“So what’s wrong with the Melbourne Storm?” It’s a question that is being asked by all rugby league fans. After a decade of dominance and success, consistency is a term that often gets associated with the Victorian franchise. Whether they’re making grand finals or not, everyone has always known what you’ll get from the Storm, that being consistency. Melbourne’s dominance has come through relentless hard work, building a strong culture combined with innovation, the Storm revolutionising the game in all facets of play.
Notoriously known for their strong defence, the Melbourne Storm became the benchmark in this area. No-one could quite slow down the ruck, win the wrestle and scramble when needed. They evolved into a methodical structured machine with clinical execution and structures that opposition teams have tried to emulate but still fall short of being the meticulous Melbourne juggernaut. They are a club that has featured in the finals 10 times in the past 11 years. Consistency again is the theme.
Yet 2014 has seen anything but the consistency rugby league fans have been accustomed to when watching the Storm over the past eight weeks of competition: flimsy defence lacking the sting, aggression and intent that has been a staple for the Storm. Their attack? Well it is been anything but polished or systematic. Their execution has been way off and ball control has been a constant issue, surrendering possession and placing undue pressure on themselves as a unit. Captain Cameron Smith has questioned the mental toughness and attitude of the team. Coach Craig Bellamy has stated that not everyone is on the same page. Storm halfback Cooper Cronk believes that their needs to be consequences for the sides poor form and that starts at training.
There is no doubt, Melbourne are off. Be it through one specific reason or multiple factors that are contributing to the side’s woeful start to the year. The Alex McKinnon-Jordan McLean incident has taken its toll mentally and emotionally on everyone involved within the Newcastle and Melbourne camps. Reports even suggested that coach Bellamy even considered resigning from his post because of the disillusionment surrounding the unfortunate saga. Even though they are professional athletes, we often tend to forget that they are still human. Whilst this may be one reason, it is definitely not limited to this one central incident. What is to explain the poor un-Storm like defence? The sluggish attack? The lack of consistency?
Cracks started to appear late in 2013. A trip to Brookvale Oval saw Melbourne comprehensively beaten and outclassed by their arch rivals in Manly-Warringah. What followed were straight-set defeats out of the finals. Coach Craig Bellamy believed the Storm were not their hungry selves and lacked the usual ‘September Buzz’. Critics labelled them a tired football team, with Melbourne playing an unbelievable amount of Rugby League from 2012 which included winning the premiership, a host of players involved in the October Test match; offseason training beginning in November, resuming in January; travelling to England to partake in the World Club Challenge; NRL All Stars fixture, trials matches, premiership season proper in 2013 which included early season travel to Townsville and Sydney most weekends, the Origin period, finals and then onto a 10-week World Cup campaign. Who wouldn’t be fatigued with that amount of football Melbourne’s best players had to endure?
An aging Big Three. All three superstars, Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk are now 30. All are current incumbents in the respective Australian and Queensland Origin teams, yet many critics have now taken aim saying that all three are over the hill; past their best; too old and are not the players they once were. Smith and Cronk have been vocal in saying that age is nothing more than a number, and both feel as fit, fresh and competitive as they ever have. Do we need any more evidence when looking at the likes of Steve Price, Petro Civonceva, Darren Smith and recently Darren Lockyer who all played representative football well into their mid 30’s? What many seem to be forgetting is that all three players featured heavily in Australia’s World Cup success last November; the Storm trio being the best players on field in the World Cup final triumph against New Zealand. While Slater has sustained injuries to both his knees in the past three years, having surgery on his return from England last December, Slater missed the entire off-season and pre-season. His slow start to 2014 surely has to be a result of a severe lack of conditioning and match fitness, missing all of Melbourne’s trials. Whilst Cronk also was behind the eight ball in his preparation, having shoulder surgery after carrying the injury for most of the 2013 season. But one thing is for certain; all three players are duteous and incredibly thorough when it comes to their training, rehabilitation and recovery, putting the ‘P’ in professional. Storm mentor Craig Bellamy is on record stating you will never see three players work harder. Their work ethic sets the benchmark for their peers.
The loss of experience and key personnel. Since 2012, the Storm have lost a host of players who made them the team they were. That key ingredient was experience. The loss of veteran half Brett Finch, forwards in Richie Fa’oso, Jason Ryles, Jaiman Lowe,Todd Lowrie, Sika Manu, Centres Dane Nielsen, Maurice Blair and the miraculous English pivot in Gareth Widdop. That is some quite substantial playing talent that the Storm can no longer call upon or expect their inexperienced youth to all of a sudden come into First Grade and pick up where they left off from. Apart from their stars in Smith, Cronk, Slater and Hoffman, Melbourne’s usual 17 week to week includes names like Mahe Fonua, Young Tonumapeai, Tohu Harris, Mitch Garbutt, Ben Hampton, Kenny Bromwich who are all under the age of 23 and are yet to notch up 20 NRL games or 100 hames between them. These young footballers are still finding their feet, their confidence and where they fit in this Melbourne Storm team and structure. It will take some time until they feel comfortable in their own skin, know their role and what is expected of them. Patience will certainly be a virtue.
