By STEVE MASCORD
AS Melbourne Storm prepares to take on Wests Tigers without captain Cameron Smith, his opposite number has sought to quell conjecture over the future of star player Benji Marshall.
Hooker Smith will miss the clash at picturesque Leichhardt Oval after a laceration below his right eye suffered in Origin II required plastic surgery. Ryan Hinchcliffe is almost certain to start in his place.
Wests Tigers rake Robbie Farah yesterday said of speculation over the future of five-eighth Marshall: “Regardless of what happens, Benji’s here until 2015.”
But Marshall’s agent, Martin Tauber, responded by telling Fairfax Media: “That’s just something Robbie has said. We’ve not said anything.
“It is true he is contracted for ’13, ’14, ’15. Wests Tigers have made an offer of an upgrade and we’ll respond to that in the next seven to 10 days.”
The uncertainty surrounding Marshall overshadows the absence of Smith and the return from Origin of Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater and Ryan Hoffman for the Storm plus Farah and Aaron Woods for the joint venture side.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Farah said of his long-term foil: “I try not to bug him too much about it, I don’t want to intrude.
“As I said to Benji, that will all take care of itself and that’s what his manager is there for.
“I’ve played my whole career with Benji and I hope it continues to be that way but I think it’s kind of been blown out of proportion.
“He’s still here for the next two years , he’s not off contract at the end of the year.
“Regardless of the contract situation, he’s here for another couple of years.”
It is part of Marshall’s agreement with Wests Tigers that he is entitled to a contract upgrade because of the increased salary cap this year and in coming years.
Whether he would ask for a release if unhappy with the terms of the upgrade is the big question. Tauber said he hadn’t even spoken at length with his client about the offer. “I don’t want to distract the kid,” he said.
Asked what would happen if the terms were rejected, Tauber said: “I guess we’d go back to the table and negotiate. That’s what happens. It’s parry and thrust.”
Meanwhile, Storm football manager Frank Ponissi said a decision on who would start for Smith – with Hinchcliffe switching from lock – had yet to be made. An extra reserve is also needed; coach Craig Bellamy has 19 players in camp for rounds 15 and 16.
Ponissi said scans next week would determine whether there was any hope at all of five-eighth Gareth Widdop (dislocated hip) playing in the finals and World Cup.
“It’s looking very doubtful,” he said.
Queensland team doctor Roy Saunders said Smith should be able to play against Brisbane next Friday at AAMI Park without too much of a problem.
“The cut was very close to a lower tear duct, which can be a very significant injury,” Sainders explained. “We decided to deal with it surgically … a plastic surgeon repaired a number of very tiny lacerations.
“There is absolutely no effect on Cameron’s vision.”
Teams for the match, which kicks off at Leichhardt Oval at 5.35pm Saturday, are:
WESTS TIGERS: James Tedesco; David Nofoaluma, Blake Ayshford, Chris Lawrence, Tim Simona; Benji Marshall, Curtis Sironen; Sauaso Sue, Joel Reddy, Liam Fulton, Adam Blair, Robbie Farah (c), Aaron Woods. Res: Ava Seumanfagai, Jack Buchanan, Shaun Spence, Bodene Thompson, Ben Murdoch-Masila (one to be omitted).
MELBOURNE: Billy Slater; Sisa Waqa, Will Chambers, Maurice Blair, Justin O’Neill; Brett Finch, Cooper Cronk; Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman, Jesse Bromwich, Jason Ryles, Ryan Hinchcliffe, Bryan Norrie. Res: Mitch Garbutt, Tohu Harris, Slade Griffin (one to be omitted).
Referees: Jared Maxwell/Grant Atkins.
Filed for: THE AGE