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For & Against: Grant v Smith for Storm No.9

The Storm boast two outstanding hookers in Brandon Smith and Harry Grant but only one can start the game with the other forced to cool his heels on the bench.

It's one of many crucial selection choices facing Storm coach Craig Bellamy heading towards the finals and in the case of his two No.9s, there really is no wrong option.

Injury has restricted Grant to 11 games in 2021 and after returning via the bench in round 20 he stayed there for two more matches and then forced his way into the starting side last week.

Smith has been a rock for Bellamy this season, playing hooker in 19 of his 20 matches and racking up an impressive 10 tries, eight try assists and averaging 102 running metres per game.

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For & Against - Harry Grant should be Storm No.9

For - NRL.com senior journalist Paul Zalunardo

Brandon Smith is at his most dangerous when scoring tries with low charges from close to the opposition line. He doesn't need the No.9 jersey on his back to do that. 

He's also very good when it comes to his team needing someone to start a set when an opposition defence is looking to turn territorial advantage into something more meaningful. The No.13 jersey best allows him to do that. 

Harry Grant is at his best when he is steering a team around the park, picking his time to run and given carte blanche as to when to get Munster, Papenhuyzen, Hynes, Addo-Carr and Co. into the action. Playing as a starting hooker lets him do that from the opening whistle. 

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They're three of the reasons why the Storm could be at their strongest with Grant in the No.9 jersey and Smith playing at lock during the finals. 

It's a frightening notion for fans of the other 15 teams but Craig Bellamy may still be yet to field his strongest 13 during 2021. 

Make no bones about it, Smith is great at hooker and the Storm have never been found wanting with him in that role.

But the benefit of having Grant starting matches in the No.9 jersey and Smith next to him is the stuff of nightmares for opposition coaches. 

This pair offers different enough skillsets that they can always play together when the Storm have the ball.  

Then we also have the added agility in the middle third of the field when it comes time to defend if they start a game together. 

The likes of Christian Welch, Jesse Bromwich, Dale Finucane, Tui Kamikamica and Nelson Asofa-Solomona would relish having Grant and Smith making tackles in the middle third of the field and keeping tabs on rival No.9s. 

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If Smith and Grant are both able to play 80 minutes in the finals, the heavy artillery around them can be rotated more often and go even harder during their time on the field. 

Such is the strength of the 2021 Storm side, keeping the Grant/Smith situation as is could well be enough to lead the team to another premiership. 

But if Bellamy pulls the trigger and has both men play together for the full 80, a new level of excellence may follow. 

Who should be the Storm starting hooker?

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Against - NRL.com senior journalist Martin Lenehan

If ever there was a bloke made for the pressure cooker atmosphere of finals footy it's Brandon Smith.

The nuggety Kiwi plays every game as if it's his last, bringing a unique brand of energy and passion to the contest from the opening whistle.

Smith gets through a power of work in defence which is critical in semi-final football and he's got the smarts and the speed to exploit any openings that may appear around the ruck.

After biding his time behind the great Cameron Smith during Melbourne's 2020 premiership campaign, "The Hectic Cheese" has emerged as a superstar in his own right this season as the Storm have peeled off 19 consecutive victories, breaking all manner of pointscoring records in the process.

Of Brandon's 18 games last year, just five were at hooker, eight from the bench and five in the front row, where he more than held his own against the likes of the Rabbitohs, Panthers and Broncos.

Come the finals series and he was used off the bench by Craig Bellamy, providing another attacking option and his trademark enthusiasm as the Storm rolled past the Eels, Raiders and Panthers to collect the premiership.

With Harry Grant returning to Melbourne in 2021 after a stint with Wests Tigers, the debate began about whether the Maroons No.9 would become the Storm No.9 and ensure the transition to life after Captain Cam was smooth.

Unfortunately for Grant, a knee injury sidelined him for the first month of the season, giving Smith the chance to stake his claim for the hooking role.

A hamstring problem robbed Grant of two Origin caps for Queensland and another chunk of NRL games before he finally got back on the paddock in round 20 against the Panthers, playing 59 minutes off the bench while Smith started and played 54 minutes.

If it's not Brandon, it's Harry!

"I think Cheese has proved himself as a starter," Grant said after that match.

"He does all the tough stuff and I come on and he's bashed a few people for me and taken the sting out of the game.

"I'm not sure which way Bellyache [Bellamy] is going to go in terms of minutes for myself and Brandon, but what he has done over the past couple of months, he has really cemented himself as a starting player, and that's what he wants at this club.

"We both want to start, but I don't really have a leg to stand on. He has played every game this season I'm pretty sure. We'll just keep complimenting each other and build on our combo going into the finals."

You can bet your life that every other coach in the NRL would love to have the headaches Bellamy confronts when trying to choose between two world-class No.9s in Smith and Grant and two gun No.1s in Ryan Papenhuyzen and Nicho Hynes.

In footy and in life, be there for an offload

It's an embarrassment of riches that has the Storm perfectly placed to go back-to-back, just as the other dominant force of the past decade the Roosters did in 2018-19.

When it comes to Harry v The Cheese, the nod must go to the man who has been a constant for Bellamy in 2021, scoring tries and setting them up, breaking  tackles and making tackles with equal ferocity. 

Hand Brandon Smith the No.9, wind him up and watch him rip in. Then add some Harry Grant creativity and spark when the game is opening up.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.

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