As Brisbane sweated on Ben Hunt, Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy claimed an unprecedented spate of injuries had made this year’s NRL title race a “survival of the fittest”.
The Broncos’ minor premiership hopes took a hit when star halfback Hunt (cork) was ruled out of Thursday night’s crunch Suncorp Stadium clash with the Storm.
Gold Coast-bound Ashley Taylor, 20, faces a daunting NRL debut lining up against Test No.7 Cooper Cronk in Hunt’s absence.
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett was adamant last round’s three try hero Hunt would be fit for next week’s finals opener.
But some rivals won’t have the luxury of welcoming back their stars for a title tilt.
“This time of year I can’t remember so many teams being without their key players,” said Bellamy.
“I am not sure how that will affect things.
“It seems to be survival of the fittest at the moment.”
Melbourne’s Billy Slater tops a star studded NRL injury list ahead of the finals.
Ladder leaders Sydney Roosters (Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves), North Queensland (Michael Morgan), the Bulldogs (Trent Hodkinson) and South Sydney (Greg Inglis, John Sutton) have also been hit hard.
Bennett had made no secret of his plan to rest stars ahead of the finals and pulled Hunt after his playmaker first suffered the niggle on Monday.
Asked if Hunt would be right for next week’s finals opener, Bennett said: “Yeah, he’s just not going to be right for tomorrow.
“He picked up a cork in a training drill on Monday and he hasn’t recovered well enough from it so he won’t be playing.”
Bellamy – a strong player welfare advocate – said he was not offended by Bennett’s mooted plan to rest his stars despite the stakes of Thursday night’s clash.
Brisbane are vying for their first minor premiership since 2000 and the Storm can keep their top four hopes alive with victory.
“It’s a big game for both teams … but I don’t see it as a lack of respect,” Bellamy said.
“It’s Wayne managing his team the best way he thinks, that’s fine with us.”
Melbourne have won 19 of their last 22 clashes with Brisbane, their 2006 NRL grand final conquerors.
But the Broncos won their last encounter in June – a 14-12 epic AAMI Park arm wrestle.
Bellamy remained quietly confident on Wednesday after Melbourne’s last round 14-6 home win over top three outfit North Queensland.
“We see a lot of similarities between the Broncos and the Cowboys,” Bellamy said.
“We want to build on what we did on Saturday night.”
Brisbane last beat Melbourne at Suncorp Stadium in 2009.
BRISBANE BRONCOS V MELBOURNE STORM
– The Broncos have been the best attacking team this season, with the most points (24.6), tries (4.3) and equal most line breaks (5.5) per game
– Melbourne rank only behind ladder leaders Sydney Roosters in the defensive stakes, second behind the tri-colours in points conceded (14.8pg), tries conceded (2.6pg) and line breaks conceded (3.5pg)
– Brisbane have a 32.4 per cent winning percentage against Melbourne (12 wins in 37 games), easily their worst against any team
– Melbourne are the only team Brisbane have not beaten at home in the past five seasons.