Position after 13 rounds: 2nd
Competition points: 20
Even in their most dominant years – when their success was largely aided by such blatant disregard for the salary cap – the Melbourne Storm couldn’t have wished for too much more than what they’ve achieved so far in 2011.
Much interest has surrounded Melbourne’s progress this season given the events of last year. Stripped of their two premierships, three minor premierships and all competition points in 2010, they were also forced to shed a bevy of stars with Greg Inglis, Aiden Tolman, Brett Finch, Ryan Hoffman, Brett White and Jeff Lima all told to look elsewhere as the Storm desperately sought to get themselves back under the cap.
So to find themselves in second spot after 13 rounds of the 2011 season following such dramatic upheavel is quite an achievement.
Much of that can be put down to the fact that the club has managed to retain its three key playmakers – Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk – who contnue to lead the charge, but they have also demonstrated a far greater ability to grind out a win than perhaps has been necessary over the past six seasons.
Having begun the season strongly with five wins from their first six games, they have struggled to put sides to the sword over the past month but have still managed to notch tough wins against Cronulla (14-8 in Round 12) and South Sydney (16-6 in Round 13) to sit three points behind competition leaders St George Illawarra on the NRL ladder.
Are Things Going To Plan? Without a doubt. The Storm were forced to place greater responsibility on the shoulders of some of their younger players this season but the likes of Gareth Widdop, Jesse Bromwich, Matt Duffie, Justin O’Neill and rookie Atelea Vea have all stood tall alongside their more recognised team-mates.
More impressively is the fact that as a team Melbourne haven’t demonstrated any glaring deficiencies. In attack they rank second for line-breaks and points scored, third for tries and fourth for metres gained and least errors, while defensively they top the league for fewest offloads conceded and rank second for fewest points conceded, fewest tries conceded, fewest line-breaks conceded and least missed tackles.
And individually there have been plenty of stars with three players – Widdop, Slater and Duffie – all in the top 10 in the premiership for line-breaks.
However, perhaps the most impressive performance has come from Melbourne’s forward pack which was ripped apart by the salary cap scandal and will most likely lose further ammunition at the end of the 2011 season.
Despite losing so many key players, the Storm have been among the NRL’s most dominant sides through the middle of the park – their average 1371 metres per game placing them behind only the Dragons, Cowboys and Manly.
Injury Front… The Storm have used just 25 players so far this season – equal fifth fewest in the competition – and have had no major concerns around their key players with Cronk, Slater and Smith among 10 players to have played all 12 games so far.
The biggest loss has been that of centre Chase Stanley, whose shocking recent run of bad luck continued when he was ruled out for the season after injuring his knee in Round 1. Fellow centre Beau Champion, who was in line for a State of Origin call-up, has also been missing since dislocating his shoulder playing for City Origin although he will return this weekend (Round 14).
Up front, prop Troy Thompson has missed the past six weeks due to a knee injury.
Perhaps the greatest area of concern, however, has been out wide with Duffie, O’Neill and Quinn all missing games this season. Duffie has played just eight of the Storm’s 12 games, O’Neill five and Quinn seven.
If Only… Melbourne hadn’t suffered shock home losses to the Warriors and Canberra. From the old days at Olympic Park to their new home at AAMI, Melbourne has for years proven to be a fortress for the Storm but an 18-14 loss to the Warriors in Round 7 and 20-12 result against the Raiders threaten that record.
It’s a shame – had they won those two they’d be sitting pretty at the top of the table.
Who’s Flying… Young five-eighth Gareth Widdop has been a revelation since coming into the squad on a regular basis in 2011. Having impressed on his international debut for England against France last season, he has hit new heights this year – ranking third in the NRL for line-breaks with 12 and fifth for try assists with 11.
Slater has also been at his brilliant best with 12 line-breaks of his own and 1716 metres at an average 143 metres per game (third in the NRL).
Needs To Lift… After a powerful start to the season, the Storm have struggled to score points over the past month with 42 points from their past three games at 14 per game compared to 242 points from their previous nine at 27 per game.
The representative season has likely had some impact on their potency but they will need to rediscover their spark if they hope to break down the renowned defensive lines of fellow top-four sides St George Illawarra and Manly.
Coach Craig Bellamy tells NRL.com… “It’s certainly been a lot easier playing for points than it was turning up each week not playing for points! Having said that, we put last year behind us at the end of last year and the pre-season was the start of a new era, I suppose, with the big turnover of players.
“This year has been all about this year and we haven’t looked back to last year. We’re focused on what we need to do this year and I think the players have done a pretty good job for us. We started the year really well. At the same time we’ve had a lot of home games so it’s the second half of the season that we always knew would be the tough half for us but again I’m certainly happy with where we are at the moment.
“We had a very high turnover of players – a big turnover of players – so they’ve done a real good job for us. The young guys that have come in have been superb. Gareth (Widdop) has been a real standout for us. Kevin Proctor and Jesse Bromwich are another couple of guys that played -20s with Gareth and they’ve done a great job, too. Matt Duffie went on to play for New Zealand this year, Justin O’Neill has been a bit injured but earlier in the year he was good. He came back into first grade again last Sunday and made a couple of real big plays for us. Those young guys are really stepping up for us.”
Predicted Finish… On what they’ve shown over the first half of the season, Melbourne will be right in the thick of the action come September, with a top-four finish certainly the goal. Their greatest challenge will come over the coming weeks. They face an improving Sydney Roosters outfit this Monday night minus their contingent of State of Origin stars, then back up over the following weeks against Wests Tigers and the Warriors in Auckland.
However, they enjoy another bye in the lead up to Origin III and the draw looks to be reasonably kind for the most part for the run home, with a run of five games that sees them play Canberra, Brisbane, Parramatta, Penrith and the Gold Coast before meeting St George Illawarra in Round 24. That game could very well decide the minor premiership.
Under-20s… After a disappointing 2010 season, Melbourne’s Toyota Cup squad is right back in the mix this year and find themselves in second spot on the ladder – matching the feats of the NRL squad – and behind the Warriors on points differential alone. Premiers in 2009, they have built their success (10 wins and just two losses) this year on a rock solid defensive line that has leaked just 244 points from their 12 games. Fullback Sean Loxley has been a standout, averaging 142 metres per game, while playmaker Benjamin Hampton has produced 12 try assists and 10 line-breaks.
Lock Kenneath Bromwich sits second in the Toyota Cup for offloads with 26.