THE only way is up for the Storm. Their nightmare year is over and once again they are primed to be a legitimate contender in the NRL. Wins will get points again and success won’t be tainted with innuendo.
Melbourne comes into 2011 as the real dark horse of the competition. They have plenty to prove and after being gutted of some of their talent the expectations aren’t as high as they have been in recent times.
With a good chunk of their formidable squad gone they will rely on the core of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk to come together with some younger talent and experienced journeymen. Coach Craig Bellamy gets a chance to re-prove himself the modern coaching guru. If he can lead the new squad back to glory, any persistent detractors will be silenced for good.
How They’ll Play It… Pretty much as they always have: orderly and tough and brilliant. Sure the squad is missing plenty of talent from the past few years but the system in place at the Storm is one that works – if all players get on board.
Bellamy will put the responsibility on his new forwards to play mistake-free football. Each man has an individual job and if he gets it done the team has the chance to flourish.
They’ll look to target other sides with relentless go-forward and frustrate opponents into making mistakes. If a slower-moving opposition forward surrenders a half-break, Smith will pounce from hooker. As for the backs, Greg Inglis might be missing but there is plenty of talent waiting to explode. Beau Champion has arrived and Justin O’Neill, Chase Stanley and Elijah Niko are other potential centres who can flourish from some nice service from Cronk. With Slater chiming in from the back the team can still produce the style of game known to be so successful in the modern era.
Expect Plenty From… Elijah Niko. The young Kiwi joins the Storm from the Warriors’ premiership-winning Toyota Cup team with plenty of raps. As a powerful centre Niko is already earning comparisons to former Storm prodigy Israel Folau.
In two seasons at the Warriors in the under-20s Niko scored 21 tries from 36 games. He has an impressive offload in his game and just like Folau he can get high into the air to bring down cross-field kicks.
They’re Going To Really Miss… ‘Captain Obvious’ time here: Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Aiden Tolman and Brett White are huge losses. Inglis is a game breaker who often triggered a result for the Storm. Without his thrust out wide there’s a chance Melbourne may look more like a weak southerly buster than a threatening and intimidating storm cell. Youngsters like Beau Champion will no doubt perform admirably under the Bellamy tutelage but you just can’t replace the natural ability and class of Inglis.
As for Hoffman, Tolman and White, the fact remains the Storm have been forced to go for some ‘budget’ props following the salary cap scandal. Hoffman, Tolman and White are representative-calibre players who created an impressive platform for Melbourne and it remains to be seen if the likes of the un-retired Adam Woolnough, Troy Thompson, Bryan Norrie, Jesse Bromwich and Jaiman Lowe can join Adam Blair and give Smith, Cronk and Slater the space they need.
Time To Stand Up… Chase Stanley. Nabbed from the Dragons a little over a year ago this young centre failed to really blossom as some may have hoped. But now, with Inglis’ departure there is a chance for Stanley to prove he does belong on the NRL stage. He has to beat out both Champion and Niko for a crack at the big time but perhaps this is the drive he needs. Certainly his trial form, in particular his defensively strong two-try effort in their 24-4 win over the Raiders, would have put a smile on coach Bellamy’s face.
Coach Watch… Craig Bellamy will leave the Storm before he is ever pushed. After the year from hell Bellamy is relishing the chance to be playing for points again and with the New South Wales job off his shoulders you can be sure the Storm will benefit greatly. Even with a much weaker squad than he has become accustomed to Bellamy may well push for coach of the year honours in 2011.
They’ll Be Boosted By… Maurice Blair. Who? – we can hear a lot of you saying. Blair has been a ‘scrapper’ at Penrith for a few seasons as a centre/five-eighth but hasn’t taken full advantage of his natural talents. If anyone can help the 26-year-old reach the top of his game, it will be Bellamy.
As a player who can fill in at centre or five-eighth Blair gives the Storm some depth in positions they are potentially a little light on in. If Luke Kelly can’t crack the No.6 jersey Blair might just be the option.
The late acquisition of Champion (14 tries in 2010) is also a good one. Having played for City Origin last year Champion could also learn greatly under the Bellamy tutelage. With a little more muscle in his defence (he missed nearly three tackles a game last year), he could prove one of the buys of 2011.
Predicted Finish… Providing they aren’t cruelled by injuries the Storm will push for a bottom-half-of-the-eight finals spot, giving them a start on their road to redemption.
Toyota Cup… Melbourne will rely on some returning players to boost them up from their disappointing 13th-place finish in 2010. Kenneath Bromwich, Kirisome Auva’a, Benjamin Hampton and Tohu Harris are some of the names who will be expected to lead the way with their experience.
Gains… Maurice Blair (Panthers), Jaiman Lowe (Rabbitohs), Tu’u Maori (Newtown Jets), Elijah Niko (Warriors), Troy Thompson (Raiders), Adam Woolnough (released), Beau Champion (Rabbitohs).
Losses… James Barker (released), Hep Cahill (released), Brett Finch (Wigan Warriors), Ryan Hoffman (Wigan Warriors), Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs), Willie Isa (Castleford Tigers), Sinbad Kali (released), Blake Leary (Cowboys), Jeff Lima (Wigan Warriors), Luke MacDougall (released), Sam Martin (Titans), Maipele Morseau (Knights), Billy Rogers (Eels), Aiden Tolman (Bulldogs), Brett White (Raiders).