5 burning questions: Storm
The 'big three' aren't getting any younger, and with some promising youngsters on the way up are the suddenly-fragile Storm headed for a restructure? These are five questions fans will be keen to see answered in the new year.
1. Are the 'big three' over the hill?
Other than a 2010 wrecked by a salary cap penalty, the Storm haven't finished worse than the sixth place they achieved in 2014 since missing the finals in 2002. Billy Slater's season was fine but still rather underwhelming by his own stratospheric standards and he will now sit out the end-of-year rep stuff with a shoulder injury – after having his World Cup this time last year interrupted by an ankle injury. He will turn 32 during 2015 and as a fullback who relies heavily on zip, swerve and pace, we may have seen the best of him. Cameron Smith will turn 32 on the same day in June as Slater and while he is famously durable to the point of being indestructible, mid and late-season ankle issues hurt the Maroons' Origin campaign and Melbourne's finals campaign. Cooper Cronk is just six months younger than the pair but (an unlucky timeout mid-season with a broken arm notwithstanding) looks to be still at the peak of his powers.
2. Who partners Cooper Cronk?
It's tough to win a comp without a good halves combination, no matter how good your senior half is. We saw how much better the Cowboys got in 2014 when Rob Lui hit his straps alongside Thurston, and likewise the Storm seemed to play their best when Ben Roberts was providing Cronk with able support. Roberts has departed, promising youngster Ben Hampton hasn't quite kicked on as much as the club would like and journeyman half Blake Green is on his way to Melbourne after a highly successful stint in the UK. Debutant Kurt Mann can play five-eighth but may need time to develop as a first-grader in the three-quarter line first.
3. Can they tighten their defence?
The greatest contributor to the Storm's slide down the ladder in 2014 was a concerning habit of leaking points. They finished seventh because they lost a few close games they would previously have won with their defence, which put them at risk of going out in the first round of the finals – which is what happened. They conceded the eighth most metres and ninth most tries after 26 rounds – hardly catastrophic but not premiership-winning numbers, and a concern for one of the best defensive sides of the past decade.
4. How will they cope with the loss of Ryan Hoffman?
You could make a case that the 'big three' has actually been the 'big four' since Hoffman's return from the UK, such is the influence of the underrated back-rower. His cool head, solid defence, edge running, leadership and popularity will all leave a massive gap. The Storm are hardly bereft of quality back-rowers with the likes of Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris, along with that other underrated Ryan – Hinchcliffe. But whenever people speak of Hoffman they speak of one of the best "team men" you'll ever play alongside, and that is hard to put a value on.
5. Will Matt Duffie finally cop a break?
It's been a horror run for the one-time Kiwi Test winger, who has barely laced on a boot after consecutive seasons wrecked by ruptured ACLs. The club has stuck solid, re-signing him for 2015, and everyone at the Storm will be hoping to see him add to his 53 NRL games. Still just 24, Duffie has had to watch from the sidelines as the likes of Young Tonumaipea, Kurt Mann, Mahe Fonua and more recently Marika Koroibete have enhanced their reputations in the purple. With Sisa Waqa off to the Raiders there could be an opening for Duffie in 2015, assuming he returns to full fitness.