Storm to hold off on Slater's future
THE Melbourne Storm will wait on a call on the future of Billy Slater before they decide how to tackle the gaping hole left by the departure of Cooper Cronk.
The game's premier halfback has followed Test star Tohu Harris and Origin aspirant Jordan McLean out of the Storm exit door, with all three to move on at the end of this season. It gives the club a huge wad of cash to play with as they embark on their biggest rebuild in a decade.
The fast pace of the player market attaches a sense of urgency to the Storm's future planning but Slater, 34 in June, looms as the million-dollar puzzle piece that may yet be taken off the board.
Just three weeks into his NRL comeback after a two-year period where he barely played, the champion fullback is finding his feet but is still to decide if he's got enough petrol in the tank to reload again for 2018.
According to Storm football manager Frank Ponissi, that call will need to be made sooner rather than later to give the club enough time to work out a blueprint for next season.
"The question we were going to have over the next few weeks, regardless of whether Cooper was here or not, was whether Bill continues next year, or more importantly does Bill want to continue next year," Ponissi said.
"And that will play a factor with Cameron Munster's role, there's a lot of things in the equation.
"It'd be great to make a decision within a week or two (on what they spend their money on) and I think that's going to be impossible."
Ponissi confirmed Brodie Croft, the 19-year-old halfback Ben Ikin has described as "a Cooper Cronk clone, would have a big role to play in first grade next year.
With Croft a natural No.7, the question that will dominate the Storm's planning meetings before they go to market is what to do with Cameron Munster if Slater decides to retire.
"We haven't got a fixed mind on that," Ponissi said.
"Like most players, as long as they're playing first grade or NRL, they just want to play but I think if you asked him hand on heart what's his favourite position, there's no doubt it's fullback.
"We've got to remember too that apart from three games, we haven't really seen him play six at all.
"We know he's an outstanding NRL fullback, so we know he can do that. We think he's going to be a very good No.6 but we're not totally sure, so that probably confuses the whole thing as well.
"There's Billy Slater's future, we're talking about where's Cameron Munster, six or fullback, whether it's this year or the year after, there's a few things to weigh up at the moment."
Should Slater re-sign for one more year and hang up his boots at the end of next season, the Storm may well back Croft to be a straight swap for Cronk and keep their powder dry on a big signing for the spine for another 12 months.
If that's the road they decide to go down, the club will have a huge reserve to draw on to bolster a forward pack that has been hit with some big losses in the last six months.
The Storm were keen to hold on to McLean but were unable to compete with the Cowboys offer, with their edges also weakened by the departure of Harris to the Warriors at the end of this season and Kevin Proctor to the Titans after last year's grand final.
Ponissi said those departures had been offset to a degree by the retention of Jesse and Kenny Bromwich and Dale Finucane, with rising stars Felise Kaufusi and Nelson Asofo-Solomona also close to putting pen to paper on new deals.
He did confirm the Storm would be getting the chequebook out for an established NRL-level front-rower, although it's unlikely to be a prop at the top end of the market like an Aaron Woods.
"A front-rower. That's one that we've been in the marketplace for since we've known about Jordan McLean," Ponissi said.
"We've retained the bulk of our forwards through both Bromwich boys and Dale Finucane and we're very close to Felise Kaufusi and also with big Nelson (Asofa-Solomona) but we probably think we're one or two forwards short for next year and I think that's definitely the marketplace.
"And yesterday's (Cronk) news throws a spanner in our recruitment plans and what we do around the six, seven or one, so they're the things, but I can definitely say front-rower we're in the marketplace for, that we're sure of."