Vodafone Warriors head coach Andrew McFadden, assistant coach Justin Morgan and captain Ryan Hoffman all have special reason to look forward to the return of the traditional Anzac Day encounter with Melbourne at AMII Park on Monday.
For McFadden, who finished his playing career with the Storm in 2003 and 2004, it marks the second anniversary of his first win as an NRL head coach when the Vodafone Warriors beat the Storm 16-10 in the 2014 Anzac Day contest at AMII Stadium.
It also comes a week after he celebrated his 50th game in charge with last week’s 24-20 win over Canterbury-Bankstown.
Morgan is making a homecoming of sorts, too. It’s his first trip back to the Victorian capital with the Vodafone Warriors after being one of Craig Bellamy’s assistant coaches at the Storm in 2014 and 2015.
It’s a highly significant first for Hoffman. Of the six Anzac Day matches between the two clubs, Hoffman lined up for Melbourne in five of them missing only the 2011 match – a 14-18 loss – when he was with Wigan in the Super League.
He first faced his old Storm side as a Vodafone Warrior on Easter Monday last year in what was his 250th first-grade match. Now he returns for his first Anzac Day outing against his former club in his eighth game as Vodafone Warriors captain.
If there’s extra meaning about this trip for McFadden, Morgan and Hoffman, there’s more still in the revival of the rivalry. Anzac Day ceremonies make it special and so does the Michael Moore Trophy which is on the line as usual, the Storm defending it after a 21-14 win in Auckland in round three on March 20.
Last year’s anticipated Anzac Day installment was shelved when the NRL used five cities in New Zealand and Australia to stage Anzac Day matches commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
On that occasion the Vodafone Warriors stayed home in Auckland to host Gold Coast while the Storm accommodated Manly.
It’s pertinent that those two games attracted modest crowds of 15,102 at Mount Smart Stadium and 13,948 at AMII Park. In contrast the established Anzac Day match between the Storm and the Vodafone Warriors drew a crowd of 28,716 when it was last played in 2014, a record regular season attendance for Melbourne.
It's a different looking Storm side without both Billy Slater and Will Chambers yet there are still plenty of key match-ups to contemplate.
At fullback it's a chance to measure the home side's Cameron Munster against Tuimoala Lolohea, who was superb there replacing Roger Tuivasa-Sheck last week; right wing David Fusitu'a, just back in NRL football, faces a testing assignment marking Melbourne's left edge wing Marika Koroibete; move to the halves and standoff Thomas Leuluai will operate on the left against Melbourne playmaker Cooper Cronk while Shaun Johnson will be running the right side opposite Blake Green; on the Vodafone Warriors' left edge captain Hoffman will confront Kiwi second rower Kevin Proctor while on the opposite edge it's Bodene Thompson v Tohu Harris; the clash to look forward to among the props has to be starting front rowers and Kiwi internationals Ben Matulino and Jesse Bromwich; while the battle of the hookers in Kiwi veteran Issac Luke and Kangaroos captain Cameron Smith will attract huge interest, as it always does when they meet.
FIVE KEY FEATURES
#1 MANU VATUVEI | Niggling injuries (ribs and hamstring) have disrupted Vatuvei’s 13th NRL campaign. Now the big man is ready to go again in his fifth appearance of the season. With Roger Tuivasa-Sheck out, Vatuvei’s carries out of defence will be especially vital.
#2 TUIMOALA LOLOHEA | Lolohea’s chance to play in the halves with Shaun Johnson for the first time lasted only a few minutes last week, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s injury resulting in him moving to fullback where he’s now set to play for the rest of the season.
#3 THOMAS LEULUAI | Leuluai was all set to be used at dummy half or in the back row against the Bulldogs last week. Instead he found himself playing 64 minutes in the halves after Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was injured; now he’s there for his first start in almost a year.
#4 RYAN HOFFMAN | It’s a big day for the durable back rower, captaining the Vodafone Warriors at his old home ground for the first time and on Anzac Day to boot. He is the only Vodafone Warriors forward who has played every minute of the season so far (561).
#5 ISSAC LUKE | The veteran Kiwi hooker has been building serious mileage in the last few weeks, playing every minute of the last three games and developing his combinations and timing, getting his running game going and bringing energy and aggression to the side.