Gains: Ryan Hoffman (Wigan, ESL), Shea Moylan (Broncos), Michael Greenfield (Dragons), Siosia Vava (Sharks), Mitchell Garbutt (Wests Newcastle), Jason Ryles (Roosters), Luke Berkrey (Raiders).
Losses: Chase Stanley (Dragons), Beau Champion (Titans), Adam Blair (Wests Tigers), Atelea Vea (Dragons), Troy Thompson (retired), Adam Woolnough (retired), Dane Chisholm (Wests Tigers), Sione Kite (Bulldogs), Elijah Niko (rugby union), Robbie Rochow (Knights).
If there is one constant in the NRL from year to year, it’s that the Melbourne Storm are inevitably among the contenders come finals time. Brushing aside the salary cap saga that had so devastated the club 12 months earlier, Melbourne resumed normal service last season on their way to the minor premiership and although their campaign unexpectedly faltered a week short of the grand final there is no reason to suggest they won’t be back in the mix once again in 2012.
The most notable absentee this season will be enforcer Adam Blair – the long-time Storm prop joining Wests Tigers on a four-year deal. Centre Beau Champion has also departed after just one year with the club while veterans Troy Thompson and Adam Woolnough have called it a day; however the return of back-rower Ryan Hoffman following a brief stint in England and the arrival of prop Jason Ryles will more than fill that void.
Key to Melbourne’s success will be the presence of the ‘big three’ – Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk – as well as talented young five-eighth Gareth Widdop. Despite the various comings and goings over the past few seasons, the brilliance of Slater, Smith and Cronk has always ensured the Storm are title contenders and they will again lead the way in 2012.
Expect the Storm to burst out of the blocks again with games against Canberra, South Sydney and the Gold Coast in the first three rounds.
How They’ll Play It: Nothing will change. Melbourne play a tightly structured game based around making few errors and dominating in the tackle. It’s why such upheaval in the forward pack over the past few years has had so little impact. New players simply take over the role of their predecessors with explicit directions as to what is expected from them. And of course it is the presence of Slater, Smith and Cronk that make this plan so effective – the trio being masters of exploiting opportunities that present as a result of Melbourne’s relentless tactics. Notably, the Storm ranked second for least errors in 2011 with 9.6 per game, 15th for offloads conceded (just 10 per game), conceded the fewest points and tries and ranked No.1 for effective tackles.
Expect HUGE Things From: Cooper Cronk. The diminutive Melbourne halfback keeps getting better with age and this year presents a unique opportunity for him to finally establish himself at halfback in Queensland’s starting XIII come rep time following the retirement of Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston’s shift to No.6. No doubt Cronk will be keen to impress selectors during the opening rounds to stave off any potential challenge from the likes of Scott Prince and Daly Cherry-Evans. Cronk’s kicking game remains a key element of Melbourne’s game plan: In 2011 he kicked more than any other player with 323 kicks for the year for 10,161 metres.
Bonus Points: They may be better known for their scintillating attack but it was Melbourne’s defensive qualities that shone in 2011 and will again be central to their success this year. Well drilled, the Storm are frustratingly difficult to crack and were easily the best in the NRL at defending their goal-line last season with just 22 tries conceded between the tryline and the 10-metre line and 34 between the tryline and the 20-metre line. Tellingly, the 52 tries they conceded during the regular season were 10 fewer than eventual premiers Manly.
They’re Going To Really Miss: Adam Blair. The Kiwi international has been Melbourne’s enforcer up front for the past three seasons and his intimidating presence will be sorely missed. His no-nonsense charges and brutal hits led the way last season for the side’s crop of emerging forwards.
It’s Time To Deliver: Maurice Blair. The departure of Beau Champion this season presents a wonderful opportunity for Blair – a naturally gifted ball-runner who has never quite cemented his standing in the NRL – to finally live up to his potential. The former Panthers part-timer arrived in Melbourne last season but played just 14 games in the top grade, scoring three tries. The Storm would love to see him raise the bar in 2012.
How’s Their Depth: Strong in the forwards but they will be tested out wide during the representative season or if any of their big names in the backline – namely Slater, Cronk or Dane Nielson – suffer long-term injury.
Coach Craig Bellamy has worked hard to ensure there is a production line of talented forwards emerging at the club and the likes of Kevin Proctor and Jesse Bromwich will head into the new season full of confidence after impressing in 2011. The return of Ryan Hoffman provides greater strike on the left edge where he has long been a favourite target of his inside ball-players close to the line.
Under-20s: Having enjoyed a solid 2011 in which they finished the regular season in fourth before crashing out in the semi-finals, Melbourne are expecting a much tougher challenge for their crop of youngsters this time around. With up to seven players elevated to the NRL squad in 2012, coach Dean Pay will rely on a number of newcomers to lead the way instead.
“We’ve lost a number of players which is a fair dint in the side but the new kids are working hard at the moment – I think it’s just a case of wait and see,” Pay explained. “We’ve got a lot of 17- and 18-year-olds that are good players but it will take them a while to find their feet and get used to the physical side of things and length of the season.”
One positive for the Storm is the growing number of locals starting to come through the junior ranks.
“The standard of them is starting to get that bit better and that’s what we’re finding down here,” Pay said. “There aren’t a huge amount of them but you’ll get one or two each year that are local kids and do quite well. It’s quite encouraging.
Keep an eye on five-eighth Matt McGahan who scored 212 points last season, and centre Denny Solomona to lead the way for Melbourne in 2012.
The Coach: The 2012 season represents Craig Bellamy’s 10th in charge of the Storm – and there is no reason to suggest that he won’t be there for another 10. The fact is that Bellamy has been the central figure in establishing Melbourne as one of the NRL’s true heavyweights and, salary cap dramas aside, his record is quite remarkable: 237 games for 159 wins, 75 losses and a draw as well as eight finals appearances in nine years (they were stripped of all competition points in 2010). He is as safe as houses.
Predicted Finish: Another year, another top-four finish looms. Melbourne have made a habit of featuring prominently come September and with their big three still calling the shots it is hard to see anything changing in 2012. The club has recruited strongly in the off-season and will justifiably be aiming for yet another Minor Premiership and a grand final appearance. In fact, we have them as the 2012 benchmark.
The Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The must have: Cameron Smith was the best player in Toyota NRL Dream Team in 2011 and will be up there again this season.
The dark horse: Jordan McLean is a cheap-as-chips front-rower who is a big bopper and potential bench forward for Melbourne, particularly if the Storm suffer injuries over Origin time.