RLW Season Preview: MELBOURNE STORM

Melbourne - logoBy STEVE MASCORD
WHEN you’ve climbed Everest twice only to be kicked off the peak and told you never got there in the first place, the mental application required to scale to summit again is not inconsiderable.
But if you were to beat the odds and get back there, how does one then motivate oneself – standing at basecamp in February – to repeat the gut-wrenching journey?
Those who doubted the Storm’s ability to defend their 2012 premiership would have been reassured by a surprise 40-8 pasting by Canberra at Simmonds Stadium in Geelong on February 8. Melbourne may be a success machine, but even machines break.
But the Storm’s mercilessly thorough preparation and conquest of the World Club Challenge against Leeds a couple of weeks later gave no hint of faulty nuts, bolts or moving parts.
Here was a campaign so impressive that it led Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington to declare Craig Bellamy’s men had – wait for it – managed to “restore the reputation of Australian sport in this country”!
“Obviously Australian sport has come in for some criticism in recent times following the investigations in their country into professional sport and since our last meeting with Melbourne, they too have been through some tough times,” Hetherington said, in reference to the 2007 and 2009 premierships which are no longer in the club trophy room.
“However, I think the conduct of the Storm squad during their visit has gone a long way to restore the reputation of Australian sport in this country.
“…following the match, the Melbourne players put their celebrations on hold to go around the crowd to sign autographs and pose for photos with Leeds supporters. We have received messages since, especially from parents of youngsters, who were overjoyed and will no doubt be inspired after meeting players like Cameron Smith and Billy Slater who they only get to read about or see on television.”
But what did the WCC, coming after a pre-season 28-4 win over Brisbane Easts and the Geelong disaster, tell us about how the premiers will play this year? It told us that despite the hopes of the other 15 premiership coaches, not much will change.
“There are a couple of new players in our team, obviously,” Bellamy tells League Week, “so we’ve got to make sure we use their strengths in a constructive way.
“We’ll change a little bit but there’ll be no radical changes to the way we play. There’ll be a couple of subtle changes to try and take advantage of the strengths of some of our new players in the squad.”
Second rower Ryan Hoffman says the secret to repeating last year’s feats is to not think about them but rather concentrate on the process.
“First thing’s first,” he said, adding that the trip to England was the biggest difference between the 2012 pre-season and 2013.
“When you come over for the World Club Challenge, it does disrupt your preparation. They’re just obstacles you have to overcome.
“It’s a long way to come and not put in a good performance. We had two great weeks of training, really enjoyed each others’ company and we got a great win.
“We just play what’s in front of us. We had quite a poor performance against Canberra before we came over. We wanted to give ourselves the best chance of winning and that’s what we did – through our preparation.”
With Sika Manu gone and Kevin Proctor injured, the WCC also helped Bellamy uncover a new back rower in 21-year-old Tohu Harris, who was discovered by the late recruitment manager Darren Bell. Harris finished off a flashy movement to scored a crucial second-half try in the 18-14 win over Leeds and seems to have nailed down a starting berth for the early rounds of the season.
Winger Sisa Waqa may not be so lucky, with Kiwi international Matt Duffie hoping to return in the next week or two and the Fijian’s performance at Headingley a little untidy.
“We had a good chance when Billy (Slater) came around and put Sisa away,” said Bellamy.“And Sisa gave the ball away. We could have nearly put it to bed then. If he’d hung onto the ball, we might have scored off that next play or in that set.
“We did that a couple of times. Sisa gave the ball away when he kicked it….”
But after becoming the Harlem Globetrotters of rugby league in their 2010 “lost season”, Melbourne have found a blend that suits them and scares their opponents. Speaking before the WCC, Leeds coach Brian McDermott said they were more predictable than 2011 champions Manly but harder to stop.
You might look at their stars as glamorous mountaineers and their recycled veteran forwards as mere sherpas but it doesn’t matter to them.
The summit awaits.

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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