Melbourne Storm 2018 season review
Taken as a whole the Storm's 2018 season has to be regarded as a tremendous success but for the club and its players, losing a grand final after going in as heavy favourites and missing the chance to become the first team to go back-to-back since 1992-93 will go down as a big missed opportunity.
Melbourne overcame the loss of 300-game veteran, Origin and Test star and 2017 premiership halfback Cooper Cronk with seeming ease, despite not settling on who their new halfback would be until the season was almost over.
Brodie Croft was tried and discarded with Ryley Jacks and then Jahrome Hughes given the chance to partner Cameron Munster through the season. Croft was recalled for rounds 17 and 18 before being dropped again (despite the Storm winning both those games) before finally being installed as first choice No.7 for the run home from round 23 onwards.
Through it all the Storm spent all bar one week of the regular season (round four) inside the top eight and were ladder leaders for four of the final seven rounds before losses in rounds 21, 22 and 25 saw them just pipped by eventual premiers the Roosters for the minor premiership.
They kept their defence in order all season and won the games they needed to win before falling just short at the final hurdle on September 30.
Five-eighth Cameron Munster – already a Test and Origin player before this season – really stepped up in Cronk's absence. With a rotating cast of No.7s beside him, Munster led from the front. He topped the club for try assists with 15 (next best was Billy Slater's 13) and line break assists with 15 (Slater's seven was second-best). His 83 busts was second at the club behind winger Josh Addo-Carr and he also averaged 100 run metres and 125 kick metres per match with four tries and 21 offloads. Unfortunately he, like the club, saved one of the worst performances of the season for the grand final but they wouldn't have got there without him.
The team made the grand final as favourites, in good shape with a healthy and settled roster – so there aren't a whole heap of regrets lingering from throughout the season. It all came unstuck pretty early in the decider; the Storm wouldn't have been stressed about the two points conceded from an early Will Chambers ruck penalty but if there's a part of the game they'd like over again it's the three sets after that. The Roosters got the ball back from the penalty and monster charges from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Siosiua Taukeiaho established dominance. Then Slater and Addo-Carr got pile-driven backwards early in the next set to add to the pressure. Then another huge Roosters set with big runs from Dan Tupou and Joey Manu finished with a Cooper Cronk attacking bomb. Joe Stimson smashed the injured No.7 but Suliasi Vunivalu and Felise Kaufusi combined to fluff the mark, the Roosters got the ball back and scored and the Storm weren't really in it from that point on. Those are the three-and-a-half minutes of 2018 Melbourne would like over.
"I wasn't frustrated that we couldn't get at him, I was frustrated that we couldn't hold onto the football… he's an experienced player, he's played over 300 games so he knows how not to be in the action, which he wasn't in a lot of it tonight. He was pretty much out there just guiding the team around. They essentially played with 12 players tonight really so it's a fair effort by them to win the game." Defeated Storm skipper Cameron Smith, when asked if his team had failed to adequately target Cooper Cronk's injured shoulder, providing a not-too-subtle dig at his former mate.
Certainly the biggest win was the 50-10 Anzac Day demolition of the Warriors. The eight-tries-to-two win was built off a six-tries-to-nil opening 40 in one of the slickest halves of footy by any team this season. However for best wins, it's hard to go past the professional way they dismantled the Sharks 22-6 at AAMI Park in the grand final qualifier. Cronulla have been something of a bogey team for the Storm in recent years with the perfect game plan to put Craig Bellamy's men off their game – including in Melbourne where the 2016 premiers had won their previous two games. An admittedly under-strength Cronulla were never really in the contest though as a Billy Slater masterclass put them to the sword. Melbourne were up 22-0 with barely 10 minutes remaining when the Sharks finally broke their duck but it was too little too late as the Storm swept into the decider.
Probably the most convincing loss of the year was the 34-14 pounding dished out by the then-high flying Dragons at Kogarah in round nine. Just a week after the above-mentioned thrashing of the Warriors, the Storm copped a serious reality check at the hands of the ladder leaders. Remarkably, despite the disparity in the scores, it only ended up four tries to three as Josh Addo-Carr finished off a hat-trick late in the match with Gareth Widdop booting five penalty goals but in reality it felt as though the Dragons were pressing the Storm line all day as the Dragons' powerful forwards ran riot. And if we're talking worst losses, for a team notorious for showing up in big games to dish up what they did in the first 40 of the grand final will sting for some time.
Following last year's departure of Cronk, another of the big three has now departed with Billy Slater retiring despite still showing incredible form through 2018. He is a massive loss though Jahrome Hughes (or Cameron Munster in a potential reshuffle) represent top class replacements. The playmaking line-up is still in major doubt at this stage with Ryley Jacks currently unsigned for next year. And of course the big one, Cameron Smith is also without a 2019 deal at time of writing though it is currently expected he will play on with the Storm. Ryan Hoffman joins Slater in retirement; his loss is massive in terms of what he brings to a club though less so in an on-field sense where he slipped out of Bellamy's first-choice 17 late in the year. Origin prop Tim Glasby leaves a big hole with his departure to Newcastle. Broncos back Marion Seve is currently the only signing inbound, though the Storm have had to rely on signings less than any club in recent years with most of their grand final side having made their debuts for the Storm.
People have tried writing off the Storm a few times in recent years and frankly it doesn't tend to work out well. Slater is an enormous loss but this is a club that lost Cooper Cronk and made the grand final the following year. With Smith, Munster and Bellamy still around anything is possible and there are plenty of stars in both the forwards and the backs. Top four is a realistic possibility.