I feel for the Melbourne Storm, I really do. Aside from the obvious connection Parramatta fans have to Melbourne's 2006 plight (being the dominating side for an entire season before falling at the final hurdle), I have watched with great joy the 2006 Melbourne Storm side, who have played a brand of football above and beyond all other teams in the competition.
Melbourne reinvented free flowing attacking football in 2006, almost by necessity. Without a dominating playmaker and with a rookie halfback leading the team, Craig Bellamy needed a way to utilise the Storm's amazing backline players without relying on one man to get them quality ball. His solution has been a pleasure to watch, as Melbourne have brought set piece plays from scrums back to the game, with multiple targets and ways of running these plays to confuse and target the weak spots in defences. They run more second man and wide roaming backline movements than any other team, with plenty of players in motion and each man knowing exactly where he is running, what part of the defence they are exploiting and where the ball will be for them.
With so many men in motion, so many targets to choose from and every player hitting the ball at pace, the Storm backline operated like clockwork, and the points flowed as a result. Cooper Cronk knew where his players would be and just had to make the decision to hit the right man depending on what the defence does when confronted with multiple attackers running gaps close to the line. Many Storm tries were beautiful to watch as elaborate plans unfolded and defences had to be at their very best to shut them down.
Then you have the Storm's individual brilliance, Slater, Inglis and King creating long range tries, the brave plays they made such as the movement leading to their match winning try against the Bulldogs in round 16.
The Storm were the stallions of the 2006 season, beautiful, powerful, well trained and galloping to the finish lengths ahead of the field. No other team came close to their expansive backline and unprecedented teamwork and set plays, they were the stallions, and every other side in the competition were the donkeys trailing well behind.
Brisbane were the top donkey, no doubt. Big, strong, able to pull a huge load, vastly experienced and with plenty of talent. Their forwards were tough workhorses who have carried the load down the final stretch many times, with talented backline players and a world class half leading them around the park. Nobody can deny that on individual talent, Brisbane are the better side.
But they were still a generation behind the Storm. The 2006 grand final saw the venerable old donkey plodding along overtake the young, inexperienced stallion that tripped over itself in the final straight. The old school of football won out over the new breed, but that will not last. Melbourne have nothing but improvement ahead of them, as they explore new territory for rugby league, bringing back the team element as top line players come together in talent, with fewer standout individuals who truly dominate the pack. With an entire off-season ahead of them to work on their running lines, find new ways to isolate defenders, confuse opposing teams and gel even further as a team, it is easy to see them pulling away from the pack, even more than they have this season, unless other NRL teams come along for the ride.
Rugby league teams I believe have reached a peak. There is only so far you can go with quick play the balls, ruck dominance and giving talented individuals room to move with one or two halves directing play around the field. Brisbane were the best example of this old school style of football this year, and it only just got over the first version of this new generation of attacking football when they beat the Storm in the grand final. Melbourne have broken through these boundaries and will be all the better side from this years experience.
Unless opposition teams can reinvent themselves between now and 2007, I see the Storm once again dominating the competition, and I don?t foresee them stumbling in their final stride two years running.
You have been warned, teams of the NRL. The Storm have changed the way rugby league is played. The stallion has found its legs, and will be leaving the donkeys plodding along behind.