Storm 2014 Season Preview
Watching the Storm play their final trial game without Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater taking their respective places, it was all too apparent the massive void that exists when the 'big three' are reduced to the 'terrific two', let alone the 'one-man wonder'.
With the two Bens, Hampton and Roberts, in the halves, captain Cameron Smith completely dictated how his side played and if he was to announce that 2014 is his last at the Storm, you have to wonder what kind of destabilising effect that would have on those around him.
How teammates react, of course, is out of Smith's control as he merely endeavours to arrive at the deal that best suits the needs of his family.
While ever Slater, Cronk and Smith take the field together in purple the Storm will win more games than they lose but unless some of the younger brigade can start to have more of an input you wonder if they can carry the side all the way to the grand final.
Following the departures of both Gareth Widdop and Brett Finch, Hampton appears to be Craig Bellamy's five-eighth elect while promising talents such as Mitchell Garbutt, Slade Griffin, Young Tonumaipea and Cameron Munster will get their time in the top grade throughout the season.
A host of irregular first-graders (Ben Roberts, George Rose, Joel Romelo and Dayne Weston) have been given a chance to reinvigorate their careers at Melbourne and certainly Bellamy's record of getting the best out of all of his players will have them excited at the prospect of figuring in a Storm finals campaign.
We're entering a very interesting phase in the evolution of the Melbourne Storm; is it an ageing team in need of reinvention or a highly functioning unit boasting some of the greatest players the game has ever seen?
Gains: Hymel Hunt (Titans), Felise Kaufusi (Cowboys), Cameron Munster (CQ Capras), Ben Roberts (Eels), Travis Robinson (Panthers), Joel Romelo (Bulldogs), George Rose (Sea Eagles), Cody Walker (Easts Tigers), Dayne Weston (Panthers).
Losses: Kirisome Auva'a (Rabbitohs), Maurice Blair (Titans), Brett Finch (retired), Matt McGahan (rugby union), Jason Ryles (retired), Junior Sa'u (Salford), Lagi Setu (Raiders), Denny Solomona (London Broncos), Siosaia Vave (Sharks), Gareth Widdop (Dragons).
How They'll Play It
Smith to Cronk to Slater, or variations on that theme. There will be some unfamiliar faces in the Storm 17 to start the season so the responsibility of constructing their side's attack will once again fall to the mercurial trio. With powerful edge runners in Ryan Hoffman, Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris at their disposal, the Storm are almost certain to use the sweeping second-man play to great effect, with the danger presented by the hard-running lead men matched by the threat of Slater linking up with his outside men at the back. Two years ago Craig Bellamy unveiled a ruck move involving the big three that when perfectly executed proved almost impossible to stop; don't be surprised if they've got a few tricks up their sleeve to start 2014.
Expect HUGE Things From
For some players you have to look beyond stats and simply watch them in action to know they are a class above the majority who take the field; Will Chambers is one such player. He makes the complicated look straightforward and the difficult ridiculously easy, and the Darwin-raised centre is about to hit his peak. With terrific ball-skills, deceptive pace and an ability to get on the outside of his man matched only by Manly's Jamie Lyon, Chambers is just as effective in setting up Storm tries as he is scoring them himself. Next in line should Justin Hodges be unable to recover in time to take his place at right centre for the Maroons, this is the year that Chambers sheds the tag of best player yet to play representative footy.
They are World Cup stars who manage to fly under the radar at Melbourne but Jesse Bromwich and Sisa Waqa are the unsung heroes of this Storm side. Bromwich is quite simply one of the best front-rowers currently in the NRL with his ability to use clever footwork at the line enabling him to push his 194-centimetre and 114-kilogram frame through the defensive line more often than not. Waqa is one of the most improved players in the NRL in recent seasons and with each year that passes his confidence to back himself grows. He may look flamboyant and certainly in the past has ignored the directions of his playmakers but each time he has done so he has come up with the right play, almost without fail. They may not get the plaudits but they're the type of players every premiership team needs.
