Storm 2015 season review
A season of highs and lows for Melbourne fittingly ended with a rollercoaster finals series in which the Storm stunned the minor premiers on their own turf but ultimately fell in a home preliminary final to the Cowboys.
Getting so close to the big dance only to bow out in front of a sell-out home crowd was a bitter pill to swallow but when the dust settles, Melbourne will be content in the fact they proved many pre-season doubters wrong.
This was the youngest Storm side ever assembled during Craig Bellamy's 13 years in charge of the club. It heralded 14 wins, the same number as last year, although this time around that was good enough to finish inside the top four.
Storm fans would have given their fingernails a workout with 11 games decided by single-digit margins. Five of their 10 losses also came by four points or less.
Throughout the year Melbourne dropped games they should not have whilst also winning some they seemingly had no right to. It was an up-and-down season but one that showed the Victorian side has plenty of life in it yet.
Where They Excelled: Over the past decade an unbreakable defence has been a mainstay of Melbourne sides under Craig Bellamy. Last season it dropped off significantly, ranking eighth in the NRL, but in 2015 the purple wall returned with a vengeance. Six times this season the Storm kept opposing sides to single-digit scores, including five times against teams who finished inside the top eight. They also conceded just 14.5 points per game, earning them the tag of second-best defence in the competition behind the Roosters.
Where They Struggled: Repeatedly this season the Storm would falter just as it looked as though they were building. The pundits would then write them off, they would bounce back with a strong win, and so the cycle went. Six of their 10 losses came against sides that finished outside the eight, and yet their last four wins came against the other top five sides in the competition. The Storm were below par against the poorer clubs yet against quality opposition appeared to consistently find that extra gear. Craig Bellamy has already indicated those mental lapses would be the team's focus heading into the pre-season.
Missing In Action: Purple hearts collectively sank when Billy Slater checked in for season-ending shoulder surgery halfway though the year. However as one star took his place on the operating table another was born. After a quiet start, 21-year-old Cameron Munster produced a string of outstanding performances at fullback for the Storm and almost made up for the absence of the Kangaroos No.1. Melbourne finished the year with seven wins and seven losses without their champion fullback. Jordan McLean also battled persistent knee and shoulder troubles, restricting him to 14 games this year. Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Dayne Weston were also absent through injury which put a strain on the depth of the Storm forward pack.
Turning Point: The turning point for Melbourne came late but it was significant, helping Melbourne turn from premiership pretender to contender. In Round 24 they lost at home on a Monday night to eventual wooden spooners Newcastle; it was the third time this season they had lost to the NRL's bottom side and it appeared any chance of a top-four finish was over. However the Storm bounced back off a five-day break to beat the North Queensland Cowboys in Round 25 and then went to Suncorp, off another five-day break, and took care of the Broncos. Manly helped out by beating Cronulla on the final day for the season to secure Melbourne a top-four finish but having played three games in 10 days to finish the season there was no denying the Storm had earned a double chance in the finals.
Hold Your Head High: As sure as the day is long Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk can be counted on to deliver, however the most promising story to come out of Melbourne this year was the arrival of Munster. Already touted as a prodigious talent, Munster will now head into 2016 as a star on the rise. Munster played 18 games this season averaging 179 metres – ranking him the fourth best in the NRL in that category. The 21-year-old will likely shift to the centres when Slater returns but if the Storm came retain him after his next contract expires at the end of 2017, there looks to be life after Billy.
2016 Crystal Ball: Smith and Slater will turn 33 next June, Cronk will be 32 in December. That will likely generate the annual 'too old' pre-season predictions but the Big Three have another one or two fruitful years left at least. Add to this the wealth of experienced gained by the team's plethora of young talent and things are certainly on the up in Melbourne. A few plus-sized additions to the forward pack and some cover for their departing outside backs will be a priority during the off-season recruiting drive. If they can make those improvements then the Storm are every chance to go one week deeper in 12 months time.
Conclusion: Before the season if you had offered Storm fans a home preliminary final exit they may well have taken it. This club proved the doubters wrong and if not for their inconsistent performances may well have claimed the minor premiership. A humbling defeat at home that left them one win short of a grand final will hurt for now but the Storm know they can still mix it with the best and have plenty of young talent to build around in the years to come.
Position (after 26 rounds): 4th
Position (after the Finals): 3rd
Home Record: 8-4
Away Record: 6-6
Longest Winning Streak: 3 (Rounds 5-7)
Longest Losing Streak: 4 (Rounds 14-18)
Players Used: 27
Tries Scored (including finals): 85
Tries Conceded (including finals): 69