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Gains: Junior Sa’u (Knights), Junior Moors (Tigers), Lagi Setu (Broncos), Brett Finch (Wigan), Tim Glasby (Central Queensland), Kurt Mann (Knights).

Losses: Dane Nielsen (Warriors), Sika Manu (Panthers), Luke Kelly (Eels, mid-season), Richie Fa’aoso (Sea Eagles), Rory Kostjaysn (Cowboys), Todd Lowrie (Warriors), Michael Greenfield (retired), Jaiman Lowe (retired), Anthony Quinn (Knights).

You can guarantee premiers Melbourne will start 2013 with a big red target on their backs. The boys in purple were undoubtedly the benchmark for most of 2012 – although they did suffer a late-season splutter exiting the representative period, when five straight losses likely cost them the minor premiership. However, they made up for it with a clinical performance in the decider, outclassing the JJ Giltinan Shield winners Canterbury in the most important match of the season.

The win will have tasted even sweeter to the likes of Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper, Ryan Hoffman and coach Craig Bellamy, who were around for the disappointment of having the 2007 and 2009 titles stripped.
Although the Storm have lost some good players the team still has a settled look about it – unusual for defending premiers in the rising salary cap era – with players in all key positions backing up from last year. The losses of Origin centre Dane Nielsen and Kiwi Test back-rower Sika Manu will be particularly hard-felt, but expect the likes of Junior Sa’u and Lagi Setu to work hard to stake their claim to those spots.

And don’t forget coach Bellamy – who himself has now settled his future, shrugging off a lucrative offer from the Dragons to stay with the Storm – has a habit of getting the best out of young players, as well as turning journeymen into all stars. Expect the two Juniors – Sa’u and Moors – as well as unheralded Rockhampton youngster Tim Glasby, to flourish under his stewardship.

How They’ll Play It
Do you remember last season? Well… like that. They say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and it’s no stretch to say you can expect more of the same from the Storm in 2012: the almost telepathic no-look pass from Cronk to Slater, Smith swooping on fast play-the-balls to steal a quick 10 metres and look for a support player, precision cross-field kicks to the flanks for a leaping Matt Duffie, Sisa Waqa or Justin O’Neill… there’s no real secret to their tactics – it’s stopping them that will be the problem.

Last season the Storm averaged the most tries (4.4 per game) while conceding the fewest (2.6), missed the least tackles (27.6 per game) and conceded the fewest metres every 80 minutes (1308). The fact they made the third-fewest errors (10 per game) but were way down in ninth position in terms of offloads (10.9) is the hallmark of their percentage-play style of footy. With not only the same coach but the same players in the key 1-6-7-9 positions, expect Melbourne to start 2013 looking like a well-oiled machine.

Expect HUGE Things From
Well we could say Smith, Slater and Cronk, but really – that should go without saying by now.

Looking elsewhere, bustling young winger Mahe Fonua became the Storm’s first Victorian born-and-bred player when he got a taste of top-flight footy late last season and he looks the real deal – expect him to press hard to lock down a spot in the backs.

Gun centre Will Chambers was instantly back to his best on his return from rugby union last year, notching 13 tries and 15 line-breaks from 18 games, before he was struck down by a blood clotting disorder. Having fought his way back to full fitness to feature in the finals, expect a huge 2013 from the 24-year old.

And prop Jesse Bromwich was devastating in short bursts last season, averaging 93 running metres from 44 minutes per game. He will provide plenty of go-forward while his younger brother Kenneth will be looking to make a similar impact if he gets a chance in the top grade.

Bonus Points
The return of Brett Finch from the UK is interesting. Finch featured in the 2009 decider against Parramatta and will be desperate to both lock down a first grade spot and add a genuine premiership trophy – but it won’t be easy given the settled side, and there’s a chance he’ll be relegated to rep-season back-up. It’s a great back-up to have though, and will keep the pressure on the established brigade to keep performing. Finch is a seasoned campaigner who is reportedly very popular among teammates – expect his experience and enthusiasm to be a bonus regardless of how many matches he plays.

Another interesting addition is 23-year-old Capras captain and Rockhampton junior Glasby. There’s every chance Bellamy will look for the young prop to help fill the void left by the likes of Jaiman Lowe and Richie Fa’aoso, and to complement seasoned players Jason Ryles and Bryan Norrie.

The Question Marks
Bellamy has a happy knack of finding players to plug whatever gaps emerge, but it could be a different story if those gaps come in the 1, 7 or 9 positions. Melbourne’s star trio are all 29 now and although they have generally had a great run in terms of fitness, age catches up with even the greatest players at some point.

