Just before Mitchell Barnett was reported, Cam Smith thought he’d make his feelings clear.
The Melbourne Storm are out to go one better in 2019, but with another member of their ‘big four’ calling it quits, the challenge to do so will become tougher than ever for a still immensely talented side.
While the Storm never looked quite at their best last year, they got it together in the final rounds, put on some scores and romped into the top four of what was the tightest season on record.
They then beat Souths, used their home ground and week off to hammer the Sharks, then went to the grand final where they simply never turned up and were beaten by a better team in the Sydney Roosters.
To see Cameron Smith bullied in the ruck, Billy Slater struggling at the back and Craig Bellamy’s game plan simply not come off was a rarity, and while you wouldn’t expect it to happen again, the Storm getting back to that stage is a challenge.
Cameron Smith is the only one left of the big four, and while they have plenty of great young talent coming through who will undoubtedly prosper under the mastery of coach Bellamy, there are some serious questions surrounding the club and whether they have the ability to go all the way again.
Their depth is pretty strong across the board though, and it’d be a serious shock to see them miss the finals. Once they are there, it’s a new season, and as we know, a good coach and experienced players is sometimes enough.
Cameron Smith (c), Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Cheyse Blair, Jesse Bromwich, Kenneath Bromwich, Will Chambers, Brodie Croft, Scott Drinkwater, Sandor Earl, Tom Eisenhuth, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Dale Finucane, Jahrome Hughes, Tui Kamikamica, Sam Kasiano, Felise Kaufusi, Patrick Kaufusi, Cameron Munster, Justin Olam, Ryan Papenhuyzen, Curtis Scott, Marion Seve, Brandon Smith, Joe Stimson, Young Tonumaipea, Albert Vete, Suliasi Vunivalu, Billy Walters, Christian Welch
Ins: Scott Drinkwater (promoted), Tom Eisenhuth (Penrith Panthers), Tino Fa’asuamaleaui (promoted), Marion Seve (Brisbane Broncos), Albert Vete (New Zealand Warriors), Billy Walters (promoted)
Outs: Tim Glasby (Newcastle Knights), Ryan Hoffman (retired), Ryley Jacks (Gold Coast Titans), Sam Kasiano (Catalan Dragons), Billy Slater (retirement), Lachlan Timm (St George Illawarra Dragons), Young Tonumaipea (released)
The changes to the club are mostly on the negative side, and it could make things tough if the Storm don’t get off to a good start.
The glaring name in the list is Billy Slater. The champion fullback – who anyone who has ever read my work will know I rate as the greatest of all time – has called time on a glittering career.
It’s going to open up opportunities for others, like Jahrome Hughes, but it’s a huge loss for the club, because his defence and communication – not to mention his attack – was first class.
Also retired is Ryan Hoffman, with the veteran back rower moving on, while the loss of Tim Glasby in the front row to Newcastle isn’t a good one either.
Ryley Jacks, who gave them plenty of depth in the halves last year, has departed for the Gold Coast, while Sam Kasiano, Lachlan Timm and Young Tonuamipea are their other exits for varying reasons.
There could be another departure before the season starts yet as well, depending on whether their reported salary cap mess is true or not.
As for the additions, Tom Eisenhuth is a talented youngster and good pick-up from the Panthers, while Albert Vete might help in the replacement of Tim Glasby up front if he can find some consistency away from Auckland.
Marion Seve has been picked up from the Broncos, while youngsters Scott Drinkwater, Billy Walters and gun forward Tino Fa’asumaleaui (yeah, I know, I’m hoping I don’t have to type his name too often) are all into the top 30.
This is a Melbourne spine, unlike what we have seen for some time. No Slater means the position at the back has opened up, and while the race was on, that race was prematurely ended when Scott Drinkwater injured his pectoral muscle in the Storm’s final trial.
It means he is going to miss the start of the season, and the talented Jahrome Hughes should be a lock for the number one jersey.
In saying that, there is still an outside chance he does the old switcharoo and lines up in the halves, allowing Cameron Munster to play at the back. Both are talented and can play either position, so it’ll be intriguing to see what Bellamy goes with.
Brodie Croft finally hit his straps at the back end of 2018 as well, so is sure to line up in the halves. He burst onto the scene with a stunning performance in the World Club Challenge at the beginning of the year, but then took a long while to hit his straps in the NRL.
The bottom line is that, the first three in this spine are all pretty raw, and it could take a while to click, but when it does, playing behind Cameron Smith and a strong pack, they are going to be exciting.
