Storm's Road To The Finals

Heart-stopping finales

Season 2014 was not the year for the faint hearted if you were a Storm fan. It was a wonder Craig Bellamy had any energy left to front his post-match press conferences with eight of his side’s first nine games decided by eight points or fewer. Melbourne’s first seven wins this season came at an average winning margin of just 4.9 points. Their season opened with two game-winning field goals from Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk while the younger brigade of Young Tonumaipea and Kurt Mann rose to be unlikely heroes, with winning tries over St George Illawarra and Manly respectively.

The once-mighty Storm defence

The impenetrable defence of the Melbourne Storm was a thing of the past in 2014. Opposition teams scored a total of 460 points against them – the most points they have conceded in a home-and-away season since 2005. For nine straight years the Storm defence ranked in the top three of the competition but after 17 games of this year they had slumped to 12th. It was not until Round 18 against Canterbury that Melbourne kept a side to single digits. From then on they seemed to rediscover that defensive mojo, conceding 10 fewer points per game on their way to winning six of their last nine games to cement a finals berth.

The nightmare of Origin I

We can’t dissect the Storm’s road to the finals without bringing up the nightmare the night of State of Origin I. In the space of 80 minutes it seemed Melbourne’s premiership aspirations had gone up in smoke. Cooper Cronk lasted just 10 minutes before suffering a broken arm while Cameron Smith sprained an ankle and Billy Slater an AC joint, leaving Craig Bellamy to peel the paint off the walls of his Melbourne home. Cronk missed a total of five games for the Storm, Slater three but despite initial reports Smith did not miss any games through injury. Just two wins in six weeks would be the damage for Melbourne, who by the end of the Origin period were clinging to eighth spot on the ladder, tied for eight wins with five other teams.

Halfback crisis creates opportunity

There was a time this season when the Storm were left scrounging around their playing list for a fit halfback.
Cronk’s broken arm could not have come at a worse time with back-ups Cody Walker, Joel Romelo and Ben Roberts already on the injury list and Ben Hampton suspended. In Round 12 against the Cowboys the club even had to turn to hobbling skipper Cameron Smith don the No.7. The crisis did create an opportunity though for Roberts, who once fit, entrenched himself as the halves partner upon Cronk’s return. Heading into the season the competition for the No.6 jersey was a wide-open race but by the business end of the year Roberts had made it his own.

AAMI Park no longer a fortress

Before the 2014 season Melbourne had lost just 10 games in five years at AAMI Park, this season it lost four. The once feared southern road trip was not so daunting for opposing sides as the Storm boasted a modest 67 per cent win percentage at home this year, well shy of the 79.6 per cent win/loss record they had at the ground previously.

Super Cooper

Had he not missed six games this season Cooper Cronk would be every chance of becoming the first man since Andrew Johns (1998-99) to win back-to-back Dally M Medals. The Maroons and Kangaroos halfback has 22 try assists to his name in 2014, just three short of his tally last season despite playing five fewer games. But is the impact he has on the stat lines of his teammates that is the true brilliance of Cronk, just ask Kevin Proctor. During that five-game stretch Cronk missed with a broken arm Proctor did not score a try and had just one line break. Give how much his state and club missed him this season there is now little doubt who is the best halfback in the country.

Wayward penalty counts

Craig Bellamy and his friends at NRL HQ have not exactly seen eye to eye on too many things this season. The major sour point has been the lop-sided penalty count against Melbourne throughout the season. Now it may be down to moaning and complaining on the part of the master coach but if you break it down Bellamy may have a point. The Storm have found themselves on the wrong end of the penalty count in 20 of 26 games this season and it all came to a head in Round 22 in Newcastle. The club lodged a complaint against referee Ashleigh Klein after that game resulting in Klein being dropped to NSW Cup. For the record, Melbourne won the count the following week against Cronulla.

Not so top four finish

For just the second time in nine years Melbourne failed to finish in the top four. That stat is more a testament to their sustained success than a criticism but it has left the Victorian side in unfamiliar territory heading into the finals. It is largely their own fault though, with five of 10 losses coming against teams that finished 11th or lower. Several close losses would also leave them ruing a double chance gone begging with five defeats coming by six points or fewer.

So long, farewell

The winds of change have begun to sweep through the walls of AAMI Park with a favourite son and another crowd favourite set to call time on their Storm careers. Ryan Hoffman announced in May he would be defecting across the ditch to join the Warriors on a three-year deal after 244 NRL games in the purple jersey while the club will have a significant hole to fill with current leading try scorer Sisa Waqa signing a deal to join the Raiders next season. 

Best at the business end

It may have been a shaky start to 2014 for the Storm after winning just three of their first seven games but it appears their best football has come when they have needed it most. Contrast that with last season when they won their first seven games in a blaze of glory, only to bow out of the finals in straight sets. In a sign that Melbourne have improved in the second half of the year, their first seven wins came at an average margin of 4.9 points compared with their next seven wins at an average of 21.7 points. So far it appears to be the opposite script to the 2013 tale and Storm fans will be hoping it continues until the finale.