Nigel Wall, NRL.com
Position after 13 rounds: 1st
Competition points: 24
It would take a brave fan to bet against Melbourne figuring in the NRL Grand Final on September 30, such is their consistent, punishing form to date.
With Billy Slater keeping his foot on the accelerator in attack, ably supported by new Kangaroos halfback Cooper Cronk and with Cameron Smith dependable and dominant as ever in the No.9, the Storm’s almost irrepressible form has set a lofty benchmark for all other teams.
While other NRL clubs offer frailties to analyse, critiquing the Storm at the midpoint of the season is difficult – put simply, it’s tough to avoid a one-sided assessment. The team is brimming with positives... without a negative to be seen.
Injuries have certainly been kind and they’ve rarely been put under the pump. Their loss to Cronulla aside, the Storm’s toughest games were in Round 1 when they needed to rally late to overcome the Raiders, and in Round 7 when the Bulldogs did a fair job of blunting their attack in losing 12-6.
Otherwise they’ve been dominant: they’ve averaged a massive 29.3 points a game (most in 2012) and conceded just 11.9 (fewest).
Are Things Going to Plan? They couldn’t be better. The Storm are marrying brilliant, diverse attack with watertight defence – they have crossed for the most tries (5.4 per game) and busted out the most line-breaks (5.7) every week, while tallying the fewest missed tackles (25.9).
They give nothing away either, with just 9.8 errors a game (also the fewest).
Their kicking game is long and accurate – Cronk, Smith and Widdop have combined for an average of 630 metres each week, a mark bettered only by Manly. And they are masters at pinning the opposition down the other end – they kick to open space better than any other team (64.5 per cent).
Injury Front… They’ve had their share of cuts and bruises but nothing that’s dented the team structure too much. To date they’ve called on 23 players – which with three other teams are the fewest in the league. An ankle injury has seen Sika Manu sidelined for seven games, while Jaiman Lowe has made only four appearances. Kevin Proctor has missed three games while Bryan Norrie has been sidelined for two weeks in total.
However, they were dealt some bad news after their come-from-behind Round 13 win over the Warriors, with centre Will Chambers sidelined indefinitely with a blood clotting disorder.
If Only… They hadn’t suffered a two-point loss to the Sharks in Round 10, they’d have been batting a perfect 100.
Who’s Flying… Pick a jersey number! Slater’s involvement has been devastating – he ranks second for line-breaks (13), third for line-break assists (12), fourth for try assists (13). Cronk has been a masterful creator in the No.7, leading the way for try assists overall with 20 to date. (In fact Slater and Cronk have combined to put team-mates over for as many tries as Newcastle have scored collectively all year!)
Cameron Smith is the most involved player in the game, leading the way for touches (averaging 108 a game). Gareth Widdop ranks second to Johnathan Thurston among five-eighths for putting supports into space (nine line-break assists). Todd Lowrie, Ryan Hoffman and Kevin Proctor are thriving on the edges – heck, even veteran prop Jason Ryles has three line-breaks to his name!
However Will Chambers is arguably their biggest success story. Back in the code after a flirtation with rugby union, the nuggety centre has owned the right side of the field, crossing for 10 tries and terrorising opponents with his bullocking runs (nine line-breaks). How his absence affects the team will be telling.
The Storm’s right-side attack is lethal, having combined for a massive 31 tries to date.
Needs to Lift… It’s the oppositions who need to lift! The focus for each Melbourne player will be to simply maintain their impressive standards.
Clutching at straws, perhaps the wingers and Billy Slater need to apply themselves a little more under the high ball – the Storm defuse cross-field bombs only 56 per cent of the time.
Storm Assistant Coach Kevin Walters tells NRL.com… “So far our season has been a seven-and-a-half out of 10. I think we have been very consistent with what we have been doing… the players certainly have been with their training and that has been transferring to what they have been doing in games.
“Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk aside, Justin O’Neill has been good… Will Chambers has been good… Ryan Hinchcliffe has been really impressive… Todd Lowrie – all those guys that do a lot of that hard work through the middle, they have been very impressive.
“From here it’s a case of heads down and bums up – we have put ourselves in a great position to come home strongly… but a lot of things can affect that.
“We have some tough games in the next six weeks or so and I think we will know a bit more once we have finished that period… at this time last year St George Illawarra were clear of the pack and they got run down – and they were a pretty good side.”
Predicted Finish… If the Storm can safely navigate the next six weeks they’ll be in fine shape as the semis approach. There are tough battles looming, against the Wests Tigers (minus their Origin contingent), Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Cowboys. But if they escape serious injuries they’re a lay-down misere for the minor premiership.
Under-20s… It’s been a frustrating season for Dean Pay’s junior Stormers who have been struggling in attack in particular. The side sits in 12th position on the ladder, two wins adrift of the top eight. They have defended strongly but continue to battle to score points, with just 241 tallied to date (second fewest). They’ve been best-served by fullback Denny Solomona who has crossed for a team-high six tries as well as adding 10 line-breaks plus 118 metres a game. Five-eighth Matt McGahan and halfback Benjamin Hampton have been creative with seven and six try assists respectively.