Every Monday at 5pm Melbourne players and staff would gather for "Storm Hour" and listen as GM of football Frank Ponissi read messages from fans in Victoria describing how the team was helping them cope with the rigours of lockdown.
The Storm won the 2020 Telstra Premiership while living out of suitcases on the Sunshine Coast for more than four months but the inspiration for their 26-20 defeat of Penrith on Sunday night came from their supporters in Victoria.
It’s why captain Cameron Smith pointed to the V logo in the centre of his jersey while addressing team-mates before they ran onto ANZ Stadium for the grand final and told them: "We’re not just playing for the Storm, we’re playing for everyone back home".
With more than 600,000 viewers in Melbourne tuning into the premiership decider, Smith repeated the action on the podium after full-time and declared: "Everyone back home in Victoria, this one’s for you".
With Melbourne re-entering lockdown in early July, Ponissi was inundated with messages from Victoria and he began sharing them with the players to ensure they maintained perspective.
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"I got so many and we had a WhatsApp group that I would share them on but the best one each week I would show at the Storm Hour and we would talk about it," Ponissi said.
"The whole idea was to remember the people in Victoria and be grateful for what we had."
Some of the messages detailed the difficult personal circumstances as people in Victoria battled rising unemployment, fears about JobKeeper allowances ending and the health risks of COVID-19 as the coronavirus spread through the community.
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While the Storm were inspiring fans in Victoria enduring Australia’s toughest lockdown rules, the messages also inspired the Melbourne players as coach Craig Bellamy used some of them for motivation during a season in which they played just twice at AAMI Park.
"There have been some really heartfelt messages from people doing it really tough, sick people and some suffering from cancer or lifelong illnesses messaging us to say how much it means to them to tune into the Storm every weekend," prop Christian Welch said.
"It gives you an appreciation and builds a bit of humility about our issues. Sometimes we might be kicking stones because we are locked in a resort for three months but we have got it pretty good compared to some of those Victorians who messaged us."
Ponissi said the reaction to the Storm's fifth premiership win outstripped that of previous triumphs, while Melbourne CEO Dave Donaghy received messages of congratulations from his counterparts at Richmond, Geelong and Collingwood AFL clubs, Tennis Australia and the Australian Grand Prix organisation.
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"It is the real deal down in Melbourne, everyone was watching," Donaghy said.
Storm part-owner and director Gerry Ryan, who is the founder of Jayco Australia, said the club had managed to build a closer connection with Victorians while being exiled from the state since late June.
"We have got 1,000 employees [at Jayco] and I was walking around today and everyone was cheering," Ryan said.
"It has just lifted the spirits because we haven’t had a lot to cheer about.
"With Smithy, and how he pulled the jersey and said 'this is for Victoria', I am sure the Melbourne Storm is going to gain more supporters and the game in general will get more attention.
"Out of every crisis comes opportunity and this will certainly help us build our membership and build awareness of the game so it is great for the Storm."
I didn’t think for one moment it would get the traction in Melbourne that it didStorm GM of Football Frank Ponissi
The day the pain hit home
The first message Ponissi shared was from former Storm superstar Billy Slater the week after the team had relocated to the Twin Waters Novotel ahead of their July 2 defeat of Sydney Roosters at Suncorp Stadium following a spike in COVID-19 cases in Melbourne.
Slater was concerned about the impact of players posting photos on social media of them enjoying life in Queensland while Victorians were effectively confined to their houses.
"Billy is the most positive and optimistic bloke you would want to meet but I could tell from his text how hard he was doing it and that things were really grim in Melbourne," Ponissi said.
"Every Monday afternoon at 5pm we would meet for Storm Hour. It was a combination of doing our awards for the week and having a bit of a laugh, but we would also do some serious things and I shared that text from Billy.
"The whole group spoke about and said we needed to do something for the people back in Melbourne who are doing it tough. We decided to put something on our jumpers and I think it was Smithy who said, ‘it is not just about Melbourne, it is all of Victoria’. That’s how we came up with the V."
The Storm’s head of brand and content Oran Aziz worked with the club’s digital team to design a number of logos and the players selected a white V with the words "Our home, Victoria" that sat in between the club and NRL emblems on the front of their jerseys.
After scoring a try against the Titans in Round 10, prop Nelson Asofa-Solomona puffed out the V on his chest and pointed to it. Winger Suliasi Vunivalu formed a heart around the logo with his hands after scoring a try.
"Nothing was orchestrated but it became pretty powerful and meant a lot to the boys because they understood what it meant to the people back home," Ponissi said.
"I drove it early from a gratitude point of view because I just wanted the young blokes, in particular, to understand and be grateful of what we have got but I didn’t think for one moment it would get the traction in Melbourne that it did. That blew me away and I am 56-years-of-age."
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The power of the Big V
The on-field tributes by the players sparked more messages to Ponissi, and Bellamy used some of them before matches.
"We did that a couple of times during the season and Craig used one or two quotes for games where they tied in with the situation we were in," assistant coach Jason Ryles said.
After a 10-week break following the suspension of the NRL season in March, the Storm’s nomadic existence began when they shifted to Albury but were prevented by the local council from training on the rugby league ground and had to use the facilities of an AFL club.
The Storm played two matches at AAMI Park when the Telstra Premiership resumed on May 28 but had to move their round 7 home game against the Warriors to Kogarah and haven't been back to Victoria since.
"Initially we were told it was going to be for two or three weeks and we have been here for four months now but we really empathise with what has happened back in Victoria and the lockdowns and restrictions," forward Dale Finucane said.
“That is what the V on our chest symbolises and what we have achieved has been about what is happening back in Victoria, and the people there. We have been inundated with messages saying that has been the highlight of their week and what they have looked forward to."
Welch added: "Each week we made an effort to put a little bit of joy in their lives and for 80 minutes try our arses off and try to put a smile on their faces".