Ladies who League: Learning to love the Storm
"Over the last few weeks it has come to light that the Storm has engaged in a long-term system of operating, what might conveniently be called, two sets of books."
I still very clearly remember this press conference in 2010. NRL CEO David Gallop fronted the media and explained the great lengths that the Melbourne Storm had gone to breach the salary cap over several years, and then handed down the most significant punishment in NRL history which included the stripping of three minor Premierships, the docking of all competition points in 2010 and the return of over one million dollars worth of prize money.
It took me a while to process what had happened, but I remember feeling disgusted. I also felt cheated, particularly since the previous year saw the Storm defeat my team, the Parramatta Eels, in a Grand Final which arguably, the Storm should never have had the opportunity to compete in.
Since that day in 2010, the Storm have been the team I have disliked the most in the competition. Even more than the Canterbury Bulldogs and the Manly Sea Eagles! The impact of those salary cap breaches was a big part of it and I couldn't help but dislike (and feel a little jealous) of a club that was just so successful.
It didn't seem fair that the Storm just kept on winning and kept unearthing such immense talent. They have been one of the most consistent teams in the last decade and, particularly as a fan of a club that has been terribly inconsistent over the same period, I'm not ashamed to admit that I so much wanted it to be my team instead of them.
But this year something has changed. I've shifted away from disliking this club and moved toward having respect for what has been one of the most successful teams in the modern era.
Let's start with the 'big three'.
Regardless of what happened with their contracts, you cannot deny just how phenomenal it is to watch each of these three players. Cameron Smith is one of the greatest players I have ever had the opportunity to watch. Forget just how insanely talented he is and how beautifully he reads the game, but he is also a phenomenal ambassador. He is well spoken and a true leader, not just at the Storm, but for the Queensland Maroons and the Australian Kangaroos.
Two of my favourite Cameron Smith moments in the last year were his gracious speech at the Grand Final last year congratulating the Cronulla Sharks on their win and when he invited an injured Johnathan Thurston onto the stage with him after Queensland beat New South Wales and claimed the State of Origin series to help him hoist the shield over both their heads.
We are watching a future immortal and it's hard not to get excited when you watch Smith play football. His 300th game two weeks ago against Manly was one of the best individual performances I have seen all year.
Add Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater in there, two immensely talented players in their own right and you have the nucleus for what is a team of champions.
But more so than the 'big three', what has really caused the shift in mindset for me is this.
For the longest of time, rugby league fans have been asking one question: "What is going to happen to the Melbourne Storm when the big three retire?" While rugby league fans have been asking this question, Craig Bellamy has been hard at work answering it.
The systems and the processes that the Melbourne Storm have as a club breed excellence. The system demands excellence. You can see this in the countless players that have moved from other NRL clubs down to Melbourne and go from being fringe first graders to an important piece of the Melbourne Storm machine.
Players that immediately spring to mind for me include Cheyse Blair and Ryan Morgan. Josh Addo-Carr has always been talented, but he has also excelled at the club this year. It will be very interesting to see what Craig Bellamy can get out of Nate Myles who was on his last legs at Manly and Sam Kasiano who seems to start every year at the Bulldogs fit and then deteriorates from Round 1 onward.
It's this system of excellence which has also focused on developing a new group of young players who will be ready to step in, learn from the big three while they are still playing and then eventually take their place over the next couple of years.
We saw plenty of these players on show during the State of Origin period this year, where despite the Storm essentially fielding a reserve-grade team, they still managed to be extremely competitive over this period.
In three years the Storm may no longer have Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, but they will have Curtis Scott, Jahrome Hughes, Ryley Jacks and Brandon Smith – four players who are only just at the start of their careers and for the most part, are contracted to the Storm long term.
Brandon Smith (am I the only one who finds it bizarre that Cameron Smith's replacement is called Brandon Smith?), is signed with the Storm until the end of 2022. Brodie Croft extended on a three-year deal this year and Jahrome Hughes will also be at the club until 2020.
Add this to the remainder of a very young squad including Cameron Munster, Suliasi Vunivalu, Dale Finucane, Will Chambers and Jesse Bromwich and you have a team that has not only been dominant over the last decade, but which will continue to be dominant in the years to come.
In 2017 the Melbourne Storm are the benchmark. Leading into the final weeks of the competition they have absolutely earned their tag as premiership favourites.
Now, the big question is, who can stop them heading into the finals?