The Melbourne Storm will open their 2016 NRL season on Monday night, when they host the St George Illawarra Dragons at AAMI Park.

A lot of pressure is on the Storm’s “Big Three” in Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, with a lot being said about the age of the trio. The three still ooze class however, and will be even more motivated this season in a bid to prove the doubters wrong.

For the St George Dragons, the big changes are in the backline. Josh Dugan switches from fullback to centre, allowing former Storm player Kurt Mann to slot in at the back. Dugan will be partnered in the halves by former Bulldog Tim Lafai.

LAST TIME OUT

The Storm had a good hit out at the nines, being one of just two teams to go through day one unbeaten. Blake Green in particular looked in good touch, kicking a number of 40/20s to keep his team on the front foot. Day two of the tournament was less successful, as they seemed to be running on empty. The Melbourne side’s trial form was concerning however, as they were shut out by the Bulldogs 20-nil at Belmore oval.

The Dragons had the opposite pre-season to the Storm, finding themselves struggling at the Nines, winning just their last game after their early exit had been sealed. They bounced back in Trials, highlighted by a 46-10 drubbing of a near full strength New Zealand Warriors.

KEY BATTLES

The Dragons struggled to hold the middle of the field in 2015, and this will be a key area of focus for the season ahead. The addition of Russell Packer to the front row will add some much needed muscle. Both Packer and front row partner Leeson Ah Mau will need to tighten up the middle if they are to control Jesse Bromwich and Jordan McLean.

Another key battle for the clash is between the fullbacks. Billy Slater’s former understudy, Kurt Mann, will be keen to show his skills against his old club and let them know what they have lost. Slater on the other hand will be very keen to show Mann he hasn’t lost his own spark, despite a 2015 season plagued by injury.

PREDICTION

The experience of the Storm just can’t be written off, even if it is sometimes seen as a negative. This experience comes in particularly handy during the start of a season, where clubs can have the habit of tiring early, and making plenty of mistakes. The old heads of the Storm should know this, and handle the heat better.

Where the home side could struggle is with the cutting of the interchange, though coach Craig Bellamy is known for gruelling off season’s regimes that are likely to have his side fit enough to face long minutes.

The Dragons have positively recruited and will see themselves as a chance of returning with the points, however a bit of inexperience in their ranks may hurt them. They will score points, but it is unlikely to be enough to topple the Storm.

Melbourne by 10

SQUADS

Storm: 1 Billy Slater 2 Marika Koroibete 3 Will Chambers 4 Richard Kennar 5 Young Tonumaipea 6 Blake Green 7 Cooper Cronk 8 Jesse Bromwich 9 Cameron Smith (c) 10 Jordan McLean 11 Kevin Proctor 12 Tohu Harris 13 Dale Finucane. Interchange 14 Kenny Bromwich 15 Tim Glasby 16 Ben Hampton 17 Christian Welch 18 Felise Kaufusi 19 Nelson Asofa-Solomona

Dragons: 1 Kurt Mann 2 Euan Aitken 3 Josh Dugan 4 Tim Lafai 5 Jason Nightingale 6 Gareth Widdop (c) 7 Benji Marshall 8 Leeson Ah Mau 9 Mitch Rein 10 Russell Packer 11 Will Matthews 12 Joel Thompson 13 Mike Cooper. Interchange 14 Ben Creagh (c) 15 Jack de Belin 16 Dunamis Lui 17 Siliva Havili 18 Peter Mata’utia 19 Tyrone McCarthy 20 Jake Marketo

Referees: Grant Atkins, Gavin Reynolds