The old line about Rugby League in Australia was that it was a professional sport run by amateurs.
While there is certainly more expertise around these days in general, in my view only the Melbourne Storm can be said to be truly professional of all the 16 clubs.
This season highlights that more than ever.
I can’t remember an NRL season where nine rounds out from the finals we’ve known with 90 percent certainty that the year’s premier will be out of just two clubs: the Penrith Panthers or the Melbourne Storm.
Only a bizarre twist ending – of the like experienced by Steven Bradbury at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games – could see the Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sea Eagles or Eels lift the Provan-Summons Trophy in October.
And you can literally and figuratively draw a line through the other ten sides right now. You could have done it eight weeks ago.
The Panthers have been steadily building to this point. They’ve worked hard to assemble this side that is strong, fast, fit, focused and talented. There were very few who didn’t expect them to be leading contenders this season. Pound for pound they are the most complete side in the NRL right now.
However, in spite of the overwhelming evidence provided by the 18 years of the Melbourne Storm being consistently competitive under the stewardship of Craig Bellamy, so many of us somewhere in our brains expected that the passing of Cam Smith from the ranks of the Purple Horde would see them be numbered amongst the “also rans” in season 2021.
This logic was based on the theory that Smith was the last behemoth from their super era still playing and it was he that was binding what was surely now a motley and less talented assortment together and driving them towards victory through the sheer force of his will and through his incredible footballing brain, talent and leadership.
Their 2020 triumph is still seen by many as the Panthers choking on the big stage, rather than being a fully-fledged Storm triumph. That’s a bizarre concept when the half time score in that match was 20 nil. However, it seemed bizarre for many that the likes of Brenko Lee, Justin Olam and Jahrome Hughes could now have premiership rings.
This season the side would be relying on Cameron Munster to lead the team around, supported by Dale Finucane, Harry Grant, Hughes, Brandon Smith and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
While talented players, they were hardly seen as being of the calibre of Cam Smith, Cooper Cronk or Billy Slater. Hooker Harry Grant had some wraps on him but was very young, and Brandon “Hectic Cheese” Smith surely didn’t fit the Bellamy mould at all. Surely this was the end of the Storm’s incredible era of consistent competitiveness.
Surely now they would fall away and we could put their 18 seasons of consistent excellence down to the once in an epoch combination of some very special players.
Wrong. So very wrong.
We were all living in a fools paradise informed by blind hope and optimism rather than the clear evidence that was there for all to see.
The Melbourne Storm have lost just two games out of their 16 to be on top of the ladder. Those two losses were by a combined total of just six points. Eleven of their games have been won by 20+ margins. Their average match result this year is a 36.5 – 12.1 victory. At this rate they are on track to score 912 points over the home and away season’s 25 games. The 2001 Parramatta Eels currently hold the record with 839 from 26 games.
In this season’s run of incredible results for the Storm, wunderkind Papenhuyzen has only played six games, Harry Grant boasts just one and Dale Finucane seven. Munster himself has missed four games.
So not only have the Storm been putting their opponents to the sword, they’ve often been doing it without the players we all assumed were essential to their success.
Into the Papenhuyzen void came Nicho Hynes and he has been magnificent. Yet, while other clubs would have fallen over themselves to prioritise his retention, the Storm have seen him sign with the Sharks for 2022. For most clubs that departure would be akin to James Tedesco leaving the Wests Tigers in 2017. But not the Storm.
And what team in their right mind (apologies Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs) would let Dale Finucane go? The lad from Bega has all the skills, leadership and integrity that would see him as an integral player at any club. However, he is yet to be signed for 2022 by the Storm.
What all this shows so very clearly is that the Storm’s ethos of next man up is actually viable. It isn’t just words.
They have continually proven that they can mould virtually any clay and effectively put it into their system.
Time and time again we’ve seen Craig Bellamy take unfashionable players and turn them into Internationals, Origin players and premiership winners.
This year we see ex-Bulldo Reimis Smith scoring nine tries already in the centres. Ex-Eel George Jennings also boasts nine tries from his 14 outings.
Then there are the players who appear from nowhere.
29-year-old Chris Lewis has made 13 appearances after debuting in the NRL with the Storm just last season. 25-year-old Aarons’ Pene and Booth are have similar stories and have played five and four games respectively in 2021. Sunshine Coast lad Trent Loiero is up to four games.
All of these players aren’t just making up the numbers either. They are playing well. And they get better with each appearance.
While everyone has been going berserk about the rule changes destroying the game, the Storm have just got on with the business of winning. Just like they always do.
A few weeks ago I erroneously referred to the Sydney Roosters as being the NRL’s Terminators. But of course, it isn’t the Tri-Colours who perform that role, it is the Storm.
And why? Because the Purple Horde / The Borg / The Storms – whatever you want to call them – are the only truly professionally run club in the National Rugby League. Under the reign of super coach Craig Bellamy they have clear and strict standards in place that everyone in the club must abide by or else leave.
Firstly, you must be fit. There will be no shortcuts tolerated whatsoever. At training, you’d better be busting a gut or you’ll get called out in the worst way possible: non-selection and non-retention.
Secondly, you must be able to tackle one on one. The tackling exercise called “shark bait” highlighted just how intense the expectations are down in Melbourne.
Thirdly, you must know the system and abide by it strictly.
In the NFL the players must memorise lots of plays and know exactly what they are to do when one is called. It is the same for every Storm player. Craig Bellamy has drilled them in regard to how to act and react in any situation: If this happens you will do this, if that happens you will do that. You will never do this. You will carry out your job by doing these things. We will attack like this. We will defend like that.
Added to this, they have deeply analysed each team and their players to inform their game plans down to the finest point: This player steps off this foot. This guy doesn’t defend as well on his right side. This one likes to offload. This guy turns slowly.
Further, they have analysed every rule and worked out how to maximise their advantage in relation to it. They’ve analysed every referee to establish exactly what they can and can’t get away with.
It is all very Sun Tzu and the Art of War: “Know when to fight and when not to fight: avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak. Know how to deceive the enemy: appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak. Know your strengths and weaknesses: if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
And of course, the fourth rule of Storm Club is you do not talk about Storm Club.
The fifth rule of Storm Club, you do not talk about Storm Club.
None of this is brain science or rocket surgery either. It is all pretty straightforward, right? Failing to plan is planning to fail, right?
You’d think so.
However, while Craig Bellamy has clearly displayed this blueprint to anyone paying attention, very few clubs have got very close at all to emulating it for any consistent period, in spite of its proven results.
It’s like Bellamy has the cheat codes and everyone else can see he has them and that they could get them too.
But for some reason they don’t do it.
So while lots of us thought that the set restarts would totally expose the Storm’s reliance on the wrestle to slow the play the ball down, it has just shown that it was but one of the many strings to Craig Bellamy’s bow. His sides ability to defend brilliantly is shown through them only being ranked 12th for penalties conceded. having allowed the least run metres by their opponents this season, the second least missed tackles, as well as superb one on one tackling success. Rather than being hamstrung by the new rules, they have adapted to them faster and better than everyone else.
Of course they have. Their systems and their meticulous planning is tailor made to adapt to exactly such scenarios.
Now, of course, we’ve all seen examples of the Storm regimentation not resulting in ultimate triumph. In 2006 the Broncos jumped them. In 2008 the Sea Eagles flogged them. In 2011 they were beaten by the unpredictable Warriors. In 2016 the Sharks bested them. In 2018 the Roosters outshined them. In 2019 the Raiders surprised them.
Bellamy will be painfully aware of all of these incidences. But he’ll also remember well the successes of 2007, 2009, 2012, 2017 and 2020.
While the Storm may not ultimately prevail in season 2021, their achievement can leave no doubt as to them being the NRL’s most professionally run club.