Speaking of Smith, he will take the number nine jersey, playing less minutes as Brendon Smith continues to grow into his role.
The backs more or less pick themselves. Josh Addo-Carr is just about the best winger in the game and will be there as he throws his hand up for a New South Wales jumper again.
The ‘Fox,’ will be joined by Suliasi Vunivalu on the other wing. The Fijian was a little quite last year, but that’s no reason to consider replacing him.
The centres are going to be the fading, but still solid, Will Chambers, along with young gun Curtis Scott, who, outside of those times he was punching Dylan Walker in the jaw, was pretty strong last year.
Cheyse Blair and Sandor Earl are the two lining up for any injury problems, while Justin Olam might have something to say about that.
This is a pack which has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, and in a tip of the hat to Craig Bellamy, he continues to get the best out of his players.
Dale Finucane is the prime example, and is now one of the most solid lock forwards in the game. He will again line up there this year, playing big minutes and barely missing a tackle in the middle.
The duo up front who will play with Finucane are going to be Kiwi props Jesse Bromwich and the man-mountain Neslon Asofa-Solomona, who is only going to keep getting better.
On the edges, it’s going to be Felise Kaufusi, who has been a breakout star over the last 24 months and will continue to dominate one edge, with Kenny Bromwich likely to crack a top 13 spot on the other edge.
He will be in competition with Joe Stimson for that spot, while their depth is good, with Christian Welch, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Tom Eisenhuth, Tui Kamakamica, Patrick Kaufusi and Albert Vete all in contention for bench spots.
It’s slightly out of left-field, but Fa’asuamaleaui, on the back of huge performances at junior level, for mine, has to be on the bench.
The advantage with so many of their starts moving on or quitting the Origin arena over the last few years is that it won’t suck the life out of the club this season, like it has done in the past.
Felise Kaufusi, Cameron Munster and Will Chambers are probably still both going to be there, while Josh Addo-Carr and Curtis Scott (the first more than the second) are likely for the Blues side.
But with Smith retired from rep footy, and a lot of their forward pack playing for the Kiwis, Origin won’t drain them too heavily, which is a huge positive.
Likely best 17
1. Jahrome Hughes
2. Suliasi Vunivalu
3. Will Chambers
4. Curtis Scott
5. Josh Addo-Carr
6. Cameron Munster
7. Brodie Croft
8. Jesse Bromwich
9. Cameron Smith
10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
11. Felise Kaufusi
12. Kenneath Bromwich
13. Dale Finucane
14. Brandon Smith
15. Joe Stimson
16. Christian Welch
17. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui
Can Munster be the star?
We all know that Cameron Smith is going to guide this team around the park. There’s really no question about that, with the veteran reading the game better than anyone else.
The question for mine is whether Cameron Munster can step up to be the star. The one putting on the plays, and almost playing the attacking position of Billy Slater, regardless of whether he is going to line up in the halves, or at the back.
What Smith has always had is Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater to run off him and make things look special in the middle third around tired ruck defenders, just as one example.
He now needs Munster to play that role in support, as well as providing the balanced head to control the kicking game alongside Croft.
This is the year that will make, or break, Munster.
Get the ball wide, and get it wide early
While the Storm are a side laden with talent, their best asset may actually be the men on the outside. No matter what Vunivalu dished up last year, he and Addo-Carr possess supreme talent on the wing.
The Storm need to use that, and even though it might increase their error count a little bit, they need to be happy to take that risk, then back their defence to get the job done.
Particularly when defensive lines are tired, Smith need to have the vision to get the ball through the hands. He has excellent second rowers and centres, who aren’t going to muck things up too often, so it’s down to Smith and Munster to get the ball wide on the early tackles, and let Addo-Carr and Vunivalu go to work.
Craig Bellamy could be about to stamp his legacy
Craig Bellamy is one of the best coaches in the game, but this year, he has youth in key positions, and a few questions around the squad.
He will need every bit of experience to get this Melbourne side up to the level they have been at previously, but it’s also going to take some adapting.
They need to play a slightly different style this year, noting they may not have the control of past years, and also have younger players filling into those key positions.
While they haven’t lost Cronk and Slater in the same year, they have lost them in back-to-back seasons, and that’s enough to rip any club apart.
