Captain Cameron Smith is a major reason why the Melbourne Storm are expected to be a contender once again this season. Copyright: Brett Crockford/NRL Photos.
The 'Big Three'
Well, let's just get this obvious one out of the way first – one of Melbourne's biggest advantages over their past few years of dominance has been the club, state and now Test 1-7-9 combination of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. Each is a Dally M Medal winner, a premiership winner and a World Cup winner, and they've won what seems like 300 State of Origin matches between them. They make the players around them better and they know what it takes to win big games. Smith controls the ruck arguably better than any dummy half we've ever seen and is without doubt a future immortal. Cronk is the reigning Dally M Medallist and takes professionalism and perfectionism to previously unseen levels. Slater had a starring role in Australia's World Cup final win and is the premier rugby league fullback of the past 10 years.
The trio themselves may not like the 'Big Three' moniker – which they feel fails to give credit to the quality of players around them – but nevertheless, a team boasting that sort of quality in arguably the three most important positions on the field will always be a threat.
A balanced forward pack
The Storm, and coach Craig Bellamy, have had a happy knack of getting the absolute best out of journeyman-style forwards over the years but they go into 2014 with a genuinely dangerous and balanced pack, including a stack of representative players. Former Test and Origin second-rower Ryan Hoffman has been in vintage form since his return from a short stint in the UK Super League in 2012, Jesse Bromwich played several strong hands in New Zealand's World Cup campaign as starting front-rower while his younger brother Kenneath appears to have a strong representative future. Mobile back-rower Kevin Proctor has also played a couple of Tests for the Kiwis, rising star Tohu Harris was one of the form back-rowers of 2013 and desperately unlucky to miss out on New Zealand's World Cup campaign, Ryan Hinchcliffe is the 'Mr Fix-It' of the back row or filling in for Smith at hooker...
Throw in quiet achiever Bryan Norrie and a host of promising youngsters such Jordan McLean, Mitch Garbutt and Tim Glasby – not to forget big George Rose as he heads south from Sydney's northern beaches – and the Storm have a forward pack guaranteed to be laying a foundation for their star playmakers to do their thing.
A master coach
You don't necessarily need decades of experience to achieve success as an NRL coach – just ask the Roosters' Trent Robinson – but when the club's mentor has overseen a period of sustained success as Craig Bellamy has you know the team is in safe hands. Bellamy's success rate in the NRL of a tick under 70 per cent over 10 years and over 270 games is better than the likes of supercoaches Wayne Bennett and Jack Gibson, although no doubt due in part to the 'Big Three' mentioned above. (And Melbourne's Queensland connection is also a big factor in why Bellamy's record at Origin level with NSW of just two wins from nine games is somewhat underwhelming!)
Bellamy's achievement in dragging the club out of the dark days of the salary cap scandal deserves respect and you just know that whatever happens and whatever players he has to work with, when you play Melbourne, those players well be 110 per cent ready for whatever they will face.
A deep and dangerous backline
Slater will obviously be the first choice fullback whenever he's available but the rest of Melbourne's backline will have fans licking their lips heading into 2014 – despite the departure of the dangerous Maurice Blair to the Gold Coast. They boast a powerful and classy first-choice centre pairing of Will Chambers and Justin O'Neill, who will face competition from boom Titans recruit and Queensland under-20s centre Hymel Hunt. They have some exciting wing options including Matt Duffie, Mahe Fonua and Sisa Waqa, and some seriously promising young talent including Denny Solomona (eight tries in 13 games in the NYC last season) and Melbourne's 2012 under-20s player of the year Young Tonimaipea. Queensland under-20s representative Kurt Mann can also slot into the backline but may well challenge the likes of Ben Hampton and Queensland Cup recruit Cody Walker for a spot partnering Cronk in the halves.
They call their supporters the "Purple Pride Army" but the fans wouldn't have been too proud of the way 2013's third-place finishers were bundled out of the finals series in straight sets, with an underwhelming loss to South Sydney followed by a shock (some would say ambush) loss to Newcastle at home. It was un-Melbourne-like, and for this proud Storm side, 2012's premiership is well and truly in the past. They'll be seething over last year's ignominious exit and looking to restore some pride in 2014. Expect them to be focused, determined and out for revenge in 2014.