#ORIGIN | Rick's weekly column looks at whether the dead rubber's worth the hassle - and if it is, w...
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The Melbourne Storm is once again on the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to premiership contention and there are obviously three massive reasons as to why they have been so successful. A club that has only missed the preliminary finals twice since 2005, infamously in 2010 and in 2013 when they bowed out in straight sets, is always going to be charted as early-on favourites.
Season 2013 went on like any other year for the Melbourne Storm as they cruised through the opening rounds of the competition, faced a problematic mid season as Origin took its toll before gearing up for the finals over the final six weeks of the competition. If history had repeated itself, the Storm would have beat the Rabbitohs to cruise through to another preliminary final but it wasn’t to be this time as former Storm superstar Greg Inglis defeated his former teammates. And what followed next shocked the NRL. The Melbourne Storm faced the Newcastle Knights in a sudden death semi final and lost by two points. The Storm had not bowed out of the finals race that early since the Cowboys beat them in 2005 but like any great club, they are set to bounce back.
Melbourne, like any professional rugby league club, have lost key men in key positions for the upcoming season but most notably at five-eighth. The man who made the #6 jersey his own, Gareth Widdop, moved on to the St. George Illawarra Dragons at the conclusion of last season and veteran playmaker Brett Finch retired, giving coach Craig Bellamy something to mull over at pre-season training. While recent recruits Ben Roberts and Joel Romelo could play alongside halfback Cooper Cronk, it is Ben Hampton who has been touted as the replacement and long-term succession plan for the Mexicans.
And while the Storm have lost some very good players, they have also gained some good players - none more documented that the signature of ginormous gorgeous George Rose. The hulk of a man was picked up from Manly, has dropped 8kg and looks set to become an asset after a stellar performance in Melbourne’s recent trial against the Canberra Raiders.
Where they can win it?
The forwards. This season is going to heavily depend on how the Storm roll forward, especially after being criticised for their lack of mobility in previous seasons. Their pack is getting more and more experienced as the years go by but this year could be a key year for players like second rowers Kevin Proctor and Tohu Harris.
These two have not been in the game long but they have been playing consistent football ever since their debuts and now the question is can they go up a gear? Feeding off hooker Cam Smith is one thing but playing at the line with Cooper Cronk is another.
Veteran Ryan Hoffman has always been able to run off of Cronk, bursting through the line to score or make solid metres to get them on the front foot, a pet play the Storm have been using. In recent times however the ageing body of Hoffman has slowed this process down but now there is two new strike weapons. In trials the Storm used both Proctor and Harris in a Hoffman role, on both sides of the ruck with Proctor even scoring the first try bursting through the line. Things are looking bright for the Storm’s mobile forward pack and mix that through with players like the Bromwich brothers, Rose, Hoffman and Hinchcliffe the Storm will be dangerous.
Where they may struggle?
Age is but a number, unless you play sport for a living. As the years go by the players age and it is becoming clear that some are slowing down. Cronk, Smith and fullback Billy Slater are all into there 30’s now and look like they are beginning to slow down.
Last season the Storm just looked worn down, tired and just not themselves. While the punishing 26 round season does not help their cause, the added pressure of Origin and rep duty does not do them any favours. The big three are considered the Melbourne Storm’s saving grace but I feel that their commitments across representative teams and the Storm is having a major problem for the club. This highlights the forwards need to dominate more and that maybe it is time for a fresh face to stand up and take charge down south.
Cameron Smith will again be the match winner for the Storm as his undeniable control around the ruck adds to the grinding formula that works so well. He is able to control the game to his tempo, almost acting like a gear box as to how fast the Storm go, and it is no question that he is the best player in the team. A lot of the work that he does without question goes unnoticed and this is why he is easily Melbourne’s match winner.
Rookies to watch
It has been documented across various news outlets the Queensland Cup recruit fullback Cameron Munster will be the new face of the Melbourne, if he can live up to the hype. He is being hailed as the next Billy Slater and Craig Bellamy even extended his contract until 2017 plus his salary has increased by $100,000; all before he even touches a ball in first grade.
It is unclear just when Munster will get his go in the NRL (likely to come during Origin) but can this kid live up the expectations already on him?
1. Billy Slater, 2. Matt Duffie, 3. Will Chambers, 4. Sisa Waqa, 5. Justin O’Neill, 6. Ben Hampton, 7. Cooper Cronk, 8. Jesse Bromwich, 9. Cameron Smith, 10. Bryan Norrie, 11. Kevin Proctor, 12. Ryan Hoffman, 13. Ryan Hinchcliffe
Interchange: 14. George Rose, 15. Tohu Harris, 16. Kenny Bromwich, 17. Jordan McLean