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On the Origin of Winning: How Storm evolved into rep period masters

Craig Bellamy called Storm players and staff together for a mid-season camp six years ago.

It kicked off one of the more impressive records in rugby league.

The reigning premiers and perennial title contenders are undefeated in their last 10 Origin period games, and 19-3 over the last four years when they have been without a galaxy of stars; from Smith and Slater to Munster and Addo-Carr.

But only after that 2015 Geelong get-together for Melbourne "couldn't have gone any worse if we tried."

Unhappy campers: 'All talk, no action'

Melbourne will have five players trot out onto the Townsville turf next Wednesday night, in line with the dominance they've established of Origin line-ups, particularly Queensland, over recent years.

Only Penrith will have more players present for the series opener.

Craig Bellamy gets a shower after Melbourne's 2017 NRL Grand Final win.
Craig Bellamy gets a shower after Melbourne's 2017 NRL Grand Final win. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

The 2020 grand finalists are still leading all other contenders by the length of the Flemington straight this year and are short-priced favourites against the Titans and Tigers this week.

Over the last four seasons, Melbourne have made winning without their biggest names an art form.

Especially so this year.

Emphatic victories, like a 34-10 trouncing of Canberra came with 28-year-old Chris Lewis playing the first game of five-eighth in his life, with a five-star, first-choice spine of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant all absent.

For the three years leading into that 2015 camp, this was Melbourne's one Achilles heel.

Across four seasons, half of the Storm's 28 losses came when Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Ryan Hoffman and Will Chambers would disappear into Origin camp or play a couple of days after being belted around in the game's most brutal arena.

So in 2015, Bellamy – the mastermind of the infamous boot camps that send Storm recruits to hell and then back into a purple jersey – called for a more sedate affair.

"We took the non-Origin players down the coast to Geelong for a camp, we had a concerted meeting around how we were going to attack Origin," long-time football manager Frank Ponissi told NRL.com.

"At the time you think you're doing the right thing. This is the way to do it, really plan it and map it out.

"It was a great couple of days I remember, some great training sessions and productive plans, it just didn't work at all.

"It couldn't have gone any worse if we tried - we had a horrible Origin period, I don't know if we won a game during that year's rep period."

Melbourne did jag one win over Penrith that year.

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But Bellamy was as ruthless as he gets following a 24-2 loss to the Roosters, labelling a Storm side without Smith, Slater and Cronk "physically and mentally weak" and "obviously all talk, no action" just days after that Geelong getaway.

So now, the Storm just get on with it.

The Kiwis and Cam

The COVID-19 affected 2020 campaign meant there was no mid-season Origin to worry about.

But between 2016 and 2019 the Storm contributed more players to Origin than the preceding four seasons, farewelled first Cronk and then Slater, yet still produced easily the best rep period record in the NRL.

Parramatta, Penrith and Canberra come next with 14 wins from 22 Origin-impacted contests in that timeframe, well behind Melbourne's 19.

A cavalcade of Kiwis, Cameron Smith's representative retirement, and a shift in the Origin narrative at Melbourne HQ have proven the key.

In Smith, Bellamy had the closest thing to a captain-coach since the days of captain-coaches doing his bidding on the paddock.

In Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, Jahrome Hughes, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Brandon Smith among others, Melbourne have a core of developing leaders who hold the fort throughout the year, but especially so when Queensland and NSW stars are away.

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Jesse Bromwich brother used to specifically target mid-season games to go beyond his already impressively consistent on-field output.

"I used to try and take that challenge on board a lot," Bromwich said.

"I think these days, I've played through the Origin period the whole time, so during this time I think it's more important that I lead off the field than on the field. 

"Obviously our training standards might drop, but I think it's important we keep those as high as we can.

"I look to lead on the training field and off-field now I guess more so than on-field. If you train well and prepare well you should play well. Looking after training and meetings is really important with the young guys we have coming in."

Coach to your players, play to your coach

Identifying potential debutants and representative players is a necessity for any club balancing its books, to ensure contract bonuses don't push them into dangerous salary cap territory.

Aside from working out the likelihood that a Trent Loiero, Aaron Booth or Tyson Smoothy might see game time, Ponissi can't recall this year's Origin series being mentioned in the Storm set-up until last week.

"Previous years we've over analysed it and spoken about it too much," he said.

"I think it's actually post-Origin where you have to really do most of your planning.

"You have to look after your Origin boys when they get back, if you don't give them a rest physically and mentally, that's what can bite you on the backside later on in the finals.

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"During Origin now it's just a case of 'next man up and get on with it'."

Like when Lewis was named in the No.6 jumper against Canberra two weeks ago.

The qualified schoolteacher has played rugby league for 20 years, but never played in the halves.

Bromwich dubbed it the "biggest left-field [selection] I've seen for a while", while Cooper Johns thought Bellamy was pulling a team sheet ruse until a calf injury to Hughes meant Johns ended up in the halves alongside him.

Lewis spent the next week telling teammates that an injured Munster would not be getting the No.6 or his million-dollar deal back.

But the implicit instructions to do the opposite that night from Bellamy – "not to play like Cameron Munster, but Chris Lewis playing five-eighth" – have been repeated for some time, and in turn, proven instrumental in the recent rise of someone like Nicho Hynes.

"It's part of Craig's secret to his coaching," Ponissi said.

"Every player has realistic expectations of what they can do and what they need to.

"It's not putting unnecessary expectations or pressure on them, that worry they'll let someone down because they've been asked to do too much.

"Whether it's an Origin period or an injury crisis, you just give out the jerseys and if you're wearing one, you do your best, do your job and that's the expectation of it."