While no doubt still among the most potent players in the competition, Slater missed several games with a knee ligament strain that left him below his best for parts of the season – and although the coach may have bristled at the suggestion, it seems unlikely to be a coincidence that Slater’s fitness issues coincided with the side’s losing run.

There is also only so long any player can maintain Smith’s defensive work rate whilst also providing the spark in attack. There are huge question marks over how the Storm will fare if any of the ‘big three’ go down for an extended period. 

Who Needs To Lift?
Given the Storm’s stellar 2012 there were, unsurprisingly, few passengers. 

Damaging forward Kevin Proctor has been steadily improving for several years now and made his Test debut for New Zealand last year – but although his work is quality it could be time to raise the quantity. 

Someone will have to fill the void in defence left by the absence of Todd Lowrie (26 tackles per game) as well as Rory Kostjasyn and Jaiman Lowe, who did plenty of work in limited minutes. This is the year Proctor needs to be a dominant contributor to the forward pack, and improve on the 50 running metres, six runs and 22 tackles per game he notched last year.

And although you wouldn’t expect to see Slater’s name here, he was the king of the turnover last year – his 34 errors were the most at the club and sixth most in the NRL, while his 11 penalties conceded were second most for Melbourne. He’s a match-winner but Bellamy could do with his star custodian setting a better example with his discipline.

How’s Their Depth?
It’s never seemed all that good – but it hasn’t seemed to slow them down to date! Aside from the above-mentioned concerns over what happens if one of the ‘big three’ goes down, Bellamy and Melbourne are the ‘new Brisbane’ in the sense that there is always a young winger or back-rower vying for a spot and threatening to push an established star to the sidelines.

With Hinchcliffe an accomplished ‘reserve’ hooker, Finch will be on hand to cover for Cronk and Widdop – or Slater if Widdop were to shift to fullback. Knights junior Kurt Mann has also joined the club and is a playmaker who could theoretically fill in at 1, 6 or 7. Mann notched a staggering, club-high 137 tackles-breaks for Newcastle in the youth competition last year, to go with nine tries and 11 try assists.

Conservatively there are also at least six NRL-quality players vying for four spots in the three-quarter line, despite the loss of Nielsen. Add to that there are plenty of young forwards yet to debut such as Kenny Bromwich, Tim Glasby, Jordan McLean, Tohu Harris, Mitch Garbutt and you’d have to say that depth-wise, the Storm look as good as they ever have.

Dream Team Bankers
Cameron Smith ($533,200) averaged 68 points last season and is one of the all-time marquee players in fantasy land. As always the only two real strategies here are: 1) buy him at the start and keep him for the duration (but make sure to cover him through rep season); or 2) pick him up slightly more cheaply coming out of the representative period. But you definitely want him in your side at the business end of proceedings.

Cooper Cronk ($442,600) averaged 56 points in 2012 and is also close to a must-have assuming you can cover for him through Origin, while Slater ($352,700 – 2012 average 45) will benefit from this year’s more attack-oriented scoring system.

The Coach
Will he stay or will he go? Well, it turns out he will stay – and Melbourne will be the better for it for the next half-decade at least. Craig Bellamy ended months of speculation recently when he announced he had signed a three-year deal that would keep him at the club until the end of 2016. (It would be an additional relief for fans given reports that Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk had get-out clauses in their contract in the event Bellamy left.)

From all reports there was a better deal tabled by St George Illawarra, while Bellamy himself indicated other offers had been made. Given his amazing achievements since the club was rocked by the salary cap scandal that saw it stripped of two premierships, taking his charges to the 2012 premiership, there will be plenty at the club breathing a big sigh of relief. 

The junior side didn’t quite reach the heights of their NRL counterparts in 2012, just missing out on a spot in the top eight. Their quest for a higher finish won’t be helped by the loss of Tohu Harris and local junior Mahe Fonua to the top grade, along with outside backs Kirisome Auva’a and Young Tonumaipea – the only two players not to miss a game for the Storm NYC team last year.

However, they are boosted by the return of tackling machine Dean Britt. The young second-rower easily led the club defensively last season, averaging 35 tackles per match in his 20 games. Another one to watch is back-rower Cade Umaga. The rugby junior with the famous last name is the son of All Blacks legend Tana Umaga. Umaga junior played 20 matches for the Storm in the NYC in 2012, averaging 28 tackles and 52 running metres.

Predicted Finish
It’s very hard to imagine that Melbourne won’t be there or thereabouts once again in 2013. It’s a tough, even comp and there are never any guarantees but with the class and stability present in the Storm ranks we’ll tip them to go large again with another top-four finish. Second looks well within them.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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