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Storm warning: We’re sleeping on Melbourne again – they might be the biggest threat to the Panthers

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3rd April, 2024
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Remember the Melbourne Storm? Nasty bunch, no mates, everyone wanted them to lose, ruining rugby league.

Oh wait, that’s not them.

Now, they’re fun, a rollicking laugh-a-minute bunch of acrobats, heartwarming tales and comeback stories, led by a grouchy but loveable coach going for one last shot at the crown.

It’s amazing how public perceptions change when you don’t win all the time.

Now, the media market is built on hot takes slagging the Panthers, even though a team filled with local juniors, coached by a father and captained by the son is the sort of 1970s bush footy aesthetic that the old timers who dominate talk shows used to say they wanted.

Prior to that, the Storm dominated through tough, hard-nosed footy built on defence and culture and all the stuff that, yes, the same old timers said they wanted but didn’t actually like when it came in Victorian form.

Back then, the problem was wrestling, as if Melbourne invented it when actually, they were just better at it, which is the point.

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It’s funny really, because the Storm haven’t actually been like that for years.

They’re actually one of the most attacking sides in the comp and have excelled in adapting to the faster era, ironic given they were perhaps the chief architects of the slower era beforehand.

It’s like when Brazil won the World Cups playing what was, fundamentally, quite defensive football, but everyone lauded them because they wore bright kits and, if you squinted, looked like the team with Pele and Garrincha in it.

The difference in Melbourne’s attacking style, as we should see this Thursday night when they take on the Broncos at AAMI Park, is that they fundamentally still rely on individuals rather than patterns.

That isn’t to say they don’t have set styles – or that other teams don’t have individuals, of course – but rather than the dynamic within the team remains focussed on getting the ball to their most creative players and letting them take it from there.

Both Melbourne and the Broncos aim for sustainable results across 27 rounds, but have wildly different ways of insulating themselves from the unpredictabilities of rugby league.

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On the Broncos side, it’s done on the field through established strategies that everyone understands and can adapt to.

Reece Walsh might be out, but Tristan Sailor knows all the patterns and can slot in relatively easily. He might not be as good, but he can do a good impression.

 (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

For the Storm, it’s about building a high floor on the roster that allows Bellamy to chop and change the bulk of his squad without it making too much difference.

That means that all but, essentially, four players are interchangeable, and within that four, only a few of them actually need to be on the field at one time.

The other 13 squad members are trusted to be good enough collectively to keep the opposition score down, creating the opportunities for the entrusted few to win the moments that ultimately win the game.

That isn’t always possible, and you see the difference.

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When Melbourne were without Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes in the last game, away at Newcastle, they were notably hamstrung.

Their replacements, Tyran Wishart and Jonah Pezet, weren’t quite up to the task – how could they be? – and struggled, meaning that even though the Storm conceded just twice, they couldn’t convert into points of their own and thus lost.

Last year, when two of the key four of Munster, Hughes, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Harry Grant were out, they lost to the Bulldogs and Titans, but with at least three, they won 75% of fixtures.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 24: Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm tackled by Bradman Best of the Knights during the round three NRL match between Newcastle Knights and Melbourne Storm at McDonald Jones Stadium, on March 24, 2024, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

Ryan Papenhuyzen is tackled by Bradman Best. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

Their average game in 2024 thus far would end 16.66 to 13.33 in their favour – which is good – and shows just how defensively strong they are regardless of who is there to attack.

It’s also noticeable that in their first game, the 8-0 win over the Panthers, they scored just once, and that was off a kick. The elite weren’t there but the defence was good enough to keep them in it.

With Munster and Hughes back on deck, Papenhuyzen properly fit for the first time in years and Grant now elevated to captain, all four elite players are available.

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Melbourne have a tendency to fly under the radar because they aren’t in the media bubble that Brisbane or any of the Sydney clubs are, and because they’re rarely that interesting to report on.

It’s nobody’s job to write about Melbourne in the way that is the case for the Broncos, Souths, Roosters or Panthers. The Storm say little, control their communications superbly and rarely have scandals.

The culture, built over decades, is basically bulletproof at this point. They’re competent beyond belief, which is great for them but generally quite bad copy.

When they were winning all the time, it was easy to paint them as the evil empire and, because they were always winning, they had to be written about.

Now, it’s a little easier for the Storm to fly under the radar, which is exactly how they like it.

But don’t be fooled: just because nothing much is happening publically doesn’t mean that nothing is happening at all.

By the end of the weekend, they could be top of the ladder with their best spine on deck, rested after a bye and having already played (and potentially beaten) the other three of last year’s top four.

Three of their next five are at home, with trips to the Roosters and Titans the away fixtures and, before their next bye ahead of Origin 1, there’s only that trip to Allianz and a tough fixture at Brookvale Oval in which they won’t be nailed on favourites.

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Melbourne are 2-1 with a bye and we’re sleeping. If they’re 8-3 or more by then, as you might expect them to be, nobody will be able to ignore the Storm anymore.

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