The Question Marks
Finding a halves partner for Cronk able to attract enough attention from the defensive side will be Bellamy's primary objective in the opening rounds. Hampton has an outstanding career in the under-20s competition behind him, Cody Walker was named the Intrust Super Cup player of the year in 2013 while Ben Roberts is a former Kiwi Test player who has developed a bad habit of flitting between good, bad and ugly in short spaces of time. They will need to be an option kicker in general play and be strong enough of character to call for the ball when they see an opportunity presenting itself; all difficult things to ask a new player to do in such an otherwise established 'spine'.
Who Needs To Lift?
Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris are now both entering that phase of their careers where they have to progress from the kids with raw talent to the first-graders who are leaders at their club. Proctor is entering his seventh season in the top grade while for Harris, it will be just his second after an extraordinary rookie year in the NRL that included New Zealand Test selection after only a handful of games. Both Kiwi big men possess mops of unkempt hair and charge into defenders with unbridled ferocity that invariably provides more time for Cameron Smith to work his magic from dummy-half. Both had outstanding seasons in 2013 and contributed greatly to their team's top-four finish at the end of the regular season; they need to be even better this year.
How's Their Depth?
The key to Melbourne's decade of dominance has been the ability of Slater, Cronk and Smith to play a high volume of games each year and avoid long lay-offs through injury. That needs to hold true again in 2014 if they are to challenge for a third premiership. Cameron Munster looks a likely prospect as back-up for Slater, Ryan Hinchcliffe is an able deputy to Smith but the inventory of halfbacks is decidedly light. If the Storm endure an injury crisis of any kind, plenty of young blokes will make their NRL debuts.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
In NRL Fantasy land, there is no more valuable player than Storm skipper Cameron Smith. Tipping the monetary scales at $523,600, Smith's is a marquee signature without peer but his plus-70 points per game average is a nice earner to have consistently working for your team. As a forward who is a prolific tryscorer, Ryan Hoffman's $301,500 price tag is a worthwhile inclusion and if his exploits at the Auckland Nines are anything to go by, $138,000 for Mitchell Garbutt may prove to be a very astute puchase.
Twelve months into a contract that sees him tied to Melbourne until the end of the 2016 season and with a sustained period of success unmatched by any other coach in the modern era, there may be no safer coach in the competition than Craig Bellamy. Role players in his sides have come and gone but Bellamy has always been able to put a side on the paddock that typifies the Melbourne Storm style of rugby league. If his inspirational captain decides to cut ties with the club, Bellamy's greatest challenge will be implementing a succession plan that sees the Storm viable long after he has gone.
Much of the attention in the Storm under-20s will centre on what kind of influence Cameron Munster can have in the under-age competition. There is a YouTube clip with more than three minutes of Munster highlights from last season as the 18-year-old lit up the Intrust Super Cup for Central Queensland. The Capras coach, Jason Hetherington, had been telling anyone who would listen how special a talent he was and finally Melbourne took enough notice to offer him a two-year deal. A number of last year's under-20s remain eligible in 2014 with Christian Welch, Pride Petterson-Robati, Dean Britt and Francis Tualau to provide the cornerstone of the forward pack. Finished ninth in 2013 but should perform much better under new coach Matt Adamson.
Besides a season in 2010 where they were stripped of all their competition points for salary cap breaches, the Storm have not finished worse than the semi-finals since 2002 when they ran 10th. There's no way they will miss the finals in 2014 but their depth looks skinnier than previous seasons and the Origin period may take a heavier toll; how they get through June and July may determine whether they start their finals campaign in the top or bottom half of the eight.
1. Billy Slater, 2. Sisa Waqa, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Mahe Fonua, 5. Justin O'Neill, 6. Ben Hampton, 7. Cooper Cronk, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Cameron Smith, 10. Bryan Norrie, 11. Tohu Harris, 12. Ryan Hoffman, 13. Ryan Hinchcliffe. Interchange: 14. Joel Romelo, 15. Kevin Proctor, 16. Mitchell Garbutt, 17. Jordan McLean.