MELBOURNE STORM - 2009 Season Preview

THE Storm faces its toughest test, at least since entering the competition, in 2009.

Since Craig Bellamy’s appointment in 2003 they’ve built a reputation as one of the most feared teams in the NRL, with three grand final appearances and a premiership in as many years. This season, however, they face uncertainty they’ve never seen before.

Departing are a host of stars integral to the team’s success of recent years. Gone is the nucleus of their side, stalwart Matt Geyer, who has been at the club since inception in 1998. Also departing are impact forwards Jeremy Smith, Michael Crocker, Antonio Kaufusi and Sam Tagataese – but by far their biggest blow is the loss of boom centre Israel Folau.

The Brisbane-bound flyer burst onto the rugby league scene in 2007, representing Australia seven times and Queensland three times along the way, and his departure leaves a giant hole in the Storm’s backline.

There are so many questions that will be asked of the club during the 2009 season and if Melbourne’s NRL side is, like many experts believe, one of the greatest of all time, they will have to rise to the challenge yet again.

How They’ll Play It

It’s not all doom and gloom for Melbourne fans. On paper they still boast the talents of superstars Greg Inglis, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith, as well as the ‘brute’ provided by forwards Ryan Hoffman and Brett White, while Kiwi Wairangi Koopu adds starch to the Storm’s 2009 line-up.

If the team is to continue its successful run this season, expect Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk to play a leading role. They’ll distribute the ball early to their outside men and the speedsters will continue to finish off the movements in style.

They’ll Really Miss

Israel Folau is a massive loss for the Storm. Not only is the giant centre an evasive metre-eater in attack, averaging 115.4 metres each game and totalling 17 line-breaks in season 2008, the former Minto Cobra is a brutal defender even the league’s best runners struggle to elude.

His impact will be sorely missed in 2009 – and rest assured if the Storm fails to reach its fourth straight grand final, Folau’s absence will be one of the key reasons.

Keep An Eye On

Back-rower Wairangi Koopu is a ready-made replacement for the forwards departing Olympic Park. After 10 seasons with the Warriors, the 185cm, 99-kilogram monster is just the enforcer the Storm needs – uncompromising and willing to stop at nothing to give his team the edge it needs.

While Melbourne’s backline is the obvious strength, it’s in the forwards the Storm need to win the battles – and Koopu has been employed as the man to lead the fight.

It’s Time To Stand Up

Ryan Hoffman. The tough-as-nails second-rower had a brilliant 2007 season and continued that last year – but he will need to develop even further in 2009, as a player and a leader, if his team has dreams of continuing its finals run.

Following the losses of Geyer and Crocker, it’s players of Hoffman’s experience and calibre that need to rise to the challenge. It the team succeeds yet again, Hoffman will have a significant influence.

Coach Watch

Craig Bellamy couldn’t have asked for much more last season – apart from the 40-0 capitulation to the Sea Eagles in the grand final, that is. Bellamy’s troops stood up and were counted in the face of adversity against Brisbane, winning in the final seconds, and in the preliminary final, without captain Cameron Smith, dominating Cronulla.

This season, however, Bellamy is going to have a whole lot more planning and scheming to do. Without some of his most reliable players who’ve headed elsewhere, those he’s relied on since arriving at the club, this season is bound to throw up a host more challenges for the 2006 and 2007 Dally M Coach of the Year.

They’re All The Better For

Their pathetic display in last year’s grand final is sure to give the 2007 premiers a huge reason to go one better in 2009. Revenge is a big motivator and the Storm, albeit without those aforementioned leaving stars, have a big reason to oust Manly from the premiers’ perch.

Predicted Finish

It is unfathomable to predict the Storm will finish anywhere outside the top eight. There’s just too much talent in their squad. With some luck and the gelling of their new players, the boys from Melbourne should end the year near the top.

From there it’s anyone’s guess – but the Storm has the experience – and the coach – to go all the way.

Under-20s

Melbourne’s Toyota Cup coach, Brad Arthur, will be expecting more from his young charges in 2009. The Storm finished 13th in the inaugural under-20s competition, ending the year on just 21 competition points, 10 points behind the finals cut-off mark of 31 points.

Returning to the squad this season are Matt Crocker, Josh Jerome, Sam Joe, Luke Kelly, Gareth Widdop and James Woolford – and much will be expected of these players to lead the club to success.

New Breed

IT’S a good thing Storm boy Luke Kelly is used to travel – playing out of Melbourne he’s got to travel interstate every fortnight.

But it’s no challenge for the talented five-eighth or halfback from Katherine, who is lapping up every minute of playing in the premier underage rugby league competition in the world.

Keep an eye out for more on Luke Kelly when NRL.com brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.