SUNDAY SPECIALS | Two tight tussles for NRL Sunday - Melbourne Storm and Canberra Raiders flexing th...
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TEAM MELBOURNE STORM
COACH Craig Bellamy
CAPTAIN Stephen Kearney
BACKS As the Storm, enter their 7th season (can you believe it?s been that long already?) they have the most talent and depth in their backline ever. It starts at halfback with one of 2003?s stars Matt Orford who proved his class as a playmaker and organizer leading the Storm to a Finals birth. Matt Geyer proved a very effective foil for him at five-eighth, although may shift back to the three-quarter line if Scott Hill starts the season in the #6. Speed is the essence of the Storms makeup out wide and Billy Slater proved he is a merchant of the highest quality. Slater will move to the centres to accommodate Robbie Ross returning at fullback, while Steven Bell should retain his spot along side Slater. Fifita Moala, Steve Turner, Matt King, and Dustin Cooper will fight hard for an open wing birth but it is the arrival of ex-Manly centre Ben MacDougall that threatens their first grade chances. This backline is among the most potent in the NRL.
FORWARDS When the Storm started out they built their success on a huge intimidating forward pack. Things have changed little but the new wave of forwards is gradually pushing out the old firm. Kirk Reynoldson, Peter Robinson, Dallas Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Glen Turner, Robert Tanielu and Nathan Friend headline the new wave of talent coming through. Young Cameron Smith has taken a further step and already represented Queensland at hooker. But the old firm, still run the show at Olympic Park. Captain Stephen Kearney, Robbie Kearns, Rodney Howe and Danny Williams are key regulars with Kearney and Kearns both still of representative class. Howe is returning from a season-ending injury while Smith?s ability to play the entire game is gradually pushing Williams further down the bench. Kearney and Kearns are the pillars of this Storm pack and they have been consistent performers for years, but their time is winding down and the club will need to be ready when that time comes. Andrew McFadden and Alex Chan are NRL veterans hoping to force their way into the first grade squad.
KEY PLAYER HILL ? As good as Matt Orford was in 2003, he still needs Scott Hill on the field with him if Melbourne hopes to repeat their Finals performance. Hill is one of the classiest ball playing lock/five-eighths when healthy and with the trend towards converting backrowers into pivots getting out of control, he is something to savor. His damaged shoulders have put a major dent in his last few seasons and as a result his usually excellent defence has been poor, if indeed he has recovered the Storm have the best lock in the game and if he?s shifted wider one of the best five-eighths in the business. It is a nice luxury for coach Craig Bellamy to have entering the season, because he saw so little of Hill in 2003.
ONE TO WATCH TURNER ? In the recent past, a few players have had to leave their clubs because there simply wasn?t a first grade future ahead of them. Like Brett Kimmorley, Matt Orford and Clinton Schifcofske who left their clubs in search of genuine first grade opportunities, Steve Turner is hoping that greener pastures await him in Melbourne. With Rhys Wesser standing in his way at Penrith, Turner a natural fullback is looking at solidifying a spot on the wing with the Storm while regular custodian Robbie Ross plays out his career. With Billy Slater primed for a permanent move to the centres, the time seems right for Turner to take the next step into first grade. Storm and NRL fans will like what they see.
BIGGEST ADVANTAGE Olympic Park ? No team likes playing in Melbourne at the best of times, but the small confines of Olympic Park make it even worse. Since the Storm train there, they can adjust to the slippery surface and limited grass areas surrounding the actual field, visiting teams cannot. Until the running track behind the in-goals is actually covered for games at the ground, the Storm has a major advantage in defending short kicking games near their line. No one wants to cut their leg open chasing a kick in a tiny in-goal only to slide onto the unforgiving surface of an Olympic running track. Oh, there is also the rotten Melbourne weather at night, which makes Olympic Park one of the true graveyards of the NRL.
BIGGEST DISADVANTAGE Doubts Over Clubs Future ? Although the Storm have one NRL Premiership under their belts from 1998, the club is less than secure in Melbourne. With both the Central and Gold Coasts wanting a team of their own desperately, the pressure increases on the Storm to become a viable outfit both on and off the field. NSC cannot comment on the financial state of the club, but Melbourne must boost their crowd figures and become a genuine rugby league symbol in the AFL heartland. If they cannot make visible improvements in these two vital areas the club could face re-location following 2005. The players, coaching staff, management, and fans deserve to know where the future of their team lies, and the only way to do that is make inroads now. Having a team in Melbourne is important in the national scheme of things, but the Melbourne public may be too AFL obsessed to make it a viable venture.
BOTTOM LINE The Storm have a lot to like on their 2004 roster, and coach Craig Bellamy certainly left an impression on the NRL in his first year. In reality the Storm were very consistent in 2003, but quite a few teams with more talent were not, should consistency find those other sides quickly, the Storm face a mammoth battle to repeat their semi-final finish. The pieces are there for a return to the Finals but it will be much harder to achieve in 2004.
2004 STRONGEST LINEUP 1. R Ross 2. S Turner 3. B McDougall 4. S Bell 5. B Slater 6. M Geyer 7. M Orford 8. R Kearns 9. C Smith 10. R Howe 11. P Robinson 12. S Kearney ? 13. S Hill Bench 14. K Reynoldson 15. A McFadden 16. D Kidwell 17. A Chan
Warrick NICOLSON ========================= Freelance Sports Journalist NICOLSON SPORTS CONSULTANCY Ph: 0402 851 485 Fax: 02 9653 1483 [email protected]