It’s not going to do that to Melbourne, but there is nothing in this competition, so finding a successful formula from Day 1 is crucial.
|1||Thu Mar 14||7:50pm||Brisbane Broncos||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|2||Fri Mar 22||6pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Fox|
|3||Sat Mar 30||7:35pm||Penrith Panthers||Carrington Park||Fox|
|4||Sun Apr 7||4:05pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|5||Fri Apr 12||7:55pm||North Queensland Cowboys||1300 Smiles Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|6||Fri Apr 19||7:55pm||Sydney Roosters||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|7||Thu Apr 25||7:50pm||New Zealand Warriors||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|8||Fri May 3||7:55pm||Cronulla Sharks||Shark Park||Fox|
|9||Sat May 11||7:35pm||Parramatta Eels||Suncorp Stadium||Fox|
|10||Thu May 16||7:50pm||Wests Tigers||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
|11||Sun May 26||2pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||Belmore Sports Ground||Fox|
|13||Sat Jun 8||3pm||New Zealand Warriors||MT Smart Stadium||Fox|
|14||Sat Jun 15||3pm||Newcastle Knights||AAMI Park||Fox|
|15||Fri Jun 28||7:55pm||Sydney Roosters||Adelaide Oval||Nine/Fox|
|16||Thu Jul 4||7:50pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||WIN Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|17||Sat Jul 13||7:35pm||Cronulla Sharks||AAMI Park||Fox|
|18||Sun Jul 21||2pm||Gold Coast Titans||CBus Super Stadium||Fox|
|19||Sat Jul 27||7:35pm||Manly Sea Eagles||AAMI Park||Fox|
|20||Fri Aug 2||7:55pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|21||Sun Aug 11||4:05pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||Central Coast Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|22||Sat Aug 17||5:30pm||Canberra Raiders||AAMI Park||Fox|
|23||Sun Aug 25||2pm||Gold Coast Titans||AAMI Park||Fox|
|24||Sat Aug 31||5:30pm||Manly Sea Eagles||Lottoland||Fox|
|25||Fri Sep 6||7:55pm||North Queensland Cowboys||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: Brisbane Broncos, Canberra Raiders, Canterbury Bulldogs, North Queensland Cowboys, Sydney Roosters, New Zealand Warriors, Cronulla Sharks, Gold Coast Titans, Manly Sea Eagles
Best home run: Round 22 – Round 25 (three out of four)
Worst away run: Round 15 – Round 21 (5 out of 7)
Five-day turnarounds: 2
The Storm, for the most part, have what can only be described as a fairly balanced fixture, and a positive one for a team who made the grand final last September.
While they do have a tough away run through the second third of the season, it’s their finish which will have them set nicely for the finals, with three of their final four games set to be played in the Victorian capital.
The Raiders, Titans, Sea Eagles (away) and Cowboys should provide at least three, and maybe four wins from their final month of footy, so not only do they get to rest up at home, but they should enter the finals with plenty of momentum, which can’t be given enough importance in a close competition.
Starting their season at home against the Broncos will give us a fair idea of where they are at straight away, before they play the Raiders, Panthers and Bulldogs, which is a fairly good first month.
Their double-up list includes the Cowboys, Broncos, Roosters and Sharks, but certainly isn’t one of the harder ones floating around.
A tough away run between Round 15 and 21, which includes trips to Adelaide, Wollongong, the Gold Coast, Brisbane and the Central Coast will give a very good account of just how the team are travelling, but again, that’s not the last month, so isn’t as bad as it could be.
The Storm are a successful club, and there is going to be nothing that changes that.
The next generation of their stars have arrived on the block, and so long as there are no issues with the salary cap, they are going to be strong again, with Cameron Smith and Craig Bellamy putting their plans in place to lead the side around the park.
They will certainly be in the top eight, and I can see them in the top four again.
Another grand final might not be there this season due to a lack of finals experience in key positions, but it should be another strong season for the purple horde.
There are just two teams left in this preview series, and you can read my thoughts on them over the next two days.
Colours: Purple and white
Home grounds: AAMI Park, Melbourne
Minor premierships: 3
Best finish in last five years: 2017 – premiers
2018 finish: 2nd – grand final loss
Coach: Craig Bellamy
Captain: Cameron Smith
16th – Parramatta Eels
15th – Canberra Raiders
14th – Manly Sea Eagles
13th – New Zealand Warriors
12th – Canterbury Bulldogs
11th – Cronulla Sharks
10th – Wests Tigers
9th – Gold Coast Titans
8th – Brisbane Broncos
7th – Newcastle Knights
6th – North Queensland Cowboys
5th – Penrith Panthers
4th – St George Illawarra Dragons