It was not that long ago that Slade Griffin was “star-struck” in the presence of Cameron Smith.
So much so he struggled to even make conversation with the Kangaroos skipper when the Newcastle hooker was coming through the ranks at the Melbourne Storm.
But on Friday night at AAMI Park, the champion Storm hooker and the player who admires him more than most will pack down against each other for the first time when Melbourne play host to the Knights.
And their individual duel may well have a huge influence on which side comes away with the two points.
Knights coach Nathan Brown is confident Griffin, arguably one of the buys of the season in the NRL, won’t be over-awed by the experience up against his former club.
“He’s a great competitor Slade – he’ll thrive on it,” Brown said.
“He’ll really love going down there and taking on Cameron and his old club. He’ll just look at it as a real challenge.”
Before joining the Knights this season, Griffin spent nine years at the Storm. He views Smith as a mentor and a wonderful role model and claims playing alongside him is like having an on-field coach.
“He is one hell of a player and I reckon he is one of the best to ever play the game,”Griffin said.
“So it’s going to be weird lining up against him in the scrum but we’ll see how we go.
“He was a great mentor for me down there and I learnt a lot off him, even off the field. Just how good a bloke he was, what kind of superstar he is.”
Asked if there is likely to be any banter between them during the game, Griffin said: “He’ll probably give me a little wink and a smile but he really wants to win so he’ll be focused on what they have to do.”
Griffin, who has emerged out of Smith’s shadow after a long apprenticeship to be one of Newcastle’s best players during the opening five rounds, says he didn’t always feel comfortable around his mentor.
“I use to watch him from a distance. I was actually star-struck,” he said.
But that changed over the past couple of seasons when Griffin started to make his own mark at the Storm.
“I sat next to him in the locker room so I was kind of forced to talk to him,” Griffin joked.
Brown admits Griffin’s impact since linking with the Knights has been significant.
“We expected him to have some sort of influence on the team but he has probably had a bigger influence than anyone expected,”he said.
“And he is only going to get better the more he plays.”
Brown recalled Jacob Saifiti into the 17-man squad for the Melbourne game following Mitch Barnett’s one match suspension with Luke Yates on stand-by for interchange hooker Danny Levi.
Levi failed to get through training on Tuesday because of a back issue but is still rated a good chance of playing.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy has dumped halfback Brodie Croft and called up Ryley Jacks to fill the number seven jumper for the clash.
Meanwhile, Brown says he has put his controversial feud with rival coach Wayne Bennett behind him after revealing he contacted the Brisbane coach and his son-in-law Ben Ikin on Sunday to clear the air.
"At the end of the day, I've spoken to Benny Ikin, I've spoken to Wayne. I've explained to both that my beef is with Wayne and not their loved ones,” Brown told the Nine Network.
"If I've offended anyone, I apologise."
Knights backrower Aidan Guerra said Brown had the full support of the playing group, admitting his press conference spray at Bennett was discussed among the players last Sunday who “had a bit of a laugh about it”.
“The character of the coach is what has brought a lot of us here,” Guerra said.
“We see the type of guy that he is and before we came, we saw that there was a reason why the players were last year putting so much effort in.
“He was spearheading that so it doesn’t surprise me he is a strong character and a good leader. We are all behind him.”
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