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Storm look to lock in Slater replacement

drinkwater-slaterjersey.jpg

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

Melbourne learnt a lesson last season that superstars are almost impossible to replace, but feel they have at least two players ready to fill retired fullback Billy Slater's shoes.

While the Storm made last year's NRL grand final before delivering their worst showing of the season in a 21-6 loss to the Roosters, they failed to lock in a regular replacement for champion halfback Cooper Cronk.

They tried three players before Brodie Croft secured the No.7 jumper for the finals series and will start 2019 in the role.

Rather than rotate players through fullback, Storm coach Craig Bellamy is hoping to secure a permanent replacement for Slater, with Scott Drinkwater and Jahrome Hughes the leading contenders.

Five-eighth Cameron Munster signalled he was up for a change after steering the Storm to the 2016 grand final when Slater was out injured, but Bellamy said he'd keep the team's best interests in mind.

"At the moment Cameron serves us better playing No.6 so that's the mentality, although we're not afraid to change things if we think it's best," Bellamy told AAP.

Drinkwater, 21, has only played one NRL match - in round 25 last year - but looked right at home on the big stage and has continued to impress in pre-season.

"Scott Drinkwater's had a big pre-season and we saw what an exciting player he was in the one game he played last season," Bellamy said.

"He was probably our best player so he's obviously going to get an opportunity."

Hughes was one of three players who spent time at halfback last season and is desperate to nail down a permanent spot in the starting XIII.

Bellamy said Hughes returned from the New Zealand Test tour to England "underdone" but the 24-year-old had since worked hard and had a solid outing in the New Zealand Maori All-Stars match in February.

"Jahrome did a wonderful job last year under adversity, not just playing fullback but in the halves," Bellamy said.

"I'm not sure there would be a favourite out of those two to start."

Drinkwater's running style emulates Slater while Hughes brings an array of skills to the position, but Bellamy is aware the retired No.1 is one of a kind.

"Whoever we put back there, they will do a good job. They're not going to be a Billy Slater, but who is?" Bellamy said.

Melbourne only made one big off-season signing, but it was a key one - locking in skipper Cameron Smith until the end of 2020.

In a sign of the Storm's faith in their development system, they haven't signed replacements for retired backrower Ryan Hoffman or Queensland Origin prop Tim Glasby, who joined the Knights.

Big Fijian Tui Kamikamica and Junior Kangaroos representative Tino Fa'asuamaleaui are favoured for an NRL start.

STORM

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2018 - 2nd, 2017 - 1st, 2016 - 2nd

Coach: Craig Bellamy

Captain: Cameron Smith

Key gains: None

Key losses: Billy Slater (retirement), Tim Glasby (Knights), Ryan Hoffman (retirement), Young Tonumaipea (religious mission), Ryley Jacks (Titans)

Best team: 1. Scott Drinkwater, 2. Suliasi Vunivalu, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Curtis Scott, 5. Josh Addo-Carr, 6. Cameron Munster, 7. Brodie Croft, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Cameron Smith, 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona, 11. Felise Kaufusi, 12. Joe Stimson, 13. Dale Finucane. Bench: 14. Brandon Smith, 15. Christian Welch, 16. Kenny Bromwich, 17. Sam Kasiano

Predicted finish: 7th

© AAP 2019