Craig Bellamy is Melbourne Storm’s greatest legend of all

Tim Gore Columnist

By , Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    Amidst all of the deserved fanfare of the massive roles Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater have played, there was not nearly enough recognition for mine of the key person who made it all happen: Craig Bellamy.

    There is no question that Cronk, Smith and Slater are the greatest trio of the modern era.

    There are only a few great triumvirates to whom I can even try and compare them in regards to talent, longevity and x-factor: Peter Sterling, Brett Kenny and Ray Price; Steve Mortimer, Terry Lamb and Paul Langmack; Ricky Stuart, Laurie Daley and Brad Clyde; Alan Langer, Kevin Walters and Darren Lockyer.

    However, when all things are taken into account the Storm trio still come out on top.

    Not only have they lasted far longer than any of those combinations did, their achievements at all levels have eclipsed the others.

    But here’s the bizarre thing about that: apart from Paul Langmack and Ray Price, a strong argument can be raised that the Purple Big Three do not have the natural talent of any of the others.

    While Billy Slater has certainly shown some freakish skills in the class of Lockyer, Kenny and Daley I guess, the greatest skills that Smith and Cronk possess is speed between the ears and cold, hard discipline during the greatest heat of conflict.

    It is those key attributes – far more than any others – that have won them Minor Premierships, Grand Finals, Test matches, Tri-Nations and World Cups.

    They stick to the game plan and they execute it perfectly. They have a plan for every possible scenario and know how to react quickly. They believe each other will be in the right spots and they inspire this deadly effective cool, calm control, adherence to the game plan and self-belief in all the often meat and potato players they’ve ever been surrounded by.

    But it wasn’t their idea. It’s not their plan.

    These three giants of the game owe virtually everything to their coach: Craig Bellamy.

    Craig Bellamy tall

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    The skinny kid from Portland, NSW (which is in-between Bathurst, Mudgee and Lithgow) was a foundation Canberra Raider in 1982 and played 149 games for the club, coming off the bench in the 1990 grand final win over Penrith.

    As a player he was subjugated to lesser roles by the likes of Laurie Daley, Mal Meninga and Chris O’Sullivan.

    As a coach he is subjugated by no one.

    Now at the conclusion of his 15th straight season with the Melbourne Storm he can arguably be said to be the greatest rugby league coach of the modern era.

    I’m certainly arguing it. I believe he has now eclipsed the other contenders for that mantle: Wayne Bennett, Jack Gibson and Bob Fulton.

    Apart from 2010 when the punishment enforced upon them because of the salary cap scandal precluded them from being there, the Storm have made the finals every year under his tenure.

    Of the league coaches in Australia since 1908 who have over 150 matches to their name, only Norm Provan has a better winning percentage (68.5 per cent to Bellamy’s 68 per cent) and Bellamy boasts over 200 more matches as coach than the great Dragon does.

    Unlike those other coaches, he had to build his empire up from dust. He inherited a side that had come tenth in 2002 and that many – including myself – thought would, in spite of their 1999 premiership, go the same way as other manufactured teams like the Adelaide Rams and the Western Reds.

    And they may have if not for Bellamy. In his very first season in charge he lifted his side into fifth spot, making it to the second week of the finals.

    His side featured a young halfback from Brisbane called Cameron Smith – who was actually manufactured into a hooker by Bellamy (in spite of clearly being too small for the role) – and a young whippet from Innisfail called Billy Slater, who finished the season with 19 tries.

    It was in the 2003 qualifying final against the fourth-placed Canberra Raiders that I knowingly saw Smith in the flesh for the first time.

    Much to the annoyance of the Raiders players, the young Storm number nine was effecting tackles by grappling his opponents around the neck and head.

    Later to be outlawed, it was extremely effective in slowing the play the ball down. The Storm upset the more fancied Raiders 30-18 that day.

    As much as people like to vilify Smith and the Storm for these sort of tactics, as used at the time they were not illegal. Only the subsequent outcry made the grapple tackle illegal. The same can be said of the other wrestling moves the Storm players were coached to use like the chicken wing.

    They only got made illegal because the NRL deigned it so. Until that point they were cutting edge strategy conceived by a great coach to give his side a winning edge. And no one can argue that the Storm haven’t had a winning edge.

    Bellamy conceives strategies and puts them into place. He drills his boys hard. He demands focus and adherence to the rules, the plans.

    The opposition coach’s box at Canberra Stadium is right next to the ABC Grandstand booth. During one Raiders Storm game in the 2000s Bellamy’s fury with his sides play was so huge that his tirade of expletives and vehemence was clearly leaking into our broadcast.

    Such was his rage that I thought the opaque window between he and my boss, Tim Gavel, would surely shatter.

