Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. The song remains the same
There’s nothing to suggest 2012 will be anything but business as usual for the pride of the south. This year marks coach Craig Bellamy’s 10th year at the helm of the Melbourne Storm – and salary cap dramas aside, no club has notched a better record over the past decade. And they continue ‘on the up’. Last year the Storm clinched their first ‘clean’ Minor Premiership (taking into account their stripped hat-trick of achievements from 2006, as well as their 2007 and 2009 Premierships). They’ve missed semi-finals football just three times in 14 seasons – including their annus horribilis in 2010. Why? Because their structures are as well drilled as the North Sea. Superstars aren’t the solution at Melbourne, processes are. And when their processes are adhered to, superstars are born – not bought. Like previous seasons, the Storm were a force in 2011 because they resisted oppositions with fierce desire – they conceded the fewest points, tries (10 fewer than premiers Manly), line-breaks and missed tackles. And they were lineball with the Dragons for the season’s fewest errors. When your house is in order in those categories, semi-finals footy is just a matter of course.
2. Great pick-up buys
The Storm are canny recruiters. They’re like obsessive op-shop scouts: they know a bargain when they see it and will have no hesitation throwing a discarded or hard-up talent a lifeline, knowing they can wring out a further year or two’s value. In past years they’ve had great success with the likes of Brett Finch, Clint Newton, Beau Champion and Adam Woolnough. This year they’ve snapped up Jason Ryles, discarded by the Roosters after two years. The former Test prop may be 33 years old now but if any mentor can get him to drink from the fountain of youth, even for one season, it’s Craig Bellamy. Ryles will have a point to prove after his dumping, too. Meanwhile 2012 also sees Ryan Hoffman, a salary cap scandal casualty, return to the fold. Hoffman doesn’t add quite the grunt of the departing Adam Blair but he’s good for long minutes and will reinject some offloading flair into the pack. He’ll also add sting down the left fringe.
3. Spine-tingling stuff
One of the keys to the Storm’s consistency and success has been their largely unwavering player unit, helped by some good fortune on the injury front. The Storm haven’t needed more than 30 players in each of the past five seasons; last year they required just 28, the third fewest (Manly had the fewest with 25). Their superstar ‘spine’ of fullback and 2011 Dally M Player of the Year Billy Slater, five-eighth Gareth Widdop, halfback Cooper Cronk and hooker Cameron Smith missed a combined total of just eight games all year, right through to their Grand Final qualifier loss. Some of those were representative games – which won’t reoccur in 2012 given the NRL’s new schedule. Even with only average luck with injuries the Storm will press high into the top eight.
4. Gareth Widdop
English-born Widdop was the revelation of the NRL in 2011 – and the 22-year-old wasn’t even in the Storm’s top squad of 25 at the beginning of the season! After playing just three games in 2010, Widdop seized control of the No.6 to suit up 25 times. His presence lifted the weight of expectation off fullback Billy Slater and halfback Cooper Cronk; as a result all three had banner seasons. Widdop revealed a blistering turn of foot and a wonderful in-and-away; his 16 line-breaks were the sixth most by any player, plus he busted 92 tackles. And he’s always hungry for action – he made 106 supports (sixth most), providing more than just back-up to Slater’s NRL-high 167. Oppositions will have their work cut out defending against Widdop’s raids down the left side of the field in particular. He’s unpredictable – but dependable – and tough to coach against.
5. Cooper Cronk’s motivation
With Johnathan Thurston shifting to five-eighth for Queensland and Australia following Darren Lockyer’s retirement, Cronk finds himself locked in a battle with Daly Cherry-Evans (and possibly Scott Prince and Chris Sandow) for the vacant No.7 jersey. Expect him to jump out of the blocks early with dominant performances in the Storm’s opening three games against the Raiders, Rabbitohs and Titans. With his ultimate career goal in sight Cronk will make every minute of every match count.