FROM a bus driver who slept in to a drug tester who wouldn’t let the Storm do likewise, Melbourne’s campaign to reclaim the final piece of silverware stripped from them has gone anything but smoothly.
When the NRL premiers flew out of Tullamarine on February 11, everything was rosy. Coach Craig Bellamy had come straight from a media conference to announce he was staying at AAMI Park until the end of 2016.
Players has specialised meals for their flight, QF9 via Singapore, and “designated pests” were put on sleep watch to make sure Storm stars dozed at the right time. “Our sports scientists had a system worked out,” said coach Craig Bellamy, “of when they were allowed to sleep and when they weren’t.”
There would likely be no interviews at Heathrow, the club said, because players were being rushed through customs to a waiting coach and onto their four-star Richmond Hotel for the sort of recovery session that normally follows 80 minutes of brutal NRL football.
But with the flight arriving at 5.22am last Tuesday, it was obviously too big an ask for the bus driver who failed to show up. Recovery soon morphed into coffee at the airport Costa outlet, before a fleet of taxis carried the Storm to the Richmond Gate Hotel.
Players were required to stay up all day in order to adjust to the time zone as quickly as possible – but that evening’s sleep was interrupted when Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority swooped for random tests.
“I had the ASADA team knock on my door the first night I was in London,” said fullback Billy Slater. “They got us up and had a bit of a test.”
Two nights later it was Valentines night and the sight of four men going to a West End musical together would have surprised, well, actually, no-one.
“About four of the staff went in to the West End to watch The Bodyguard, actually,” said Bellamy. “I thought it was a great, show
“I like getting to the West End whenever I visit London and hopefully I’ll get another chance before I go home.
“We went early and went for dinner and went to a restaurant and forgot about Valentine’s Day. There were balloons and flowers everywhere.”
Twitter reported halfback Cooper Cronk had a virus but there was no sign of it when he trained with team-mates at picturesque Harrow School last Friday. Football manager Frank Ponissi had only secured the venue, for an opposed session against London Academy, that morning.
This time roadworks, and London’s notorious traffic, made the team bus an hour late. Broncos coach Tony Rea and players Craig Gower, Chris Bailey and Shane Rodney watch as Craig Bellamy conducted a gruelling three-hour session.
Last Sunday, it can be revealed, the Storm should have been lining up against them at The Stoop – where instead a tiny crowd watched the Broncos take on Wakefield. An administrative wrangle meant the premiers sat out a weekend that is vital to the preparation of any NRL side.
“The League put – it wasn’t a share of the gate, it was a big fee on the game,” said former North Sydney hooker Rea.
“It just became – plus costs, plus everything else – something we just couldn’t do.
“Big cities love big ticket events and we just wanted a big ticket event. I hope everyone’s learned from it. I think we lost focus on all levels … the League should have found a way to make it happen.”
In lieu of a proper game, Bellamy organised opposed sessions against the Broncos Academy and Halifax yesterday.
At least the risk of injury was reduced. Slater was prickly when asked about Canberra’s complaints that he pulled out of the All Stars game and yet played in a trial against the Raiders on the same weekend.
“Injury? Which one? What are you talking about?” he said.
“I never said I was injured. I said I’d missed a couple of weeks of training in the pre-season due to injury but the body’s feeling pretty good at the moment.
“It was just due to lack of fitness and lack of time on the training paddock. I know what it takes to play a representative game of football at that level and I certainly wasn’t in any shape, or didn’t have the fitness under my belt, to play a game like that.”
Slater described the criticism from Canberra as “irrelevant”.
Bellamy defended his fullback. “He did the right thing and pulled out three weeks before. He got a week’s training in before our Geelong trial with the Raiders and we just wanted to give him 20 minutes to make sure he was right to come over here.
“I can’t believe they had a whinge about it.”
The Storm’s opponents, Leeds, have had their own problems. The Rhinos lost their second game of the season, 14-12, to Castleford in an epic which saw fullback Zac Hardaker knocked out, centre Brett Delaney suffer a hamstring injury and prop Ryan Bailey hurt his knee.
Bailey, who has a happy knack of getting under the skin of Australian sides, is rated extremely unlikely to play on Friday.
Castleford’s Rangi Chase was suspended for two weeks over his shoulder charge on Hardaker, who played the following week against Salford and promptly broke a finger.
Friday will be the last chance most Storm players will ever get to execute a shoulder charge.
“I’m sure somebody will take the chance to do it,” said Bellamy.
“It will probably be the last chance they get to do it in their careers, unless they come and finish their career over here.”
Back-rower Ryan Hoffman said: “I guess if one or two of the big boys get the chance, they might throw one in.”
It could also be the last stand-alone World Club Challenge game in England.
After years and to-ing and fro-ing, NRL and Super League clubs have agreed to play next year’s game in Australia, before expanding to a six team competition in 2015.
“And we may not play it in Sydney, we may go to a new market like Perth,” says Leeds chief executive Gary Hetherington, who is a on WCC working party with Ian Lenagan, Shane Richardson and Peter Doust.
So what will happen on Friday?
Leeds will be a month into their competition while Melbourne have had one semi-serious hit-out in Geelong.
Former Stormer Jake Webster scored a try for Castleford in the win over Leeds and said: “Leeds are a champion side and they know how to turn it on in big games.
“With the conditions the way they are, I think the change of direction’s going to be a big thing. Rangi took control of that (for us). We were dropping players off non-stop and we seemed to be winning a lot of plays.
“Make ‘em work, turn ‘em inside out. The conditions are going to be very physical. As long as they come ready for that, I can’t really see them getting beaten.”
If the new prospective owners of the Storm – a group of London-based Kiwis – have been at any of their public appearances in the UK, they’ve kept an extremely low profile.
Bellamy revealed upon landing that he had met a member of the consortium – but stressed the meeting played no role in his decision to stay.
“From my own personal point of view, the longer it (negotiations between Bellamy and the Storm) goes on, you get a bit worried,” said utility Brett Finch, who has just returned to the club from Wigan.
“But all the players respected whatever Craig did. He’s earned the right to make his own choice in his own time. We were just really happy he signed on and it was good timing too, just before the trip.”
The WCC has been a poisoned chalice for the Australian champions over the years. Bellamy says “probably two weeks after the grand final” is the best time for it.
“It does disrupt your preparation for round one,” said back rower Ryan Hoffman,
“But they’re just obstacles you have to overcome. I think this is a good way to prepare for the season. We’ve got a really tough start and there’s no better way to get into the swing of it than against a tough team.”
Hoffman play for Wigan in the 2011 WCC against St George Illawarra. “You don’t have the travel and you’re three rounds into your season,” he said.
“It’s just such an enjoyable game. The best thing about playing in it is how much the English fans love it. As an Australian player, coming over and being part of an Australian team, it was great.
“And having all the English fans cheer for you when I was playing for Wigan was fantastic as well.”
Melbourne beat Leeds 18-10 to lift the 2010 World Club Challenge – only to have the title stripped.
It’s possible the Storm will start the NRL season against St George Illawarra, the club Bellamy shunned, with a full set of the trophies that were taken off them and a brand new owner.
That’s if things go according to plan – for a change.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK