Forecast suggests a @Storm on the horizon, threatening reign #purplepride #NRL #rugbyleague #melbourne #storm

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Nervous and uncertain times face the Melbourne Storm in 2016. Whilst critics and pundits again write the southern franchise off, citing that age will again be the factor of their demise along with a lack of notable depth and not being active in the player market as their counterparts have been, that is the least of Melbourne’s worries and concerns. Their major issue and focus is more internal than worrying about views and opinions of the external environment.

2016 is a significant year for the Melbourne Storm and it’s long-term future going forward. In 2012, two years after the infamous salary cap scandal, they defied the odds to win the Premiership. In 2013, the club was released from the grasp of News Corp and sold to a private consortium known as M.S. Holdings Australia Pty Ltd. In 2014, their long-standing captain, Cameron Smith re-sign to become a one-club player. 2015, the game’s greatest fullback also committed himself to joining Smith in certifying his future in Storm colours for life.

However, two other prominent Storm figures are yet to decide their long-term future and the decisions of both individuals could have ramifications for the Melbourne NRL franchise. The man known to have created the famous ‘Storm culture’, a coach, a leader, a father figure, a mentor, Craig Bellamy is in the final year of his current contract. Bellamy has a clause in his favour, should he choose to activate it, it will see him remain at the Storm until the end of 2018.

080686-059afdd0-359e-11e4-b602-27137950fdd4Pondering his future which could impact to Storm both in the short and long term
(Photo: News Corp)

But the man responsible for executing Bellmay’s astute game plans and driving the professional Storm culture is also in the final year of his current deal at the Storm. The current Australian, Queenland and Melbourne halfback Cooper Cronk, like Bellamy remains coy on where his future lies beyond 2016. Having not being short of suitors for his services, Cronk has been heavily linked to several Sydney clubs, who would be more than eager to have without question, the best organizing halfback in the world to date.

Cooper Cronk is a unique individual. Not one for the limelight, he keeps to himself. Shy’s away from the media and is a cleanskin when it comes to image, reputation and overall persona. He is the model rugby leaguer player that all NRL clubs wish their athletes could be. Well presented, groomed and articulate when talking, a football club would not just be acquiring a star player to their organization, they would be procuring a brand. A brand that would have a positive impact upon key revenue levers like membership, gate receipts and sponsorship.

So the $3.5 Million dollar question is, which Sydney NRL franchise is going to spend that kind of loot over 3 years to secure the game’s leading playmaker? Or will the Storm win out in the end? Canterbury-Bankstown have lacked a genuine half since Des Hasler arrived at Belmore in 2012. A pack that rolls down field with ease and a swift, nimble and potent backline, the Bulldogs have lacked a No.7 that could be the final piece of the Premiership puzzle. It was no coincidence that it was Cronk that proved to be the difference in their Grand Final defeat to the Storm in 2012.

Rumour and innuendo surrounds the Rabbitohs current halves pairing. Reportedly both Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary, the playmaking duo who helped deliver the South Sydney the 2014 Premiership, breaking a 43 year drought are on the nose with Coach Michael Maguire. Reynolds was denied a release just before the New Year and Keary is in a fight to retain his No.6 jersey after Cody Walker, a former Storm squad member, will start the year in the Halves for the Redfern based club. Could Souths be willing to cut lose their current halves in favour of securing Cronk? If the signing of favourite son Sam Burgess is an example to go off then it would not surprise anyone in the slightest.

147992-cooper-cronkA relationship built on honesty and respect (Photo: Foxsports.com.au)

St George Illawarra reportedly have been heavily interested in securing the Melbourne maestro’s signature, although Dragons coach Paul McGregor hosed down speculation, pouring cold water on the Red V signing the Australian No.7. However, with former halves partner Gareth Widdop at Wollongong and current halfback Benji Marshall yet to receive an offer from the Dragons, speculation will continue to mount, despite McGregor’s adamant admission.

With all Queensland NRL Clubs having their halves wrapped up and secured, the only other feasible option for Cooper Cronk is with an organization he is awfully familiar with and has been associated with for 12 years. The Melbourne Storm. Having secured both Billy Slater and Cameron Smith until the end of 2017 and 2018 respectively, the Storm will be hoping that the lure and ambition or remaining a one-club player will be too hard to resist, ensuring that Melbourne are able to have all of the famous ‘Big 3’ finish their careers together with the club that provided them with the opportunity to play First Grade rugby league in the NRL.

Cronk is no stranger to contract speculation and gossip. In 2012, he was off contract with the Storm and reportedly a move to the Titans was a done deal. Sign, sealed and delivered to the Gold Coast. The media reports that the incumbent Maroons halfback was keen to relocate back home to be closer to family in Queensland, only for Cronk to present and announce at a press conference at Storm HQ that he was remaining in Melbourne for a further 4 years. This time around, the media hullabaloo is that Cronk is keen to relocate to Sydney to be closer to partner Tara Rushton who resides in the harbor city.

One thing is for certain. This will be Cooper Cronk’s final NRL contract. Whilst the halfback is still the incumbent test and Origin No.7, remains at the top of his game and shows no sign of slowing down, mainly due to his professional approach and health orientated lifestyle, the duration of his next deal will still see the best of Cronk’s on field leadership, game play and heroics. Not to mention, continuing to be one of the NRL’s leading ambassadors and role models for kids, adolescents, young men and aspiring footballers.

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Will Cronk remain a one club player? (Photo: Getty Images – 2016 Trial vs Bulldogs)

What will continue to drive Cronk for the next several years of his career? What drives every professional athlete. The want and will to win. To win Test matches, to win Origins, to win Premierships. The want to better himself; to improve areas of his game, as no professional is ever satisfied, believing there are always key areas and aspects to their game they can improve upon. The fire still burns in Cooper Cronk’s village.

What is somewhat of a rarity in todays modern game, the notion of a being ‘one club player’ is what not only Storm powerbrokers, stakeholders fans and members will be hoping sways heavily on Cronk remaining with Melbourne, but I think all rugby league and sports fans in general would want to see the 275 game veteran finish his career in the purple jersey of the Storm. Just like Lockyer was to the Broncos; Ettinghausen was to the Sharks; Hindmarsh was the Eels, Andrew Johns was to the Knights, Cooper Cronk is and hopefully will continue to be for the Storm. A Rugby League Melbournian for life.

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Melbourne-Manly rivalry; Rugby League’s modern day Fibros Vs Silvertails War #NRL #RugbyLeague #purplepride #goManly

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663606-manly-sea-eagles-v-melbourne-storm(Photo source http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2012/09/15/1226474/779241-manly-v-melbourne.jpg)

In 1978, a feud was born that is now very much apart of Rugby League folklore and history. In the pre-season of 1978, there was an exhibition of football down in Melbourne, where all football codes were invited to be apart of. Two NSWRL (now known as the NRL) clubs who partook in the event were the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the Western Suburbs Magpies. Both clubs were from different spectrums, different landscapes in the Rugby League competition. The Sea Eagles from the Northern Pennisula of Sydney, whilst the Magpies were true to their name, based in Sydney’s West.

The legendary tale has it that Magpies Coach Roy Masters told his players that Manly did not want to fly on the same plane as the Western Suburbs players and refused to travel on the same bus. As to reasons why? Masters claimed that Manly administrators, officials and players alike looked down upon Western Suburbs, believing they were inferior beings from a second-rate region of Sydney’s metropolitan area.

This was enough tonic to infuriate the Magpies players who decided to take matters into their own hands when the two teams took the field as the exhibition of football. The result? Manly players were left bashed, bruised and bloodied. Spectators were left mortified and shocked at the spectacle. Roy Masters had created a monster; using a siege mentality. It’s us against them attitude which inspired his much maligned Western Suburbs team who lacked the class and talent of sides like Manly and Cronulla, but made up for it with sheer brutality and a ruthlessness that has never been witnessed in professional sport.

Masters would use motivational spiels to lift his players, citing that they were not good enough to play First Grade Rugby League in the eyes of their opponents; that they would never be successful on the field as well as off it; because they lived in ‘Fibro’ houses; were blue collar workers from the Western Suburbs, unlike their counterparts from affluent areas, who held good successful jobs who led comfortable lives. When his Magpie warriors would take the field, they would unleash hell, fueled by pure emotion that Masters had been able to implement into their psyche.

858001-manly-v-wests(Photo source http://resources1.news.com.au/images/2010/07/23/1225895/858001-manly-v-wests.jpg)

36 years on, the game has changed, rehabilitated itself from the thuggery and evolved to one of the most gladiatorial, physically testing sports on the planet. Professionalism is the name of the game these days. Rugby League is no longer just a sport, it’s a business, a product that is worth billions of dollars and governs billions in sponsorship and broadcasting rights. Footballers are no longer footballers. They are full-time athletes.

As such, the thought and memory of the infamous Fibros-Silvertails war and battles of yesteryear resurfacing in the modern day game would be laughed at right? Surely it would never happen in this political correct landscape and in a sport that is all about providing entertainment through its spectacular on field product of sinulating tries provided by its amazing athletes? Think again…

In 2007 a new fued was born, very much like the original, once again involving the Silvertails, Manly-Warringah. Whilst their combatants took the form of an interstate expansion club, in the Melbourne Storm. Be it through an inferiority complex, a mutual respect that went a little too far, or that a club, a team that many considered a waste of time would stand up and make their mark against one of the games successful clubs; that Manly had signed former Storm Halfback Matt Orford for overs, leaving the Victorian based franchise without a noted playmaker and leader leading into 2006. That the Storm had a rather Queensland Maroon flavour to its line up whilst Manly was well and truly decked out in NSW Blues players through its top 17 most weeks. Maybe it was all of the above that would see this modern day rivalry established (Or maybe it was just like everyone else, Melbourne hates Manly too)

Since 2007, Melbourne-Manly clashes have been something to savour. The games have been nothing short of epic. Fire, brimstone coupled by nail biting finishes at both Brookvale and down in Melbourne. Players have taken the field with the intent to punish their opposite number, their opponents, sending a message to one another who has the upper hand; who is the better player; who is the better team. Many a clash has resulted in injury and suspension to players on both sides of the rivalry. The pair have been engaged in three Golden Point thrillers since 2007. Have featured in two Grand Finals against one another, a qualifying final and a major semi final.

The bragging rights change from clash to clash quite consistently. 2007 saw Melbourne win the Premiership defeating Manly. 12 months late, Manly embarrassed the Storm by recording a record 40-0 result. In 2009, Melbourne knocked Manly out of the Finals. In 2011 Manly would go on to win the Premiership defeating New Zealand Warriors who has caused the upset of the year, defeating Melbourne, who were perhaps looking ahead to playing their nemesis a week later. In 2012, Melbourne would take great delight in ending the reigning Premiers 2012 title hopes by comprehensively putting the Silvertails to the sword in the Major Preliminary Final, where the Storm would be crowned Premiers that year.

The competitive rivalry has been alive and well since 2007, but it was not until 2011 where the built up angst, tension and (lets stop beating around the bush shall we?) HATRED, would rise to the fore. Just before halftime a fight broke out between the two sides which would see two players sin binned. Glen Stewart from Manly and Adam Blair for Melbourne who were supposedly sent temporarily from the field due to running in late and throwing a punch in the scuffle between both teams. On their way to their respective dressing sheds to cool off for 10 minutes, both players got to the sideline, exchanged what I’m sure were not kind and courteous pleasantries, stopped approached one another and let fly with a flurry of fists. This would see both teams charge towards Stewart and Blair who were going toe-to-toe like a Heavyweight bout before being swapped with Manly and Melbourne jerseys. The all in brawl would spill off the field onto the sideline, near cheerleaders and team mascots along with both sets of team benches.

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(Photo source http://images.smh.com.au/2011/08/26/2585262/gal-land-fight2-600×400.jpg)

Rugby League administrators saw it as a disgraceful act, referring to the incident as the black eye the game did not need, as the NRL was (as it still is today) trying to win the hearts and minds of kids and parents to play the sport. Both clubs were fined for the incident, which the media had touted as the ‘Battle of Brookvale’ whilst the players were dealt with a massive punishment. Stewart would not pull on the Maroon and White of Manly until Grand Final day, whilst Blair played his last game for the Storm, with Melbourne not being able to extend their season past their Major Preliminary Finals loss to the Warriors.

The animosity, detestation and bitterness between both clubs only intensified after this incident, which was eerily familiar. Scenes and images seen somewhat 36 years ago down in Melbourne at an exhibition of football, Lidcombe Oval and the birthplace of the most recent warfare, Brookvale Oval. Whilst both clubs do not engage in a traditional ‘softening up period’ that used to take place in the 70’s and early 80’s,  between the Sea Eagles and Magpies, Melbourne and Manly’s substitute is simply close, physical encounters that more often than not, leave fans on the edge of their seat.

Whilst there are many a derby in Rugby League like the Brisbane-North Queensland or South Sydney-Eastern Suburbs (Sydney Roosters) which in their own right have established their own respective rivalry, the enmity and rancor that exists between Melbourne and Manly is unique and differs significantly to these traditional rivalries. Even when the current crop of players from both the Sea Eagles and Storm have hung up the boots, one can surely bet that the rivalry will be spoken about and live on through the next generation of player from both clubs.

George(Photo courtey of http://www.nrl.com/Portals/NRL/images/35/35925_20_1.jpg)

A player who can atest to this, is fan favourite, George Rose, having now called both Brookvale and AAMI Park home. Rose knows all to well how hard, tight and firey these clashes have developed into, featuring in many a contest whilst wearing the Maroon and White, but has since traded those colours for Purple. Rose gave insight at a recent Storm media conference “I know how much the Storm game means to Manly every year. It’s always earmarked on the calendar and always a game they get up for. I’m expecting a very tough game from them. It’s something that brings out the best game for the season with both teams”

Although many from both camps state that the rivalry is nothing more than mutual respect, internally that is a standard cliché to downplay the actual hatred and aversion that exists and has established the modern day Fibros-Silvertails of the 21st century. And whilst Melbourne are not a fledging working class Rugby League Club from the Western Suburbs, they draw similar ‘underdog’ type synergy being in a State with a different landscape. One cannot help but see that Melbourne are the Fibros in this latest rivalry, simply because everyone loves to “hate Manly”.