In an ominous warning to their premiership rivals, former Melbourne halfback Brett Kimmorley has labelled this year’s Storm squad the best they’ve had in years, predicting it would take a Herculean effort to knock them from their pedestal in 2012.
Cut down to size two years ago when the NRL stripped them of two premierships, three minor premierships and all 2010 competition points, Kimmorley said that the Storm had now fully recovered from their salary cap disaster with the current squad as good as any they have fielded over the past six years.
“They’re very impressive – they’re a better footy side this year than the last couple of years,” he said. “Jason Ryles has been a huge buy for them this year, Will Chambers is a strike centre, Gareth Widdop continues to improve and is becoming more of a ball-playing five-eighth which gives their opponents more to worry about than just the big three.
“They showed against the Warriors over the weekend that if you’re not good enough to take your opportunities when they arise, Melbourne will take them.
“I think they’re the best at executing their plays and their 9 (Cameron Smith) and 7 (Cooper Cronk) have the best kicking games in the competition. They will certainly make it hard for someone to beat them.”
Despite losing seven regular first graders at the end of the 2010 season, Kimmorley said that the ability of coach Craig Bellamy to teach his players their basic structures and make few changes from year to year was key to their success.
“I think there is that role, accountability and structure where everyone knows what their job is,” he said. “What is also important for Melbourne is that they haven’t had to go out and buy a new roster of four or five players every season. They just buy the one. And Will Chambers coming back… well, he knows the structure anyway. All he has to do is fit into whatever little adjustments they’ve made in the two years he was gone.
“So they know the style and they know what is expected. Melbourne just pick and target who they want to top up their roster, rather than rebuilding their roster.”
NRL.com surveyed a number of rugby league experts this week at the midway point of the season to see who, if anyone, might challenge Melbourne for the title, with all admitting it would be a tall order given the Storm’s 11-1 start to the year.
The only four sides named as realistic threats were Manly, North Queensland, Brisbane and Wests Tigers, while the rapidly improving Gold Coast were universally labelled this year’s dark horses following their third consecutive win last weekend.
Not widely mentioned as title contenders in 2012 given their 8-5 start to the season, however Kimmorley sees the reigning premiers as by far Melbourne’s biggest threat when it comes to the head-to-head contest.
“Who can beat Melbourne? Manly are one side that I think physically challenge them, that are tough enough mentally to be able to hang into that grind and that arm wrestle that you have to play for the full 80 minutes to be able to beat them,” he said. “They are a side that has the ability to up the tempo enough to beat them. Melbourne can not only hang in there, they also have the ability to up the pace when they get a sniff, so you’ve got to be able to return serve the same way. Manly can do that.”
Former Storm winger Matt Geyer believes it is Melbourne’s winning culture that has been behind their ongoing success, but if there is one club that offers a similar widespread belief it is the second-placed Broncos.
“They’re a bit like Melbourne. They could put out the same list but wear a different (team) jersey and they wouldn’t win nearly as many games as they do,” he said. “It’s the culture at their club – they expect to win games. A kid that walks into that team, walks down the halls and sees images of Allan Langer and Gorden Tallis and Darren Lockyer and Wally Lewis. They’re just a bunch of winners. Sam Thaiday puts on that Broncos jersey and expects to win, which can be a bad thing but because he has got winners around him it works. They’ve got to be a chance because they believe they can do it.”
They started the season slowly but six wins in a row, including a highly impressive 40-0 win away to Canberra last Saturday night, have rocketed them back into contention. And, according to Kimmorley, it may well take the brilliance of a Benji Marshall or Robbie Farah to knock Melbourne from their perch.
“The Tigers with Benji playing halfback seem to be playing a lot simpler and a lot straighter than they have in previous weeks or years,” Kimmorley said. “They impressed against Canberra on Saturday night with their control and their maturity. They could possibly be a side that could challenge because with Benji in the side they’ve got that element of freakishness. With Robbie Farah, again you’ve got a left-foot kicker and a right-foot kicker that are both very good. They could be a chance.”
“My only concern with the Broncos and Tigers is that they haven’t really shown that they can be really gritty in that arm wrestle yet. “
The Cowboys have slipped somewhat in recent weeks with consecutive losses to Wests Tigers and the Gold Coast; however former Queensland and Australian prop Steve Price has no doubt they will be back to their best once the interruptions of the State of Origin series pass.
“After Origin I think they will settle back into a routine again,” he said. “They were running hot just before Origin but it seemed to unsettle them a bit.
“They’ve got quite a few guys involved (with Origin) which always makes it tough but they’ve got too much class not to recover. Guys like Matt Scott and obviously Johno have been brilliant this year, so I think they will be tough to beat come finals time.”
“The Cowboys have disappointed me the past few weeks and they’ll miss Tariq Sims but gee, they’ve still got a good forward pack,” he said. “To lose him and still put out a pack like that with maybe the two best front-rowers in the competition at the moment is amazing. They were talking about Gavin Cooper playing rep footy this year – he has been unreal. Dallas Johnson is the toughest competitor I’ve ever seen, and they’ve got the depth as well. Plus Johnathan Thurston and also Matt Bowen, who must have hit 30 and started to get younger again. They’ve been poor the past few weeks but I think they’ll get it back.”
Why are the Storm so dominant? For Price it simply comes down to complete confidence in their individual roles within the team.
“They give themselves a chance every week and they don’t get rattled,” he said. “Most sides would never have come back from 12-0 down against the Warriors last week but Melbourne just stuck to their processes. They never doubted they could do it.
“And they’re the only team in the comp that regularly keeps teams down to 10 or 12 points every week. That gives them a chance. They would back themselves to score at least that many points each week. They keep coming at you. That’s what they do in Origin, it’s what they do for the Storm and it’s what they do for Australia. They’ll do the same thing all game and then get you once or twice, but those one or two times will be tries.”
Geyer offered a similar analysis.
“They’re really comfortable with each other’s games – and not just the three boys we always talk about, but everyone,” he explained. “Jason Ryles and Jess Bromwich are two front-rowers at different ends of their careers but are doing a wonderful job for them. Dane Nielsen has really stepped up. He was always a really good defensive centre and now he is dangerous in attack, too.
“Across the board, everyone does their job and they’re composed when a game is on the line. They say that if you’re not improving, you’re going backwards. They had to rebuild from the dramas that happened two years ago and they’ve managed to recover – and keep getting better.”
Without fail, everyone that NRL.com spoke to singled out the Gold Coast as the side that could emerge as a contender over the back half of the season. Last year’s wooden spooners looked in all sorts of trouble just a month ago but three consecutive wins, mixed in with the valuable bye, has seen them rocket up to 10th on the ladder and they are now just a single win outside the top eight.
“If they don’t make the eight they will give a few teams some headaches,” Geyer observed. “It’s good to see Scott Prince running the football again. He is taking the team with him. And they’ve got some great back-rowers.”
Kimmorley said he was now tipping the Gold Coast to reach the finals this season given their recent form, with their defence against North Queensland last weekend particularly impressive.
“They’re a danger side,” he said. “I looked at their draw today, they’ve still got a bye to come and I think they are going to upset a number of sides before the end of the year.
“I think we saw on the weekend that with a little bit of confidence… their defensive line was outstanding, they have the ability to score points and if there is a side that can surprise everyone, maybe they’re it.”