At the time of its conception the Melbourne Storm was deemed – and some still subscribe to this notion – to be a heartless moneyed construct in a city indifferent to the game of rugby league.
Two years ago when Cameron Smith was agonising over a multi-million dollar offer from the Broncos, the club who let the laconic and seemingly unexceptionable teenager pass by a decade earlier, his wife Barbara, knowing the decision was dragging him down and dragging on, sat him down to ask a key question.
It was the question the Storm faithful – passionate followers who had been there from the beginning – hadn’t dared ask lest they have their hearts broken.
The question went something like this: “Cameron, I know it’s a lot of money, I know you grew up in Brisbane, I know our families still live there, but what decision feels right for you?”
“To stay. This is our home now”, was the reply.
It was an exhilarating answer for the fans who despite the success knew that many previous players – the majority of who were cast-offs from Queensland and NSW – hadn’t really called Melbourne home. They were here only to prove they were worthy NRL players.
The coach too found himself in the southern outpost, not for family, coffee or “culture”, but to escape his mentor at Brisbane whose influence had become a shadow, and to create his own dynasty.
But once he had done that and St George Illawarra came calling he found he wasn’t capable of leaving: “The emotional attachment is very strong, especially with the players. I found that attachment too hard to break to be quite honest. I feel like a bit of a fan, I suppose. This is my club”, he said.
According to Matty Johns, this great team was inadvertently spawned by Brisbane when four men (the Big Four of Bellamy, Smith, Slater and Cronk) arrived at the Storm, spurned, neglected or ignored by the mighty Broncos, and made great by their desire to prove them wrong.
Most of its young players have followed the lead of their coach and captain and now consider Melbourne home. Teenage prodigies, like Cameron Munster and Curtis Scott, were prepared to leave the security of home to learn under Bellamy, Smith Slater and Cronk.
A Storm is the perfect image for a team that has instilled fear in a competition for the decade and half of its existence. Storms at their most extreme are scarier and have caused much more death and destruction than any of the vicious powerful animals that most teams use as their mascots.
The German military with its Storm Troopers and Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was adept at instilling fear in opposition with references to the power of nature.
And like a screaming Stuka the Storm arrived in 1998 releasing its payload on to the established order of rugby league, winning a premiership in just their second year in one of the code’s most dramatic and exhilarating grand finals in a competition where a ninety-two year old foundation club hadn’t won one for seventy-seven years.
Based in a city ridiculed for its climate, weather was always going to play a part in the Melbourne club’s identity. But it’s not entirely appropriate. It drizzles here mainly. The real storms occur to the north in the game’s traditional home.
Also, blitzkrieg has never really been their style. From day one they have been patient and relentless. They never give up and are rarely stitched up which is why their 40-0 grand final drubbing at the hands of Manly is so sweetly savoured by many opposition supporters.
Bellamy’s great sides were more like the Russians than the Germans at Stalingrad. Unperturbed by the numbers and talent in front of them they defended ruthlessly and cleverly . Tiring the enemy, surrounding them and cutting the supply lines, they would send snipers like Slater and Inglis to pick them apart.
The 1999 premiership came after a qualifying final thrashing, and surviving the semi and the preliminary finals by a mere two points.
And in the grand final, against their first final nemesis St George Illawarra, they were on the verge of an insurmountable second half 2-20 deficit when Anthony Mundine – who had been issuing Ali-esque taunts to the Storm throughout the week – failed to live up to his mentor’s ability to back up his words and lost the ball over the try line.
Watching that game now, 17 years on, it’s easier to see clearly and understand what happened next. The Dragons’ disappointment at not burying Melbourne morphing into doubt and finally panic as the Storm kept coming, culminating in the penalty try that would sink them.
If you thought Melburnians didn’t care for their artificial construct, think again. Six hundred thousand of them watched that game on television and for those who travelled to Sydney to be part of the world record crowd at Telstra Stadium it was an experience that still lingers.
One of them going by the name of Sportymale commented on YouTube: “Why do I still get nervous and goose bumps every time I watch this? As a 16 year old sitting in the nosebleeds of the stand that is no longer there, it was one of the best days of my life.”
Contrary to popular belief the Storm gets significant media attention. With almost daily articles in The Age and Herald Sun it surpasses even Collingwood, the biggest sporting club in the land, for coverage.
AFL supporters on the street are always enquiring after them.
Understandably the salary cap breaches have left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. There are opposition fans still screaming “cheats!”, six years on from the event, probably as much from sheer exasperation that a football team without a league culture has continued to be major force – as from distaste over the morality of the breaches.
The wrestle whinging continues but Bellamy (with his great rival Des Hasler) has helped change the game for the better. The ruck and tackles have the power and intensity of rugby, players kick and mark the ball with the technique and dexterity of their AFL counterparts, and forwards goose step, sidestep and offload.
More significantly defences have become so highly structured, relentless and brutal that it takes either a penalty or something special to score a try. Hence the exhilarating rise of athletic, acrobatic wingers and centres the size of forwards.
Last Saturday, a decade after their first minor premiership – with Inglis long gone and Slater absent – they won another. Afterwards, an incredulous Paul Kent on Fox’s NRL 360 asked: “How have they managed to do it?”
Hate them for their corporate beginnings, for their playing style, and for the salary cap breaches but don’t pretend these words from the great Phil Gould aren’t true:
“Melbourne Storm is everything you want your football team to be. They take kids, develop and nurture them, and turn them into champions. They turn the team into a champion team , and the club into a champion club. Every club would like to do that. Every supporter would love to have a team like the Melbourne Storm”.
Hail to the Storm.