Bob Drane, NRL.com
1. Out of the blocks
Melbourne proved their come-from-behind 2012 premiership was no fluke, with seven wins on the trot picking up where they left off in October. This included a hard-fought 22-18 Grand Final rematch decision over the Bulldogs and a 17-10 victory over the emerging Rabbitohs.
2. Origin energy loss
The nadir of the Storm’s season came at the usual Origin/post-Origin period, when they lost four, including a 39-zip Round 18 belting from Canterbury.
3. The comeback
Before hitting the skids with a Round 25 loss to Manly, the Storm regained their feet, winning four straight, including the season’s two biggest scores: a 68-4 thumping of the Raiders, and a 64-4 whipping of Parramatta. Included in their run was another defeat of Souths, their sixth straight over the Rabbitohs. However, their final-round golden point win over an under-strength Gold Coast unit has left plenty of pundits wondering how deep they will press into the playoffs.
4. The ‘Trinity’
Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk remain a devastatingly effective team-within-a-team. They’re unpredictable and have more sets than a John Farnham farewell tour. Their all-round contribution is reflected in the stats: Smith has third-most goals this season (81) and the fifth-most points (170). He’s eighth on the tackling list, with 909. Slater is equal-third try-scorer with 17, and 10th in terms of metres gained (2,980). In three of his matches he’s scored a hat-trick of tries. He’s gained the sixth-most kick-return metres, with 1,011, has the most kick returns in a match (14) and is eleventh on the list of tackle-breaks, with 79. He’s also the competition’s third-best line-breaker, with 24 – just one behind second-placed David Simmons of Penrith. Slater effected 21 try-saving tackles. Cronk has third-most line-break assists, with 17, and fifth-most try assists (21). He’s fourth on the list for field kicks, and equal-top for 40-20s (four), achieved in four different matches.
5. Variety and spread in attack
The Storm have many ways to attack. Even no-nonsense forwards Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman and veteran Jason Ryles have been dangerous and penetrating. Overall the team created the second-most line-breaks (109) and more dummy-half runs than 10 of their rivals. They have three players in the top 10 for intercepts: Will Chambers, Proctor and Justin O’Neill (with two each). This puts them equal second for making oppositions pay for lapses in passing. With 328, Hoffman is ninth on the list of hit-ups. Mahe Fonua and Sisa Waqa both appear with Slater on the “most tries in a match” list, each with a hat-trick to their name. Chambers and Slater both appear equal-second for most match line-breaks (four). With 24, Slater is third on the season list for line-breaks. Chambers is fifth for most metres in a match with 250. Brett Finch has the equal-highest line-break assists in one match (four). The field kicking of Cronk and Smith is as devastatingly accurate and timely as ever.
6. Tenacious defence
When the Storm play well, they defend ferociously and expertly. Their ability to stifle the ball carrier is second to none. In 14 of their 24 games so far, they bettered their opposition in the offload stat. They’ve conceded the fifth-fewest missed tackles and fifth-fewest line-breaks and fewest offloads overall.
7. The five-eighth factor
The loss of Gareth Widdop to a dislocated hip for an extended period mid-season was potentially devastating, but Brett Finch filled the gap admirably. Widdop scored 32 points in 2012 and achieved 12 line-breaks,14 line-break assists and 13 try assists. He averaged 8.5 runs and 70.5 metres per game, not to mention 17.5 tackles. In 14 games this season, his figures were measuring up. Total metres were less than half (2141 in 26 games compared to 870 in 14 games), but defensive efforts were up (18.1 tackles). All-round, Widdop matched up with the best five-eighths. Finch plugged the gap. Though his overall average figures in eight games were nowhere near as impressive, his line-break assists (13) and try assists (nine) say plenty about his ability to set up an attack.
8. Trying tyros
The Storm have blooded some promising up-and-comers. Kenny Bromwich has played two games and bagged a try in his second. Big, strong and exciting back-rower Tohu Harris has made an impression in his first year with 2,169 metres gained, putting him in the Storm’s top five. He’s third in their tackle count with 663. Half Ben Hampton made two appearances in Widdop’s absence for two tries. Young prop Tim Glasby made the most of his 49 minutes with a try. Tough, stocky ball-running centre Slade Griffin has played 10 games and acquitted himself well.
9. Best matches
In Round 6, Souths couldn’t penetrate Melbourne’s tight forward defence, with Smith garnering 40 tackles, and the backline, marshalled by Slater, held up under long periods of pressure. But the key was long periods of possession during which Storm were able to crack the Rabbitohs with inventive half work, battering ram forward work and pinpoint kicking from Cronk. In Round 22, the Storm shut Souths down and unleashed brilliant attack in a 26-8 lesson. The 26-18 Round 11 victory over the Roosters was particularly impressive, as the Tricolours were coming off a five-win streak. Ryan Hinchcliffe and Waqa led a staunch defence against determined and powerful opponents. The turning-point came when Cronk and Smith combined, Cronk kicking and Smith gathering after a Roosters fumble in goal. In the Round 10 draw with Manly, the Storm again proved they could be damaging with plenty of possession. In fact, they achieved a massive 215 runs in the match – second-most overall this season.
10. Factor in the X-Factor
The Storm push through adversity. Every year they recover well from losing match-winners to State of Origin. Their troughs are never too deep and they can peak at unexpected times. Fans saw that indefinable spirit rise in 2012 just before the finals when they looked gone against Cronulla at home, and it stayed around for a remarkable Premiership. This year they have again looked unconvincing late, but their four straight after barely turning up against the Bulldogs proves they can pull it from somewhere when it counts. Just because of who they are, their season peaks at unexpected times, and meantime individuals continue to inspire and lift them – case in point Slater with his hat-trick of hat-tricks.