The uncharacteristic defence. Eight weeks into the Telstra Premiership, Melbourne are currently ranked 15th in defence. In other words, they are the second worst defensive team in the competition. Yes, you read that right. As mentioned, the Storm were synonymous with the term ‘defence’, many labelling them the innovators of the wrestle which changed the way the game was played for almost a decade. Enter season 2014. New rules, new interpretations has virtually seen the wrestle in the ruck extinct, something that the Storm are definitely struggling with and having trouble adapting. The ruck has been the quickest it has been in a very long time and perhaps old habits are dying hard at Melbourne. But what is even more concerning is the uncharacteristic missed tackles; allowing opposition players to stand in tackles, not wrapping up the ball carrier, allowing them to offload and cause havoc for the Storm’s defensive line. The Storm’s edges are also being tested through their inexperience being caught out and struggling to adhere to their defensive structures. An old cliché that is often used in the game is that “you build your attack off your defence”. If you buy into that philosophy, it is no surprise to see Melbourne struggling.
(Photo courtesy of http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Cooper+Cronk/Storm+v+Warriors/RW4toH3y0SE)
Too much reliance upon Cooper Cronk. It is no secret that the Storm were bitterly disappointed to lose English international and five-eighth Gareth Widdop. A tremendous ball runner who formed a formidable halves partnership with the reigning Dally M Medallist Cronk. Widdop complemented Cronk massively. Cronk, who is quite robotic when executing a game plan and organising his team’s attack, allowed Widdop to do what he does best: run the ball. In times of pressure, he also had the capacity to take pressure off Cronk, demanding the ball and running the show on the Storm’s left edge. Since his departure, the onus has fallen on youngster Ben Hampton. Hampton is an exciting halves prospect, although has yet to find his voice as a play maker which results in Cronk shouldering all of the responsibility for Melbourne’s attacking sequences. Cronk is handling the ball more than he has done in his career and it is a direct result of not having an experienced pivot who can help Cronk with the playmaking duties. Whilst the Storm covered their bases in the off season signing QLD Cup player of the year in Cody Walker, former Canterbury utilities Joel Romelo and Ben Roberts, all five-eighth options, yet certainly none are replacement for the enigmatic Gareth Widdop. Melbourne requires stability in the halves. Whether it is Hampton or Roberts, coach Bellamy needs to settle on a stable halves pairing and stick with it.
New Football Operations staff. The long term Melbourne Storm strength and conditioning coaches have moved on. At the Storm for 10 years, many believed these men were responsible for making the hardened warriors the Storm players had become. Notoriously known as having the hardest off seasons in the NRL, the Storm’s fitness and work ethic has never been questioned. Until now. Head strength and conditioning coach Alex Corvo, the man behind the Storm’s relentless fitness regime cut ties with the Club at the end of 2013. So did his partner in crime Adrian Jiminez with the Storm wanting to go in a different direction. One of the reasons Melbourne has been so consistent over the past decade is because of the consistency in their training. There’s that word again. Consistency. The application of conditioning, sport science and fitness methodology behind it never wavered, never waned. It was hard and uncompromising, which pushed players beyond their limits, yet the rewards were there to see over a 10 year period. Perhaps this is why the Storm’s apparent ‘mental toughness’ is being questioned by their Captain Cameron Smith? Losing assistant coaches in David Kidwell and Kevin Walters is also taking its toll. Kidwell, known as a great, aggressive defender in his day, brought a steel edge to the Storm’s defensive capabilities. Walters, one of rugby league’s greatest attacking minds and ball players, was instrumental in much of Melbourne’s attacking sequences. Their replacements; Adam O’Brien and Justin Morgan have only been in their respective roles for a short period of time. So while it might be a transitional phase taking place, at present, the changes seem to be having an adverse effect.
Whether it’s one of these factors, or all of them, it is definitely hurting the Melbourne Storm. The Storm have always prided themselves of getting off to a great successful start to each season, knowing that when the representative season comes around including a Test match and the hectic State Of Origin period, it can tend to hurt Melbourne. With only winning four of their opening eight games, history shows that the Storm will struggle during and post Origin, which will raise serious questions about their chances of making the finals. Add to the fact they only have two home games in their final six fixtures for 2014, could this be the first time in a decade (not including the 2010 season) that the consistent Storm will miss the finals?
Write Melbourne off at your own peril. The Storm love nothing more than being the underdog. One of Storm coach Craig Bellamy’s greatest strengths in his coaching repertoire is to bring out the siege mentality, the ‘us against them’, ‘it’s us against the world’. ‘Everyone has written us off’ etc etc. Bellamy knows how to motivate; to lift; to inspire is team. He knows what makes them tick. He knows how to tap into their psyche to get the desired response. If there is one thing the Melbourne Storm do better than any other club, it’s responding to and overcoming adversity. Season 2010 was a crippling year for the Storm, yet they managed to come out on the other side, stronger, more resilient than one could of envisaged. The predicament currently facing Melbourne is no doubt, a challenge – a challenge of a high magnitude, where their premiership credentials and integrity is being questioned for the first time in a decade by almost everyone. It is going to test their mental, physical, emotional strength and resolve. One can surely bet, this is a challenge that players like Smith, Slater and Cronk and their veteran mentor Bellamy live for.
(Photo courtesy of http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2012/09/22/1226479/435893-craig-bellamy.jpg)
Written by @DWATSONHAYES