Where Munster could fall if Storm cut him loose
THE Melbourne Storm have strongly denied reports that Cameron Munster is on the verge of being released by the club as a result of souring relationships between the young star, his captain Cameron Smith and others.
The explosive NRL.com report comes just a week after Fox Sports chief NRL reporter James Hooper revealed that Munster had been briefly sent home from Kangaroos camp during the World Cup following a bust up with teammate Ben Hunt.
Melbourne's strong denial of Munster's stunning fall from grace must be taken on face value, however, the 23-year-old star's constant presence in the media of late for the wrong reasons should not be discounted.
Rival NRL clubs will no doubt be watching the events unfold with interest and foxsports.com.au answers five burning questions that could arise from the mess.
WHO COULD PICK HIM UP?
The beauty of Cameron Munster is he can slot in at fullback, in the halves, and anywhere else in the backline and still be a star.
With that in mind, there will be no shortage of rival NRL clubs who will be interested in his services if he suddenly comes on the market.
But, we also have to consider the price tag and which clubs could actually afford him. The Storm are unlikely to contribute to any of his contract if they were to release him, and he could command upwards of $800,000-a-year.
So let's start with the clubs who could use him in the halves.
Newcastle is said to have plenty of cash to splash, and coach Nathan Brown would no doubt love to have a player of Munster's ability in the squad.
He would slot in nicely alongside halfback Mitchell Pearce, pushing utility Connor Watson to the bench. Either Munster or Watson could then act as fullback replacement if needed.
Manly are the obvious club in need of a five-eighth, but their current salary cap predicament means they would struggle to afford Munster and get a contract registered.
Gold Coast could also be in the race, given Kane Elgey's form has been so-so and is under pressure to keep the No.6 jumper.
As a fullback, there's a couple of clubs who would love to get his signature.
St George Illawarra are yet to lock in their No.1 for 2018, and Munster would form a formidable spine alongside Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt.
But the Dragons may need to shed a player or two from their roster in order to afford the Storm discard.
Then there's Wests Tigers, who have thrown Tui Lolohea a chance to own the No.1 jersey but would likely jump at the chance of having Munster in the position.
South Sydney are also without a recognised fullback, if the rumours of Greg Inglis' move to the centres is true. And if not, then Munster would be an outstanding option at centre until Inglis was ready to relinquish the custodian role.
ARE THERE POTENTIAL REPLACEMENTS ON THE MARKET?
If you're looking at who's unsigned ahead of the 2018 season, the talent pool is as shallow as it gets.
Aside from Todd Carney, there are no halves of note unsigned.
Carney himself could loom as a very handy option.
A former Dally M Medallist and premiership winner, the 31-year-old is desperate for another chance in the elite competition.
Currently signed to North Queensland feeder side Northern Pride, Carney has 200 first grade games of experience to his name.
The other option is to strike a trade.
It's understood Munster's current deal with the Storm is worth an average $670,000-a-season.
Good luck finding a Test and Origin representative level half for that kind of money.
But what if the Storm had more cash to splash?
Fortunately they have a little coin left in their 2018 cap which could go towards a replacement.
The other option is to back their youth.
Munster is a product developed through their system and they're not short of emerging talent.
Should they explore the market, the likes of Blake Austin, Michael Morgan, Aidan Sezer, Brock Lamb and Trent Hodkinson are off-contract this year and yet to commit for 2019.
Interest in any of the aforementioned players would be highly unlikely to result in an early release.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE STORM?
There's no doubt Munster was viewed as the player to take the Storm forward in the wake of the 'big three' but an early ejection will force coach Craig Bellamy into a complete rethink of how his roster looks now and into the future.
In his five appearances in the NRL to date Brodie Croft has looked every inch the first class No.7 he has been touted as and the ideal replacement for the game management lost with Cooper Cronk's departure.
Ryley Jacks doesn't possess the individual brilliance of Munster but he was always a highly-regarded young player coming through the ranks and made a strong impression in his 12 games in the top grade last season.
Given the structured way in which Storm teams have traditionally played under Bellamy that appears the most likely solution but is by no means the only option.
If you want someone to control the game for you with NRL experience why not revive Cameron Smith's early days as a halfback and transition promising Kiwi hooker Brandon Smith into the starting 13?
Until Croft feels comfortable taking charge of the side it could be the option that allows the Storm to continue with minimal disruption.
IS HIS REP CAREER IN DANGER?
Munster already has a chequered past when it comes to his behaviour in representative camps.
Two years ago he was one of the Emerging Maroons group who Queensland coach Kevin Walters black-listed from Origin selection as discipline for breaking curfew.
Then he was sent home from Australian camp by Mal Meninga for punching on with Kangaroos teammate Ben Hunt during the World Cup. It was only a brief wrap around the knuckles with Munster returned to camp before anyone knew he was gone.
Both Walters and Meninga are strict disciplinarians, and neither are afraid to make the tough call on a talented player.
Meninga famously shunned Andrew Fifita in 2016 for his own off-field problems. Culture is a big deal to those north of the border.
And with a plethora of playmakers waiting in the wings for both sides, one more slip-up could spell the end of his representative career.
HOW DOES THIS IMPACT THE MAROONS?
Munster's Origin debut in Game Three last year will always be regarded as one of the greatest of all time but off-field issues will invariably become on-field ones if they are not addressed quickly.
The Maroons have built a dominance that stretches more than a decade of picking teammates over individuals and chairman of selectors Gene Miles recently told foxsports.com.au that "mug lairs" simply don't get picked for Queensland.
And if Cameron Smith can't see a way of working with Munster at club level it seems unlikely he would rubberstamp his selection for Queensland unless his behaviour improves significantly.
Given they faced off in the NRL grand final last year and played for the Kangaroos in the World Cup a Munster-Michael Morgan Queensland halves partnership seemed a fait accompli - but Munster's wayward ways could open the door for another contender.
On the surface Ben Hunt's style looks suited to forming a combination with Morgan but coach Kevin Walters may prefer the individual brilliance that Anthony Milford brings to the position. Daly Cherry-Evans struggled to excel when given an opportunity in the Origin arena and Ash Taylor is at least 12 months away from being seriously considered.
Although spoilt for choice, it's a headache Walters could well do without.