Is the purple reign all but over? Has the Melbourne juggernaut finally ran out of gas? The decade of dominance has ended. Just some of the questions and statements being made by many rugby league experts and critics on the Storm’s elimination from the 2014 final series. Not so much in being eliminated, but in the manner they were defeated. A comprehensive, ruthless mauling by the Bulldogs of Belmore, a modern day rival who featured in Melbourne’s eventual Premiership victory in 2012.
2012. What’s so significant about that year apart from the obvious? Apart from winning the premiership, this was the year the Storm last won a finals game. After losing 5 games in a row in 2012, Melbourne went on to win 8 straight including the Grand Final against Canterbury-Bankstown. But since then, the Victorian based franchise has failed to make a dent in September, bowing out in straight sets in 2013 after finishing a more than respectable third, whilst 2014 saw the Storm finish 6th, the clubs lowest finish to a season since 2005.
Whilst Coach Craig Bellamy, Captain Cameron Smith and the team’s attacking maestro in Cooper Cronk have all stated and cited the severe lack of consistency as the primary reason and factor the Storm, instead of progressing into the second week of the finals, now find themselves looking towards 2015. Inconsistency in their defensive aptitude. Inconsistency in their execution. Inconsistency in their completion rate. Inconsistency in not competing for the entire 80 minutes. Facets that the Storm has been renowned for; being the benchmark in all these areas.
Whilst finishing the year as one of the form teams of the competition, winning 6 from its last 8 remaining games and turning around its rankings sending an ominous warning to its opponents, the Storm failed to fire in their favourite time of the year. Having everything in their favour; a home final on a dry track, 20,000 Melburnian’s cheering them on, Melbourne were far from the dominant force and were worlds away from their clinical best only to be beaten embarrassingly by a red hot Bulldogs outfit who have had the wood on Melbourne in their last 4 encounters.
Bellamy described it as “bloody embarrassing to be quite honest” whilst Cooper Cronk explained that he was “lost for words” not being able to explain what had happened to see the Storm painstakingly defeated 28-4, with the only points coming off the halfback’s boot for a departing Sisa Waqa try. Whilst the fitness of the club’s hooker and leader was an issue, the Storm’s attitude and mindset sadly saw them take to the field ‘expecting things to just happen’ as Bellamy exclaimed in the post match press conference.
Melbourne bid farewell a host of experience, namely in one of the club’s favourite son’s in Ryan Hoffman who will be shifting to the New Zealand Warriors in 2015 after 11 colourful seasons at the Storm, whilst Premiership and Fijian international Sisa Waqa will be heading to the nation’s capital after accepting a 3 year deal with the Canberra Raiders. The club also loses Mitch Garbutt, Tim Glasby, Joel Romelo, Ben Roberts, Junior Moors and George Rose with no significant signings apart from former journeyman in Blake Green and former NSW and Australian prop Tom Leroyd-Lahrs who will link up with the Storm for off-season training, hoping to re-establish themselves and their fledging NRL careers.
Throw in the chorus that many of the game’s commentators and pundits are once again saying that the Storm’s ‘big 3’ are not the same players they once were, citing age, their workload and the game as a whole catching up with the enigmatic trio. But is this really the case? One tends to think otherwise. After having a limited pre-season and in some respect, not having a pre-season at all thanks to a combination of the Rugby League World Cup and surgery, Smith, Slater and Cronk started the year slower than usual. However, come Origin time, the three amigos were back to their brilliant best, especially Cronk.
After breaking his arm in the 8th minute of Origin I, Cronk defied the odds to play in the final Origin Game 6 weeks after the initial fracture and virtually won the Queensland Maroons the game with his organisation and astute kicking game. He carried that sublime form back to club land and put the Storm back on the radar for a strong finish and threatening finals campaign. The Melbourne magician was dominant and went close to being the Storm’s best for the club’s last 8 games, yet not even the reigning Dally M Medalist could stop the mauling of the Bulldogs in their elimination final at AAMI Park.
Like all professional sporting teams, a post-season review will take place trying to uncover what went so horribly wrong; identifying what worked and what did not; areas that need attention and ultimately identifying areas of improvement to ensure that a repeat of the failures are not retold in 12 months time. Storm captain Cameron Smith implored his playing group that the only way to rectify the side’s disappointing failures is to change the mindset and attitude; stating that he would no longer accept second-rate efforts once preseason resumed with the aim of ending the inconsistent play that has troubled the side in the past two seasons. “It’s our consistency, without a doubt. It’s been an issue here for a couple of years now,” Smith said. “It was probably the thing we were best in the competition at in the past 10 years minus the past two seasons. “That’s something we need to address and it starts at training, that’s where it starts.”
Smith along with Bellamy loathes nothing more than not achieving their own high standards and expectations. Hence why the Melbourne Storm culture is one of the best not only in Rugby League, but in world sport. Can they turn it around and become the consistent force and side they intend on once again becoming? If any team is to do it, it is the Storm. Bellamy’s authoritarian approach; a noted stickler for perfection will be issuing the challenge to his playing group. It will once again be up to the senior leaders to lead the way and implore the younger members of the squad to work harder and buy into what Melbourne have built, established and are about as a club.
The likes of Tohu Harris, Mahe Fonua, Young Tonumaipea, Kenny Bromwich, Ben Hampton Jordan McLean will be better from the experience that the rigors of NRL First Grade provided them in 2014. The Storm will be expecting them to step up another level in 2015. Melbourne has invested heavily in its young crop of talented juniors instead of heading out into the market place in the past few seasons. The brains trust of the Storm football department have put their faith in these capable individuals. It’s time they repaid that faith with consistency in their football, working harder in the off season to strengthen areas of improvement and fine tune their respective traits which assisted Melbourne to make the finals.
The loss of Ryan Hoffman will undoubtedly leave a void. However the emergence, growth and maturity of Jesse Bromwich has shown that the Storm are not short of leaders. And whilst the evergreen trinity of Smith, Slater and Cronk are fit, the Melbourne Storm will always have the other 15 competitors looking over their shoulders, knowing that the men in purple will continue to be a premiership threat; even more so if they rediscover that consistency they will be looking to revive in the off-season in their preparation to atone in Season 2015. So write the Storm off at your own peril. There is still a lot of life left in this dynasty. The doubters are only fueling the fire which will motivate the purple machine to respond the only way they know how, with consistency.
(Photo courtesy of http://www.zimbio.com/photos/Cooper+Cronk/NRL+Rd+26+Storm+v+Broncos/8YVF-IWQlu2)