    Here’s the thing: the Storm were winning fairly easily at the time…

    It was then that I realised an essential truth of the Melbourne Storm: they played well because they stuck to the game plan and they stuck to the game plan because they didn’t want to face Bellamy if they hadn’t. His rage is that terrifying.

    Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    However, do what he says, stick to his “Bellamy Ball” blueprint and you’ll find no more generous and supportive man in league. Just look at the way he embraced with each of his lads at the end of the grand final. There is no question that they share a bond that runs very deep.

    That’s not to say he doesn’t have his favourites.

    I did the sideline for ABC on August 4 2013 for the Raiders versus Storm game. The Storm handed out the Raiders their biggest ever defeat that day: 68-4. It was a total rout.

    I was really sick and had dosed up on all sorts of drugs just to be there. To keep my poor throat warm I had wrapped it tightly in my Collingwood scarf. When I asked Bellamy post-match for a one-on-one interview for Grandstand his response was to enthusiastically ask about how the Magpies were going. It seems that the great man is also from the same army as myself. He then did something that never happens anymore and invited me into the Storm change rooms for the interview.

    When we walked in the sight I was met with I’ll never forget. There was the great Billy Slater – fresh from scoring his two tries – putting on his roll on deodorant while singing along loudly to some very yodelly country music. Meanwhile a number of his teammates – I think it was Tohu Harris and Mahe Fonua – regarded this spectacle with looks that I took as being less than happy with the music selection filling the room.

    I looked at Craig Bellamy who said something along the lines of, “It’s Billy Slater, he can do what he wants…”

    “Yep. Fair enough,” I nodded.

    It’s also fair enough that Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater would be his favourites. They have been the cornerstone of his success. They are great players, possibly some of the greatest ever. However, I’ll bet you quite a lot that they themselves will tell you they owe it all to Craig Bellamy, that they are his greatest zealots.

    And who were they before they were Storm players? Just some kids with promise, like so many others who start out.

    All of those who still harbour resentment about the salary cap scandal that resulted in the Storm being stripped of two Premierships need to remember that – apart from the likes of Michael Crocker and Clint Newton – most of the Storm’s players were nobodies before they became somebodies at the Melbourne Storm.

    That includes Greg Inglis, Israel Folau, Adam Blair, Ryan Hoffman, Jeremy Smith, Dallas Johnson, Jeff Lima, Brett White, Gareth Widdop and Blake Green.

    And don’t tell me that they poached junior talent. Every club is scouring the country for the best junior talent, but not every club has the conversion rate that Bellamy has had in turning potential into champions.

    For mine the Storm only broke one salary cap rule. It’s the same one that the Parramatta Eels broke: thou shalt not get caught. I still believe that they were punished for trying to retain – albeit illegally – the talent that they themselves had developed. That Bellamy had developed. I strongly believe that there should be great concessions for clubs who can do what Bellamy has done. Instead we stained his legacy with two stripped premierships.

    But now he has them back. The 2017 Premiership is arguably his best ever. Only four losses for the season, with two of those being during the Origin period.

    Craig Bellamy Melbourne Storm

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    Lots of people are thinking that this era of greatness will draw to a close with the breaking up of the big three, or with the eventual retirement of Cam Smith.

    But it won’t. The key to the Storm success – the dynasty – is Craig Bellamy. Just as he created Smith, Cronk and Slater, he will create more superb players. Kids with raw talent will take less money to play for him, to learn from him, to adopt his incredible and unrelenting, non-laurel-resting work ethic.

    Already we’ve seen Cam Munster, Brodie Croft, Ryley Jacks, Brandon Smith, Curtis Scott, Jahrome Hughes and Joe Stimson start showing their promise. Just as the departure of Matt Orford allowed Cooper Cronk to shine, we now anticipate the arrival of Croft.

    You can also argue that the Storm have only been able to win as much as they have because they wrestle in the tackle, because their judo moves stop quick play the balls, because Cam Smith sweet talks the referee.

    But that is rubbish.

    Those things have been open secrets for years now. Every team has been able to implement exactly the same strategies. But no side has replicated them nearly as well because no side is nearly as disciplined and smart as the Melbourne Storm. No side is able to retain focus and execute like the Purple Horde. No side is prepared to sacrifice and commit like the Storm.

    And the horde do it because Bellamy demands it. The man with the sweatiest armpits in rugby league is the greatest coach of all time because he insists upon adherence to an essential and dedicated basic work ethic. All their success grows from that.

    It’s not brain surgery and it’s not rocket science.

    You’ll find no superstar egos at the Storm. You’ll find no party boys. There is no room at all for them.

    What you will find is a determination and dedication that has rarely been seen before in professional sport.

    And at the very core of that you’ll find Craig Bellamy: The Melbourne Storm’s greatest ever legend.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.