NEWS Limited’s rugby league general manager Dennis Watt, standing amid the celebrations in the Melbourne Storm grand final dressing rooms, called it “one of the greatest turnarounds and comebacks in the history of Australian sport”.
Around him, Melbourne Storm players are posing for photos, sipping beer, doing interviews and spending time with loved ones. Three years previously, the scene had been the same. Like last Sunday, the players had taken the trophy out to the centre of the field, formed a circle, sung the club song.
But we all know what happened after that.
In many ways, the Storm’s 14-4 grand final triumph last Sunday did more than prove they in all likelihood would have won the 2009 titles without cheating. Because overcoming the stripping of two premierships to win again three years later is a bigger achievement, logically, than winning those titles in the first place.
It’s a hurdle to be overcome that wasn’t there before.
“We were all down about what happened a few years ago. It was a tough period, don’t get me wrong,” says captain Cameron Smith.
“It was an extremely tough period, to get through that. But I think you’ve got to look at the way we went about our business in 2011 and 2012 and you can see we didn’t look back. We were looking forwards.
“We were on game short of a grand final last year. We were bitterly disappointed with the way we finished last year. That sat with us for a few weeks but this year it’s been all about 2012, making sure this squad will be the best football squad it can be and, you know, it’s paid off.”
This year featured the well-documented late-season slump – five losses in a row and six from seven. Elsewhere in this magazine, you’ll read how Cooper Cronk snapped coach Craig Bellamy out of a serious bout of self-doubt as the losses piled up.
“We started this year really well,” hooker Smith reflects “We were flying. We were a few games clear of anyone else. But we’ve had so many ups and downs with our footy this year, particularly after State of Origin. But to put ourselves in that position, which we did last week … to get into the grand final and perform the way we have, it is great.”
Asked if he believed his team could win another grand final again so quickly, Bellamy said: “”I believe it now” While others can afford to have a broad-brush perspective on how far the Storm have come, the coach never allowed himself the luxury.
“Week-in, week-out was what drove me,” the coach explains. “As I said, and I’ve said it before, I can’t too far ahead. I haven’t got much of a memory to think too far behind. I just stick to what I need to do this week. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these guys are the ones who have got us to where we are.\
“They’re the ones who have believed in the club and they’re the ones who have worked just so hard to get us back to where we are now.
“I’d never really thought about it but when you do think about it now, it’s been one hell of an effort.”
The coach has never been one to use the phrase “Big Three”. He calls Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Smith “key position players”.
Smith sings from the same hymn sheet. “It’s not about individuals or a group of players,” he says. It’s about making this team what it is. It’s about the 17 who went out there and that’s what we’ve done the last eight weeks – go out there and play as team.”
But as he sifted through the match-winning plays on grand final day, Bellamy mused: “That’s what those players do. They keep coming up with the big plays.
“That might be why they’re called the big three.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK