NRL 2004 SEASON REVIEWS ? Melbourne

The Melbourne Storm faced another year of having to put up with critics questioning their existence. The long term viability of a team in ?AFL mad? Melbourne remains doubtful, their low home crowds are mocked on a fortnightly basis and the lack of media interest in Melbourne makes you wonder if anyone cares.

However, it?s more about quality than quantity for the fledgling NRL club. They had the worst crowd average in 2004 of 8,882 spectators per game, but those who do turn up are as passionate and vocal as they come. Despite all the supposed disadvantages of attracting NRL players to an AFL city, the Melbourne Storm qualified for yet another finals series in 2004. It was their fifth post season appearance in their seven year history.

The Storm?s 2004 season at a glance looks like a repeat of 2003. In the last two years they have been eliminated in the Semi Finals by their ?bogey? team and now NRL Premiers, the Bulldogs. But that ignores how the Storm actually managed a 22-12 win against the Bulldogs in Round 24 (their first against the Bulldogs in 10 games), and how they continued to affirm themselves as one of the NRL?s most entertaining sides to watch. The Storm have quality players in key positions such as fullback Billy Slater, five-eighth Scott Hill, halfback Matt Orford and hooker Cameron Smith. They also have a smart young coach in Craig Bellamy.

Olympic Park remained a feared venue for opposing teams in 2004, with the Storm enjoying a 9 wins, 3 losses record. The Storm were an outside chance of a top four berth for much of the season, but failed to establish the consistency required to match the competition frontrunners. While the Storm enjoyed emphatic home victories against the likes of the Bulldogs, Penrith and the Dragons, they were humbled on the road by cellar dwellers South Sydney, New Zealand and Manly.

The Storm appeared to be building some handy momentum heading into the finals and their form peaked in a rousing qualifying final victory against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium. After a poor first half and trailing 0-8 at halftime, Hill and Orford sparked a memorable second half comeback with the help of a powerful forward display to get the Storm home 31-14. Melbourne made another slow start against the Bulldogs in Week 2 and there was no recovery this time. The 18-43 loss was a disappointing way for the season to end and the sense of d?j? vu (being thrashed by the Bulldogs in Week 2 again!) was disturbing.

Overall the season held more positives than negatives. Fullback Billy Slater confirmed himself as an excitement machine and crowd favourite. No one will forget his brilliant solo try for Queensland in Origin 2 where he ran on to the Darren Lockyer kick and changed direction, kicked for himself and regathered to score. He also scored length of the field solo tries against the Bulldogs and New Zealand Warriors.

PLAYER OF THE SEASON: While Billy Slater may have scored the most eye catching tries, the architect of the Storm attack was halfback Matt Orford. Orford showed tremendous consistency throughout the season. He has great strength despite his modest height, and his running, passing and kicking game are all class. Orford was rated as the halfback of the year in many quarters. It makes you wonder what he has to do to get a start in State of Origin or with the Kangaroos. The fact that he wasn?t even selected for the Tri-series train on squad raises concerns that he is slipping under the selectors? radar because he plays in Melbourne.

PREDICTION FOR 2005: Captain Stephen Kearney has joined English club Hull after six solid seasons with the Storm. His departure along with the departure of Kirk Reynoldson and Rodney Howe, means that the Storm could be lacking a bit of size in the forwards. New signings Dennis Scott, Ian Donnelly and Jamie Feeney are honest workers but they?ll struggle to have the same impact. The Storm are still in good shape as far as the key positions of fullback, halves and hooker are concerned and as a result should still be a top eight side. But I?m afraid they lack the ?power up front? to win the premiership.

Match Records 2004 ROUND OPPONENT VENUE RESULT SCORE 1 BYE 2 Newcastle Knights Olympic Park LOSS 26-36 3 St.George-Illawarra Dragons Olympic Park WIN 34-6 4 Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium LOSS 26-34 5 Penrith Panthers Penrith Stadium LOSS 26-30 6 South Sydney Rabbitohs Olympic Park WIN 50-4 7 North Queensland Cowboys Olympic Park WIN 28-6 8 New Zealand Warriors Ericsson Stadium LOSS 14-20 9 Cronulla Sharks Olympic Park LOSS 26-36 10 Parramatta Eels Parramatta Stadium WIN 36-16 11 Canberra Raiders Olympic Park WIN 22-18 12 Newcastle Knights Energy Australia Stadium WIN 28-18 13 Wests Tigers Olympic Park WIN 32-24 14 South Sydney Rabbitohs Aussie Stadium LOSS 26-28 15 BYE 16 New Zealand Warriors Olympic Park WIN 42-6 17 Penrith Panthers Olympic Park WIN 66-14 18 Bulldogs The Sydney Showground LOSS 18-25 19 Wests Tigers Leichhardt Oval LOSS 18-32 20 Parramatta Eels Olympic Park WIN 22-16 21 Sydney Roosters Olympic Park LOSS 10-26 22 St.George-Illawarra Dragons WIN Stadium LOSS 10-34 23 Canberra Raiders Canberra Stadium WIN 36-18 24 Bulldogs Olympic Park WIN 22-12 25 Cronulla Sharks Toyota Park WIN 36-28 26 Manly Sea Eagles Brookvale Oval LOSS 28-30 Qualifying Final Brisbane Broncos Suncorp Stadium WIN 31-14 Semi Final Bulldogs Aussie Stadium LOSS 18-43

14 WINS, 12 LOSSES. FOR: 733 AGAINST: 574 POSITION: 6th (Semi Finalists)

Melbourne Storm ? 2005 Player Movement

Gains: Dennis Scott (Bulldogs), Ian Donnelly (Sea Eagles), Jamie Feeney (Bulldogs)

Losses: Stephen Kearney (Hull), Kirk Reynoldson (Knights), Rodney Howe (retired), Dustin Cooper (Knights)

By Michael Allen ? Freelance Journalist