The Melbourne Storm will be looking to buck the trend when it comes to teams failing to win back-to-back premierships, but they will have to do it without Cooper Cronk.
The Storm will hope that a rather relaxed draw to start the Telstra Premiership will allow young half Brodie Croft to settle in before the going gets tougher.
In Cronk's absence, the onus will be on Cameron Munster to step up and take over as the dominant half. Should he do so, the Storm's attacking cog will continue rolling, boosted by the cumulative efforts of the entire team.
What works in the Storm's favour is that Croft has the backing of coach Craig Bellamy and of his teammates. Many fans believe that he could be a Cooper Cronk clone in coming seasons.
The Storm have a youthful look to their 2018 playing squad.
Star halfback Cooper Cronk is gone, plus forwards Jordan McLean, Tohu Harris and Slade Griffin. Ryan Hoffman has returned after a three-year absence from the club, and Sam Kasiano jons from the Bulldogs.
There’s also a host of youngsters including Billy Walters, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Scott Drinkwater in the backs along with Lachlan Timm, Louis Geraghty, Pat Kaufusi and Harry Grant joining the forward group.
With Cronk absent, the Storm will have to rejig their playing style and rely on Cameron Munster, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater to get more touches until Brodie Croft or perhaps even Ryley Jacks gets comfortable in the role.
The Storm have a relatively easy first half of the season before moving into the Origin period.
In the first ten games, the Storm plays only two top eight teams from last year (Cowboys in round three, Broncos in round seven).
Their most challenging assignments will be the Cowboys and Sharks in consecutive weeks, with tricky away games to the Broncos and Warriors in rounds seven and eight). Like last year, the Storm have a run of home games at the back end of the season, with their last three of four at AAMI Park.
The stat that gives you hope
The Storm were excellent at AAMI Park in 2017 - with nine wins and only three losses - but were even better away. They won 11 of 12 games on the road, scoring on average six more points than the NRL average (26.0 to 20.3) and the same amount in defence (14.0 points versus 20.7 across the competition).
In other good news for Storm fans, they were able to increase their average points per game both home and away from 2016 to 2017 (22.9 to 26.8 at home, 24.0 to 26.0 away).
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Cameron Smith ($917,000) is the best and most expensive player in NRL Fantasy, with his workload likely to rise after the departure of Cooper Cronk. Cameron Munster ($714,000) is another gun who could step up a gear as the more senior halves partner beside Brodie Croft ($588,000), while Jesse Bromwich ($534,000) starts a little underpriced after his quietest fantasy season in years.
Craig Bellamy hasn’t signalled his intentions on whether he will extend his contract beyond 2018. The long-serving coach - who took over the Storm’s head coaching role in 2002 - may wait to see whether the club can maintain its strong record after a premiership-winning season and if he’s happy enough with the succession plan for life after Smith and Slater.
Faced with a young team and many new faces, Bellamy must call upon all his coaching nous to improve on last year. Combinations will take time to build, something he understands.
''We've got a lot of new guys at the club and a lot of them are young guys, so they are taking time to get used to what we require on the training field and the way we want to play,'' he told Storm TV.
''There's some opportunities for someone to grab it and make a spot their own.''
Those off contract at the end of 2018 include captain Cam Smith, Billy Slater, Ryan Hoffman and injured winger Sandor Earl.
Smith’s indefatigable abilities mean he’s more likely to keep playing. Hoffman will likely retire (and go into football administration). Slater may wait to see how his body reacts after a long 2017 which included the World Cup. Boom centre Curtis Scott recently put pen to paper until 2020.
The burning question
Can the Storm win back-to-back titles without Cronk, Harris and McLean?
Perhaps a more realistic question is whether they can improve on such a dominant year. Their younger players got a taste of the NRL and played well but a full year as a professional is a much tougher ask.
How will Croft/Jacks handle the pressure of a whole year of first grade? Do the backup players have enough skill to step up during Origin time? This Storm team looks ripe for improvement but the more experienced teams in the competition will fancy getting some wins early in the season.
Christian Welch. The prop was building into the NRL before suffering a season-ending injury last year. Despite this setback, he was picked for a Queensland Emerging Talent camp in February.
Welch will battle it out with Sam Kasiano for a starting spot, with Nelson Asofa-Solomona having found a home as an impact player and Jesse Bromwich assured one of the front-row positions if fit. At 195cm and 110kg, Welch has all the physical attributes of a modern-day prop. If he can stake an early claim to a starting spot, then expect a maiden Queensland jumper.
The player you should follow on social media
Josh Addo-Carr. The winger has more than 36,000 Instagram followers and loves to engage with his fans, regularly posting videos and photos of his family, training and life away from football.
NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says: "Cameron Munster, fantastic year last year. Couldn’t have had it any better, played for Queensland, played for Australia and won a grand final. He’s one of the most exciting players in the competition. Can he back it up this year outside Brodie Croft.
"Melbourne Storm finishes third.''
Billy Slater, Billy Walters, Brodie Croft, Cameron Munster, Cheyse Blair, Curtis Scott, Jahrome Hughes, Josh Addo-Carr, Justin Olam, Ryan Papenhuyzen, Ryley Jacks, Sandor Earl, Scott Drinkwater, Suliasi Vunivalu, Will Chambers, Young Tonumaipea, Brandon Smith, Cameron Smith, Christian Welch, Dale Finucane, Felise Kaufusi, Harry Grant, Jesse Bromwich, Joe Stimson, Kenneath Bromwich, Lachlan Timm, Louis Geraghty, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Patrick Kaufusi, Ryan Hoffman, Sam Kasiano, Tim Glasby, Tui Kamikamica. Development players: Cooper Johns, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui.
Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in theses rosters can remain free up until June 30.