Melbourne Storm Season Preview
Salary cap scandal aside, the Storm have been one of the more successful clubs in the NRL over the past decade.
Despite only technically winning one premiership in that time, Craig Bellamy has proven himself to be one of the best modern day coaches in the game with the empire he's built at Melbourne. On top of that, players like Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Ryan Hoffman have become household names in rugby league circles worldwide ever since the club were runners-up in the 2006 grand final.
But empires are meant to fall and while the walls aren't crumbling just yet, things are looking very shaky.
Melbourne's famed 'big three' of Smith, Slater and Cronk are on the wrong side of 30; Hoffman has jumped ship across the ditch to the Warriors; Smith won't be fit for the season opener due to an ankle injury; Bellamy is in his penultimate year of coaching and the club's depth – particularly in the three-quarters and front row – is scratchy at best.
An indication that this empire was getting closer to falling was the way the club bowed out of the finals series last year – a crushing 28-4 defeat to eventual bridesmaids the Bulldogs.
While they still have the cattle – names like Jesse Bromwich, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Dale Finucane and Will Chambers – to be successful, they'll need to unleash from the get-go.
Gains: Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (Raiders), Blake Green (Wigan), Dale Finucane (Bulldogs), Shaun Nona (Northern Pride)
Losses: Ryan Hoffman (Warriors), Sisa Waqa (Raiders), Justin O'Neill (Cowboys), Bryan Norrie (retired), Rhys Kennedy (Raiders), George Rose (Dragons), Ben Roberts (Castleford), Mitch Garbutt (Broncos), Junior Moors (Castleford), Cody Walker (Rabbitohs)
What we know: Obviously the big three are still more than influential but with Hoffman's departure Jesse Bromwich will be an even larger factor in driving the Storm's forward pack. At just 25, Bromwich is one of the best props in the world and it showed last year when he averaged 28.7 tackles and 145.4 metres per game. Throw in the fact he made just six errors across the season and Melbourne have a real beauty on their hands in the Kiwis star.
The unknowns: It has only been a little over 12 months since Gareth Widdop departed the club but the club's search for a suitable long-term five-eighth to partner Cooper Cronk continues. Ben Roberts appeared to be the man for the job until he left for the Super League last year, which now leaves plenty of contenders vying for Melbourne's six jumper. New recruit Blake Green appears likely for first crack but utility Kurt Mann, tried-and-tested young gun Ben Hampton and Intrust Super Cup graduate Shaun Nona are waiting in the wings for their chance. Who Bellamy goes with to partner Cronk initially and how long they will last in the role is still uncertain. If all else fails, Tohu Harris played for the Kiwis at five-eighth once.
Rookie watch: It didn't take long for 21-year-old Mann to announce himself to the NRL. Scoring the match-winning try in his debut last season against the Sea Eagles, Mann went on to add to seven more games and five more tries to his resume to go along with his two Queensland berths in the Under-20s State of Origin fixture. The former Newcastle utility, who recently starred at the Auckland Nines, is more accustomed to playing in the halves or at fullback but has found himself in the centres for 75 per cent of his NRL games so far – a handy point for coach Bellamy to draw on if injuries hit the club's outside backs.
Room for improvement: The Storm will certainly be looking to maintain their clinical tackling and ball control but in terms of areas of improvement, their tries scored and metres made were a reflection of their mid-table finish last year. The fact the Storm ranked second-last in tackle breaks made shows there is plenty of growth to come in attack.
Depth: For the first time in a very long time, Melbourne will have to rely on their rookies if and when injuries come. It goes without saying that a healthy team is a necessity to be successful but it doesn't ring much truer than at the Storm this year. While utilities Mann, Ryan Hinchcliffe and Slade Griffin will plug plenty of holes, Melbourne's depth in the three-quarters and front row is looking particular grim. Because of this, don't be surprised to see Bellamy allow a few mid-season signings to make their way to Melbourne.
Fantasy Bankers: Smith ($582,000) may start the season in the casualty ward but he's arguably the best NRL Fantasy player around when fit. Fellow Storm stars Cronk ($426,000), Slater ($388,000) and Bromwich ($444,000) can also more than hold their own, but the most popular Fantasy buy at Melbourne is former Raider Learoyd-Lahrs ($132,000) who looks a bargain at his starting price – though is in doubt for the season opener as well.
Join the Storm Verified Fantasy League - League code: MN4UFS7N
Coach Watch: One of the best coaches of the modern era, Bellamy has been blessed with the talent the Storm have had on their books over the years. Even when he didn't have that star power to draw on, he turned journeymen and fringe players into assets, breeding positive results in the meantime. Bellamy needs to do the same this year otherwise the Storm will be in trouble. Green and Learoyd-Lahrs are the next two players in line for the veteran mentor to reinvent for the sake of the club's success.
Crystal Ball: A decline of sorts could be on the cards this season. While they have too much talent not to be competitive, their depth is of great concern and without Smith, Slater, Chambers and Cronk over the Origin period they may miss out on the finals, just. NRL.com Prediction: 9th