Another storm is brewing in the Victorian capital with the potential to prolong the club’s past decade of success and usher in another ten-year period of dominance.
This is the timeline of a club that proved year after year how they ran one of the most successful professional sporting clubs among all Australian codes and how they will manage to uphold this expectation.
The big three: 2004-17
From 2004 until 2017 the Melbourne Storm acquired and utilised the services of what is arguably the greatest spine combination in rugby league history: Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith. With these ‘big three’, as they were popularly known, at the club’s helm throughout the duration of this time the Storm came by much success.
Appearing in every NRL finals series since 2004 – excepting 2010 due to the salary cap scandal – the club collected three minor premierships, three runner-up medals and two premierships, with a further two stripped due to salary cap breaches. Much of the club’s success can be whittled down to their superstar fullback, halfback and hooker.
On a representative level, Queensland won 11 of 14 State of Origin series between 2004 and 2017, the big three winning nine of them together. The Australian Kangaroos won the World Cup in 2013 and 2017 and Four Nations titles in 2011 and 2016. Again, much credit sways towards the big three for these successes.
From club to state to country, having three of the best players in three of the most important positions on the field consistently playing football together is inevitably going to result in wins, no question about it. As such, the critics boldly predicted that once the big three era ceased that the Melbourne Storm’s period of domination would begin to crumble.
The transitional period: 2018-20
The 2017 NRL grand final saw the big three play their final game together, subsequently winning the premiership and seeing Cooper Cronk join the Sydney Roosters for 2018.
The critics thought that this would be the start of the Storm’s struggles – that without Cooper Cronk, they probably wouldn’t even make the top four. But that season they qualified for their third grand final in a row, with Billy Slater retiring after the loss.
Now the Storm would struggle, and with Billy Slater retired and Cooper Cronk gone they would barely make the top eight, let alone the top four – or so those same critics suggested. And yet the 2019 season saw the club capture the minor premiership before bowing out in the preliminary final against the Roosters.
So do the critics dare say that the club is doomed without Cameron Smith? Because there is absolutely no conjecture around the enormity of his presence in a team, not to mention how he is the most accomplished of the big three. Maybe with him gone the club’s stranglehold at the top of the ladder will begin to loosen.
But I definitely wouldn’t bet on it.
There is no questioning the brilliance and influence of the big three, which combined ultimately formed the foundation of a club that has unapologetically created a culture that is being marvelled by their rivals.
These past few years have seen the club endure a seismic transition, staggering the exits of their three superstar players, who will undoubtedly become immortals of the game.
But the plan was never going to rest with them retiring. The foundation had been laid and the benchmark set, and during these years of transition – with the likely retirement of Cameron Smith imminent any day now – the Melbourne Storm quietly unearthed rugby league’s new big three: Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster and Harry Grant.
The Kellyville-born Wests Tigers junior, hailing from a touch football background, was picked up by the Storm in 2018. The following year saw him make his first-grade debut, and he’s remained in the game-day side every week since, playing a majority of the season from the bench before earning selection in the Australian nines and Australian under-23s squads.
The 2020 season saw the 21-year-old cement his spot as the primary fullback for the Storm and saw the superstar have the game of his career during their grand final win, when he was rewarded with the Clive Churchill Medal. The well-spoken and ever-humble Papenhuyzen rightfully played himself into the New South Wales Blues squad as a result, with uproar following the series with his non-selection after the Blues lost the series 2-1.
Debuting in the purple jersey in 2014 after receiving the Queensland Cup rookie of the year one season prior, the Rockhampton prodigy’s early role for the club was to cover for the injured Billy Slater throughout 2015 and 2016 in fullback before making a permanent switch to five-eighth in 2017.
This positional switch brought out the best in him and earnt him a call-up to the Maroons squad for State of Origin. He made his debut in the Game 3 decider alongside the original big three, with whom he had already formed combinations with at club level. Queensland won the match and the series. Munster also earnt an Australian Kangaroos cap in a group stage match against France during the rugby league World Cup that same year.
Munster was rewarded the Dally M five-eighth of the year in 2018 and 2019 before having arguably his best season in 2020. Coming off a premiership win, Munster was again thrust into the five-eighth role for Queensland and led the team to an against-all-odds series win that culminated in him receiving the Wally Lewis Medal for best player in the series.
Another Rockhampton prospect who signed for the Storm in 2017, earning player of the year in the under-20s competition, the 22-year-old had plied his trade in reserve grade in 2018 and 2019 before being part of the NRL’s first-ever player trade in 2020 and loaned to the Wests Tigers for the entirety of the season.
Grant took this opportunity with both hands, leading in Dally M points prior to succumbing to an injury midway through the season. He proved to his team’s best player and a future superstar in the making. Upon his return, it was telling that his presence on the field made all the difference to the Tigers’ fortunes, which was obviously not lost on Maroons selectors, and the young hooker gained selection in the Queensland squad for State of Origin.
Earning a call-up in Game 3 from the bench, Grant made 80 metres, 33 tackles and scored one try in a 56-minute stint that provided the X factor to solidify the Maroons victory. It was a debut to remember for a player who was made for the Origin arena, and I bet Queensland wish they had selected this kid from Game 1.
If you have ever wondered why the club has remained so successful during the transition period, look no further than these boys, who will be the main reason the Melbourne Storm will continue to dominate the next decade.
The thought of Papenhuyzen, Munster and Grant on the field at the same time spells absolute danger for opposition teams. This is a superstar spine that a club can build their team around and that the NRL should make the faces of the game for future prospects to aspire to. They’re three future Australian Kangaroos regulars.
Here is a more optimistic yet bold prediction I would rather put my money on: the new ‘big three’ will assure Melbourne Storm success over the next decade and surpass the achievements of their predecessors.
The 2020 season is when they stood up and made the rugby league world notice who they are.
So welcome to the new era of the new kings of Melbourne.