Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
It takes a special side to fall two games short of a grand final and be able to declare it your worst season in eight years, yet that’s exactly what 2013 represented for the Melbourne Storm.
Their shock loss to Newcastle in Week 2 of the finals – their first defeat at home to the Knights since 2004 – brought about the end of a remarkable run that, with the exception of 2010 when the salary cap scandal resulted in relegation to the foot of the NRL ladder, had seen them reach either the grand final or preliminary finals every single year.
With that in mind, it’s fair to say the Storm will view 2013 as a failure. Sure, the likes of Parramatta, Wests Tigers and St George Illawarra might view failure a little differently but for a side whose sole goal this season would have been another premiership, missing out on that final four is well short of expectation.
So what went ‘wrong’ for Melbourne?
Coach Craig Bellamy admitted after their early exit that his side lacked the “September buzz” that had been so obvious when they stormed home to take the title 12 months ago.
In that case they had won their final five regular-season games and were the form side of the competition come the finals, while this time around they were belted 28-8 away to arch-rivals Manly in Round 25 and barely scraped home with a golden-point win over the Gold Coast in Round 26.
Their season came to a crashing halt with consecutive finals losses to Souths and the Knights.
Melbourne also seemed more heavily affected by the State of Origin period this year. With Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk in your side, the representative season will always be tough but it appeared to drain them more than usual in 2013. The evidence was a run of four losses in five games between Rounds 15-21 which included surprise results against the Titans and Wests Tigers, a 39-0 thrashing at the hands of Canterbury and another away loss to the Warriors.
Inconsistency probably summed up the Storm’s season. After starting the year off with a bang as they won their first seven games of the year, they proceeded to drop their next two and never fully regained their mojo.
Perhaps they simply ran out of steam. Melbourne has long been considered the team to beat in the NRL and with the rise of South Sydney and Sydney Roosters in 2013 they simply couldn’t go with them when the business end of the year came around.
But it’s not all bad news. The new season kicks off in less than six months and if there is one thing we know for sure it’s that the Storm will be there challenging for the title again in 2014.
Where They Excelled: As usual, it was Melbourne’s brilliant attacking game that ensured another top-four finish at the end of the regular season. With their ‘big three’ steering the ship, Melbourne scored 98 tries in 2013 – second only to the Roosters – and showed a wonderful ability to score from anywhere on the football field. Their 34 tries from outside the 20-metre line was equal with Manly as the most by any side in the NRL.
The Storm can also thank their big men and the kicking game of halfback Cooper Cronk for many of their good results. They ranked second for both total metres gained and total kick metres gained with an average 1308 and 568 metres respectively.
Where They Struggled: Melbourne produced the best home record of any side in the competition in 2013 with just a single loss, but they weren’t anywhere near as effective away where they won six and lost six.
Particularly disappointing was a 22-4 loss to Wests Tigers in Round 16 while they were never in the contest in the latest running of the “Battle of Brookvale” in Round 25 when thrashed 28-8 by Manly.
Discipline was also a problem for the Storm with their 168 penalties conceded seeing them ranked 15th in the NRL in that area.
Missing In Action: Injuries weren’t a huge concern for the Storm in 2013 although they did have a few important players sidelined at different stages of the season.
Most telling was the hip dislocation suffered by five-eighth Gareth Widdop in Round 15 which looked to have prematurely ended his season. Incredibly, Widdop made a courageous return just in time for the finals but the lengthy lay-off affected his form.
Winger Matt Duffie played just four games before undergoing both a knee and shoulder reconstruction.
Turning Point: Melbourne’s 28-8 loss to old rivals Manly at Brookvale Oval in Round 25 stopped their season in its tracks. Prior to that clash, the Storm appeared to be building to something special much like they had done in 2012 when they won their final eight games including the grand final. But having notched those four consecutive wins, which included impressive results over South Sydney and Newcastle and 60-point thrashings of Canberra and Parramatta, they came crashing back to earth at Brookvale and never recovered.
Best Games: For sheer brilliance, a 68-4 belting of Canberra and a 64-4 win over Parramatta were hard to beat.
The Raiders victory was built on the back of a brilliant attacking kicking game from Cooper Cronk and a hat-trick of tries to winger Mahe Fonua who also produced a moment of magic when he batted a ball that was sailing over the deadline back in for Will Chambers to score.
Against the Eels, Melbourne stormed home with Billy Slater crossing for three in a quality performance out wide.
Worst Games: A 22-4 loss to Wests Tigers in Round 16 was insipid. Despite missing captain Cameron Smith, the Storm still boasted Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk yet after scoring the first try of the game were never really in the contest.
When it comes to standing up on the big stage, their 28-8 loss to Manly in a game they should have been up for was extremely disappointing.
Hold Your Head High: Melbourne captain Cameron Smith was again a central figure for the Storm in 2013, as was fullback Billy Slater who scored 18 tries and averaged 138 metres per game.
However, joining them as the Storm’s top performers were Ryan Hoffman and Will Chambers. Hoffman’s efforts earned him a recall to the NSW State of Origin side for the first time since 2008 while Chambers was lethal out wide as he scorched opponents with 12 tries and 14 line-breaks.
Coach Craig Bellamy says: “It was a missed opportunity. We thought our team could make a bit of a dint this year. If you take the last two weeks out it’s been a really good year for us. We went over to England and won the World Club Challenge – I think we started off with six or seven wins in a row. We hit a couple of rough patches but I think we came through those rough patches pretty good and found a way to come third in the minor premiership. I think our draw this year and how it turned out, we travelled a lot early to hot places and had some short turnarounds so it was a really tough draw we had this year but the guys came it through it really well. But we just didn’t seem to have the September buzz, for want of a better word. We just didn’t seem to have the want, the desire, the reason to believe… I’m not sure but the last few weeks we just haven’t had that and it’s something you need in September. While the guys fought really hard both weeks they got themselves behind by 14 points in both games. There are some positives there but we really contributed to our demise.”
Conclusion: At times in 2013, the Storm looked as lethal as ever and with the finals approaching they looked to be warming up once again to make a run at the premiership title. But momentum deserted them this time around.
For all their big game experience, Melbourne lost its finals buzz when it mattered most and they fell to their earliest exit since 2005. While many sides would consider simply reaching the finals to be a win in its own right, the Storm will inevitably see 2013 as a lost opportunity. It’s a harsh assessment, but they are capable of so much more.
Position: 3rd (5th after Finals)
Home Record: 10 wins, 1 loss, 1 draw (1st)
Away Record: 6 wins, 6 losses (=5th)
Longest Winning Streak: 7 (Rounds 1-7)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Rounds 8-9; 15-16; 18-19; Finals Wk 1-2)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 98 (2nd most)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 58 (3rd fewest)