream of the trial against Parramatta at Panthers Stadium on March 2 - which will be shown on both the club and NRL website.
Gould hasn’t called a Panthers game since taking on the role at the club several years ago to avoid any potential bias. He will be joined in the commentary box by regular Channel Nine commentator Mathew Thompson.
There will also be a new addition at Panthers Stadium in 2019. The club has purchased the old big screen from Subiaco Oval in Western Australia, which has made the long trek on a train from Perth to western Sydney. The 120-square metre screen will be a welcomed addition to the stadium given the size of its predecessor at the ground.
Blue & Golds turn to Brown
Parramatta fans will get their first look at the halves pairing of Mitchell Moses and Dylan Brown in Friday night’s trial against Canberra at St Marys.
The pair are expected to play half a game for the Eels. Brown is expected to get the first crack at the No.6 jersey and has been earmarked as a player with an enormous future.
Moses: Dylan Brown's a classy player
The club is trying to hose down the hype, especially given the history of pressure on young halves at the club, however there is no doubting the talent of the 18-year-old. He’s a professional in every sense. So much so that he ended up in hospital on a drip on the club’s pre-season camp in Armidale because of his desire to keep up with captain Clint Gutherson in the fitness stakes.
The Eels also have a trial against the Panthers in Penrith on March 2. However both Penrith and the Eels will be reluctant to play their full squad in the final weekend of trials given they also square off in the opening round of the season.
Luke feels the force
Wests Tigers halfback Luke Brooks required a few stitches to repair a busted nose suffered as a result of friendly-fire at training on Tuesday. One can only assume the stitches above the eye of prop Ben Matulino are from the same incident.
Storm young gun ready to fire
A host of players have been linked to the Cowboys' vacant fullback position in the last couple of weeks. One of those is Melbourne young gun Ryan Papenhuyzen, who joined the Storm from the Wests Tigers last year. But the Storm, and Cowboys for that matter, insist there is nothing in it.
While the Storm are hoping Papenhuyzen bulks up from his 80-kilogram frame, they believe he has a big future. The 20-year-old is probably third in line for the No.1 jersey behind Jahrome Hughes and Scott Drinkwater, but could get his first crack in the NRL this year. Retired fullback Billy Slater was spotted helping at training during the week as part of his role with the club.
CEOs to address off-field issues
The NRL chief executives are all gathering in Melbourne on Friday for a conference before the All Stars match at AAMI Park the same night. It’s believed most of the morning session will address player behaviour and culture at clubs after a tumultuous off-season.
All Stars to cross Tasman eventually
New Zealand Maori All Stars coach Stacey Jones believes the All Stars concept would work at any location in New Zealand. However NRL.com understands Townsville is the frontrunner to host next year’s match.
The NRL would like to open the new stadium with the All Stars match next year, and are hopeful the recent floods don’t impact on the estimated time of completion. While the 2020 match is likely to be in North Queensland, the NRL will explore all options beyond that – including a potential New Zealand fixture.
‘Calming influence’ Blair to lead Maori
Ponga powers up
Kalyn Ponga is arguably the biggest star in the game after his breakout season with the Knights in 2018.
He’s recently been chosen as one of the faces of Powerade’s next generation campaign. Powerade has traditionally targeted the biggest names in various sports to represent the brand, with Billy Slater enjoying a long-standing association with the sports drink.
Ponga will also be wearing specially designed Nike boots that recognises his New Zealand Maori heritage in Friday night’s All Stars game at AAMI Park.
Ponga received enough votes from the fans to play fullback in the match, but the Maori coaching staff spoke with the Knights and opted to play him at five-eighth to help him in his transition to the halves at NRL level.
He won’t play 80 minutes on Friday night given he is returning from ankle surgery, and is also expected to line up alongside Mitchell Pearce in Newcastle’s trial against the Dragons at Kogarah next weekend.
Gagai studies his past
South Sydney’s Dane Gagai, who pledged his allegiance to NZ Maori despite previously representing the Indigenous All Stars, has been carrying around a piece of paper in camp this week. On it is a detailed breakdown of his Maori heritage from his mother’s side, with names of his ancestors etched on to it.
"It goes into full depth so I can have a better understand of my roots and how I ended up here," Gagai said.
"I want to learn and need to learn for my kids so it doesn’t get lost. That’s something I always loved about playing for the Australian Indigenous All Stars – learning about all of that. I’m blessed to have two strong cultures and I’m learning so I can teach my son and my soon to be son on the way."
Gagai's special welcome into Maori camp
Knights rally around Dureau
Knights fans are doing their bit to show support for former Newcastle halfback Scott Dureau, who is currently undergoing chemotherapy to remove the return of a tumour he had removed in 2014.
Newcastle fans are encouraging all spectators at the round-one clash against Cronulla at McDonald Jones Stadium to join in a standing ovation in the seventh minute of the game as a show of support for the club’s under 20’s coach.
The Knights have always been renowned as a community club and the latest initiative from the fans is another example of why players love their time in the Hunter.
Sharpshooter Isaako handling the heat
Jamayne Isaako is ticking all the boxes to ensure he improves on an impressive debut season.
Wednesday was a training day off for the Broncos players but he tied up the laces and went out in the 37-degree heat to make sure he kicks his weekly quota of 100 goals.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.