The aura surrounding the ability of the Melbourne Storm dwindles considerably when they don’t have their Australian hooker guiding them around the park. Having lostÂ 2 of their past 4 matches and nearly losing to Brisbane last weekend, the Storm are understandably desperate to have Cameron Smiths’ grapple charge overturned.Â
Since the start of 2003, Melbourne have played 16 matches without Smith, winning eight and losing eight. That gives them a 50 per cent record without him, compared with a 70 per cent winning rate (winning 100 and losing 42) with him in the side over the same period.
This year, with Smith the premiership skipper, the Storm have lost every game without the hooker in the side – though that statistic is slightly deceptive, because, along with Smith, the likes of Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Israel Folau were missing during the State of Origin period.
The side also lost the World Club Challenge without him. In that game, Matt Geyer filled the hooking position, as Smith stayed home with his partner giving birth to their first child. Geyer, who filled in for Scott Hill at five-eighth in the 1999 grand final victory over St George Illawarra, seems to be Craig Bellamy’s most likely option as the side’s No.9 should the Storm lose Smith to suspension. He has others: Russell Aitken has played at hooker this season. Bellamy, however, is more likely to opt for experience over exuberance.
If Geyer shifts to hooker, that still leaves a hole at centre. Will Chambers, Ben MacDougall and Dane Nielsen have all been ruled out for the rest of the season, leaving Brett Anderson, Joseph Tomane and Sam Tagataese as potentials. Anderson is the most likely option, given that the club is also set to lose other possible candidates – second-rowers Ryan Hoffman (injury) and Jeremy Smith (suspension). Bellamy said the possibility of the two Smiths missing for the Sharks match was an unfortunate combination because it seriously tested team back-up.
“In past years, we had specialist hooker back-up, but this year, when Cam was with the Queensland team, we used Matt Geyer,” Bellamy said. “But Jeremy Smith covered Matt’s position in the backs. We’ve also lost second-rower Ryan Hoffman, meaning our attack on the edges has been weakened.”
Losing Cam Smith also seriously hinders the side no matter who fills the holes. In 23 matches so far this season, Smith has averaged more than 37 tackles a game. He has scored four tries, set up 10, and provided seven line-break assists.
They will lose their No.1 goalkicker, too – Smith has booting 77 of them so far this season. In the tighter games, the importance of the goalkicker is magnified.
Melbourne players put on their brave faces yesterday, Turner saying of the potential loss: “In the last couple of years during the Origin period and with injuries, we’ve had young blokes step up and do a wonderful job for the Storm. That’s the sort of culture we’ve brought into the Storm over the last couple of years.”
The Sharks had their diplomatic faces on. “The likes of Greg Inglis and Israel Folau – you probably haven’t seen their best this finals series, so if someone like [Cam] Smith’s out, blokes like that are likely to step up, which can be very dangerous. We all know how good they are,” skipper Paul Gallen said.
Both Turner and Gallen are good at poker, no doubt.
WITH OR WITHOUT HIM
How Melbourne have fared without Cam Smith this season:
v Halifax (trial) – won 26-10
v Leeds (World Club Challenge) – lost 11-4
v St George Illawarra (round 10) – lost 36-12
v Gold Coast (round 13) – lost 18-0
v Parramatta (round 16) – lost 24-22