At the age of 32 and with the end of his career beckoning, Matt Geyer has left it late to make his mark in England, but the Melbourne Storm's long-serving utility player has a key role next Friday night. Geyer has the hardest job in the World Club Challenge against Leeds at Elland Road. He must fill the gap at hooker left by the player who is touted as the game's best.
The Melbourne captain and current Australian incumbent in the position, Cameron Smith, has stayed at home for the birth of his child, leaving the Storm's jack-of-all-trades to fill the void. He does not bring with him much experience of the job or of playing in Britain.
"I was here in 1997 with the [Perth] Western Reds and I played about 15 minutes off the bench at Castleford," he recalls. He was back again three years later, with the Melbourne squad that beat St Helens in the World Club Challenge, but was carrying an injury from the National Rugby League Grand Final and did not play.
As for packing down in the front row, his taste of that consisted of one match before arriving in England this time, and that was a trial game against Manly a week earlier. "I'm looking forward to the challenge of playing there," he says. "That's the way I'm going to finish my career – as an alternate hooker."
That career so far has been pursued mainly on the wing or at stand-off but Melbourne, like some of their predecessors in this competition, are having to improvise. Since winning their title, the Storm have lost Matt King and Clint Newton to Warrington and Hull Kingston Rovers respectively while Greg Inglis and Michael Crocker are ruled out by injury.
Leeds, by contrast, are planning to field their Grand Final side, something which Geyer and his coach, Craig Bellamy, admit could give them the edge in cohesion. "I've seen enough to know that they've got a very big forward pack and very skilful halves," Geyer says. "They like to move the football and play it as they see it, which can be very exciting."
Geyer knows there is more than one way of approaching this fixture. The Melbourne squad that he travelled with in 2000 had their minds on the business in hand and they duly gave Ellery Hanley's Saints team an embarrassing drubbing.
"We took tremendous pride back then in winning it," Geyer says. "It's not a bad thing to be able to take back with you – being world champions."
On the other hand, he has heard plenty from his brother, Mark, about how Penrith treated their foray a few years earlier as little more than an end-of-season drink-up. "I was only a young bloke at the time, so I did not want to believe that Mark was involved in any of that. He was probably the ringleader."
Even Bellamy has experience of what can happen if the Australian champions do not take the occasion completely seriously. In 1989, he was on the bench as the Canberra Raiders built an early lead against Widnes at Old Trafford, only to fall in a heap in the second half. "It was our first Premiership and, well, we'd been celebrating," is the way he remembers it.
Several months after beating Manly to win their second title, the Storm will not fall into that trap. "We're not here to take it lightly," promises Geyer. "We're not looking for excuses or for reasons why we can't win it."
Even without their absentees, Melbourne have an array of potential match-winners, starting with Billy Slater, a full-back who, in most other eras, would have a stack of Test caps by now.
This will also be the British public's first sighting in the flesh of Israel Folau, a centre whose sensational first season in the NRL saw him labelled as the new Mal Meninga. The memorably named Cooper Cronk has established himself as one of the best scrum-half organisers in Australia, and Melbourne also have state-of-the-art forwards such as Ryan Hoffman and Dallas Johnson – the latter of whom will stand in for Smith as captain.
On top of that, the club have shown the thoroughness of their preparations by winning a warm-up match at Halifax on Friday night, a sure sign that they are here to give of their best.
It is Leeds' task to ensure that the Storm's best is not good enough and their form so far this season suggests that they could do just that. It is unusual, to say the least, for a club, even a title-winning club, to bring in a new coach but no new players over a close season, but so far no cracks have appeared.
Under Brian McClennan, they have beaten South Sydney in Florida, ground out a hard-earned win over Hull KR and thrashed Huddersfield and Wakefield. It has simply been business as usual, with all the elements that brought them their success last year apparently in good order.
Not surprisingly, Bellamy has identified the livewire half-back partnership of Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire as the major danger. The match is also an opportunity for the Rhinos' Great Britain forward Gareth Ellis to put down a marker for next season. Ellis has signed to play in the NRL for Wests Tigers and this will be a preview of the sort of opposition he can expect on a weekly basis.Reuse content