The minor premiership-bound Melbourne Storm, shooting for a club record 12 consecutive victories on Friday night, may not have won a legitimate title in more than a decade, but rugby league legend Glenn Lazarus believes their unrivalled winning culture – and a thirst for revenge – has them poised to claim the 2011 Telstra NRL Premiership.
The hulking former prop knows success when he sees it – he won premierships with Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne – and believes this year’s Storm roster is ready to win their first title since 1999. Lazarus says the astute coaching of Craig Bellamy, combined with some emerging young talent and genuine game-breakers, and “added motivation” would see Melbourne assume their positions on the Premiers’ Podium at ANZ Stadium on the first Sunday in October.
“Melbourne obviously have a tremendous coach... but I just feel they look like the side defensively and offensively, especially with their ability to score long-range tries, to win the competition this year,” Lazarus told NRL.com.
“They’ll be who I’ll be putting my money on. I think overall the mix in terms of coaches, administrators and players is right now, too. You can take premierships off these guys but you can’t take that winning culture away from the club. While Craig was there instilling that, they were always going to be competitive... but I think they’ve surprised everyone how well they’ve played so far.”
In April last year NRL salary cap auditor Ian Schubert found (now former) Storm officials had made serious and systematic breaches of the salary cap. The penalties were unprecedented – Melbourne were stripped of two titles, three minor premierships, fined $500,000 and ordered to hand back $1.1 million in prize money. The club was forced to shed a host of stars, including Greg Inglis, Ryan Hoffman, Brett White, Jeff Lima and Brett Finch, in order to operate under the cap.
Now the drama of 16 months ago seems a lifetime away and the Storm currently sit in first place on the premiership ladder with 40 points, four points clear of Manly. Few predicted the club would bounce back so quickly.
“[Bellamy] had a fairly decent group of guys before a ball was kicked this season but I don’t think people realised how competitive they were going to be at the start of the year,” Lazarus says. “There have been quite a few players who have jumped out of the ground for them and that’s been a big part of the season so far – (five-eighth Gareth) Widdop’s been a revelation for them because he helps Cooper Cronk.”
The Storm will be without the services of energetic halfback Cronk, who suffered major ankle bruising in his side’s costly 40-16 win over the Titans, for the next fortnight. Cronk has been cleared of structural damage but will miss Melbourne’s clash with the desperate Dragons this week, as well as the following-week meeting with Manly. The Storm also suffered injuries to Justin O’Neill (back – season), Maurice Blair (shoulder) and Dane Nielsen (ankle) in the win against the Gold Coast. The fitness of Blair and Nielsen will be assessed later this week. However, don’t expect a weakened Melbourne outfit to succumb to St George Illawarra or Manly in the coming fortnight – there are plenty of emerging stars ready to fill the voids and keep the Storm raging, especially for Billy Slater’s 200th NRL match this Friday.
“Those younger lesser-known players have stepped up like (Gareth) Widdop, (Matt) Duffie and their forward pack as a group – they do a simple but very effective job. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re winning games fairly regularly,” Lazarus says.
Barnstorming prop/second-rower Adam Blair also credits the Storm’s youngsters for the club’s rapid return to the top.
“Jesse Bromwich obviously played a few games before for us (in 2010) but this year he’s really stood up,” Blair says. “Young Gareth Widdop, Matt Duffie and Justin O’Neill, those boys have really worked hard and if we get good consistent football out of them they’ll turn out to be great players in the end.
“I think we’ve moved on from what happened last year and from the beginning of the year we made sure we started fresh. The new boys who have come in and the older boys that have been brought down here (including Jaiman Lowe, Beau Champion, Adam Woolnough and Troy Thompson) have really taken on the culture in what we do down here.”
Blair, bound for the Wests Tigers at the end of 2011 on a four-year deal rumoured to be worth $500,000 a season, says he’s glad his future is secure but insists he has much to offer for the rest of 2011.
“I think now that everything’s out of the way, I want to do everything I can to put the side in a very good place at the end of the year. I’m just going to do my job to the best of my ability and hopefully we will get the results,” Blair insists. “Obviously [there is added motivation after the drama of 2010] but I think there’s motivation every year.”
Lazarus, who won a premiership with the Storm in 1999 before he retired, is more direct.
“I think [the players] had every right to feel hard done by [after the former club administration cheated the salary cap]... I think that’s going to be part of the motivation but it won’t be the be-all and end-all.
“They might say [publicly] that it’s not part of the motivation, but I’d suggest that it would be – with what happened to them last year it’s highly likely they’ll want to seek revenge.”
Revenge, retribution, vindication… call it what you will. But win or lose there’s no doubting this Storm outfit has bounced back like few thought they could. And the game and its fans everywhere are all the better for it.