The new year has rolled over and we are soon to enter into a whole new NRL season full of triumph, disappointment, scandal, shocks, success and failure.
Sixteen teams, nearly 500 first grade players, countless thousands of rusted-on club members, and just as many fervent armchair viewers are all hoping that their team can win the elusive title this year, and the bragging rights that go with it.
Well, I’ve looked into the crystal ball, studied the tea leaves and had it confirmed by my local tarot card reader – the Melbourne Storm will go back to back in 2021 to claim another title.
I’ve also run my eye over the 16 teams fronting up this year and can confirm it’s definitely going to be Melbourne’s year. My apologies to those involved with the other 15 clubs, but the best you can hope for this year is the ribbon for runner up.
Here are the key reasons why the Storm look too good for the prize in 2021.
It takes a pretty good coach to win a premiership these days, and an even better coach to win them back to back. It’s only been done twice in the last 30-odd years and the coaches on those occasions were Wayne Bennett and Trent Robinson.
In Craig Bellamy, the Storm have a coach who is almost without peer in the modern game, whether you are a fan of his coaching methods or not.
Heading into his 19th season as coach this year, his record speaks for itself. Under his watch the club has finished outside of the top eight only once (the year they played for no points), have won three premierships (let’s not mention the other two), been runners up four times, and won four minor premierships.
More importantly, they’ve finished either first or second on the ladder in each of the last five years, and what better position to be in at year’s end if you’re hoping to take out the title.
Only one team has won the premiership from outside of first or second place in that time, when the Sharks won from third place in 2016. Bellamy is odds on to engineer either a one or two finish again this year.
Looking a little deeper than the mere numbers, during Bellamy’s tenure, and particularly in recent years, he has built a strong and winning club culture where success breeds success. The Storm expect to win games and they usually do.
He has the happy knack of choosing his roster carefully, and has the uncanny ability of getting the best out of both unheralded juniors and journeyman players often cast off by other clubs. His players know their roles and can execute them to perfection.
Losing one or two key players would disrupt most clubs and bring their momentum to a grinding halt, but each time this happens at the Storm, Bellamy has a back-up plan, and someone steps up to fill the void.
In the four seasons since they lost the 2016 grand final to the Sharks, Storm players of the calibre of Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk, Blake Green, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris, Marika Koroibete, Tim Glasby, Ben Hampton, Will Chambers and Jordan McLean have all left the club, only to be seamlessly replaced by the next wave of Bellamy-developed stars, like Ryan Papenhuyzen, Jahrome Hughes, Brenko Lee, Brandon Smith and Justin Olam.
This is possibly Bellamy’s last year with the club and I expect him to pull out all stops, bend whatever rules he has to, swear a curse in the coaches box, and push the envelope as far as is required to win another premiership.
When I look through the Storm roster for the coming season, it’s hard to find any weaknesses, just a lot of players who the fans of most other clubs would want to see running out for their teams.
Sure, they’ve lost Suliasi Vunivalu and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui for 2021, but have plenty of depth to cover those losses. Isaac Lumelume looked the goods when called on to replace Vunivalu last year, and both George Jennings and Reimis Smith are waiting in the wings for their chance if required. In fact, look for Reimis Smith to be the next big thing before the year is out.
Both Tui Kamikamica and Darryn Schonig are weapons in their own right, and will step up to replace big Fa’asuamaleaui, and then there’s the super talented Jack Howarth just waiting for his chance. This guy has it all.
The impending loss of Cameron Smith would send shock waves through most clubs, and see their premiership odds blow out, but the Storm have two of the top five hookers in the game in Brandon Smith and Harry Grant ready to take his place.
Yes, they’ll miss Smith’s cool-headed leadership and influence on the field, but they have a couple of strong and experienced contenders in Cameron Munster and Jesse Bromwich to fall back on.
The Storm will take the field this year with the best pack of forwards in the competition, the bench with the most impact, and the number one spine in the game. They also have enough threats in their back line to capitalise on the work done up front, and quality depth in most key positions to get them through the season.
Of course, the Storm won’t have it all their own way, and they’ll need to overcome some pretty good teams if they plan to go back to back, so who will challenge them this year? My predicted top eight is as follows.
You’ve got to go back a fair way to find a premiership won by a team outside the top four so only Souths, the Roosters and Penrith have a realistic chance of taking the trophy off the Storm. Let’s look at their credentials.
I expect them to be the big improvers on last year and provide the only realistic challenge to the Storm. Wayne Bennett knows what it takes, they have a great spine whether Latrell Mitchell or Corey Allan plays at the back, and a much improved pack of forwards aided by the recruitment of Jai Arrow and Jacob Host. I like the look of Souths and expect them to win another premiership soon, but their best chance will come in 2022 if Bellamy leaves Melbourne.
Once again, they’ll be very competitive, but they will not have what it takes to win the games that count. Admittedly, they had a terrible injury run last year but they’re just not the team they were in 2018 and 2019. Their biggest weakness is in the halves, with the halfback position seemingly up for grabs, and Luke Keary looking unconvincing towards the end of last season. With hindsight, the contribution of Cooper Cronk to their back-to-back victories in 2018 and 2019 can’t be overstated. I also expect Boyd Cordner to announce his retirement during the season, and when he goes, a lot of the grit displayed by the Roosters in recent years might just go with him.
Penrith may actually struggle to make the top four this year but at the moment I have them in there just ahead of Canberra and Parramatta. They’ve lost two key forward leaders in James Tamou and Zane Tetevano, their player retention challenge looks to be an ongoing and unsettling issue, Viliame Kikau was exposed in the big games last season, and too much of their success seems to ride on the back of 23-year-old Nathan Cleary. The club also appears to have some ongoing culture and discipline issues that they’ll need to deal with if they hope to win a premiership anytime soon.
So there you have it, the Storm are shaping up as strong as ever for 2021, and with the possible exception of Souths, they don’t appear to have any strong challengers to their back-to-back premiership quest. The Storm may not be everyone’s favourite club, but it’s hard to deny their ongoing success and the high standards they set for themselves.
I can’t see them getting beaten for the premiership this year.