By STEVE MASCORD
SOMEWHERE in the bowels of AAMI Park, beyond the carpeted players’ race and below the state-of-the-art gym and plush recovery pools, is a fountain of youth.
You could wander around down there for hours and not find it. But it’s there – just ask Jason Ryles, Bryan Norrie, Jaiman Lowe and Adam Woolnough.
All of them were ready for retirement when the Storm showed an interest in them – and all of them extended their careers not just as first graders but as leading forwards.
So Rugby League Week sought to find out what’s so special about the Melbourne Storm, the NRL’s unofficial props department.
“You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a prop at the Melbourne Storm,” says Robbie Kearns, who played, who held up the club’s front row from 1998 to 2005, by way of explanation.
Kearns himself was a fringe first grader when he left Cronulla for the Perth Reds in 1997. He became an international in Perth and a State of Origin regular in Melbourne.
It’s a career trajectory he has not just observed from close quarters since, but helped in his role as props’ coach at the club.
“At some clubs, being a front rower can be complicated,” he says.
“There are a lot of ruck plays. Let’s be fair, there aren’t many front rowers who can go out there and set up plays and do things like that.”
Storm coach Craig Bellamy simplifies the role of a prop – but then expects every detail of the job description to be met, or else.
“The job is simple,” says Kearns. “Run as hard as you can with the ball without any sense of self-preservation and win the ruck, get up and play it quickly.
“If you can offload, that’s a bonus. Craig will tell you exactly where and when you should try to do that and where and when you shouldn’t.”
Bellamy also makes it easy – if that’s the word for it – for front rowers in defence. “Because you’re defending at A, B or – at the very widest – C defender, there’s not a lot of space.
“There’re not a lot of decisions to be made. But in defence, your job is to win the tackle, it’s to have good line-speed and it’s to get back into position quickly.
“There are things he wants you to do off the ball as well but, as I said, it’s not rocket science.”
Woolnough retired from rugby league at the end of the 2009 season but made an unlikely comeback with the Storm in 2011.
“I was looking at the stats for a Storm game the other night – for Brisbane, Ben Hannant got well over 100 metres and some Storm players ran for less than 100,” Woolnough says.
“Craig Bellamy wouldn’t be concerned. It’s not about you at the Melbourne Storm. It’s about doing your job for the team. He’s not worried about your stats, how many metres you run,
“It’s the little things that concern him.”
The other factor in why props thrive in Melbourne is summed up by two words: “Cameron” and “Smith”. The Storm, Queensland and Australian captain engages defences from hooker in a way very few others can.
“I was happy to retire at the end of 2011,” says Ryles, “but when the opportunity to come down here came up, it was the chance to play with some of these guys that was the attraction.
“I’ve been lucky, I’ve been well-coached before. I wouldn’t say I was ever confused about my role.
“But someone like Cameron, he seems a good player from a distance but up close he’s even better.”
Kearns stresses that forwards coach David Kidwell is more involved than him, the club’s corporate ambassador compiles a report card on each prop each week and sits through video of games with Ryles, Jesse Bromwich, Siosia Vave, Junior Moors and Bryan Norrie.
“Craig is the most thorough coach I’ve had,” Ryles continues. “He is on top of everything you do, with and without the ball, and doesn’t let you get into bad habits.”
The third reason the fountain of youth is at AAMI Park and not elsewhere? “The pre-season is just ridiculous!” says Woolnough.
Kearns: “We always say: no-one trains harder in the pre-season than the Melbourne Storm
“You look at someone like Bryan Norrie. He was going to play park footy, his NRL career was over. I think he would agree he had not reached his potential at the other clubs he had been to.
“He had trouble with his knees. He had not been able to finish pre-season training at other clubs and had gone into seasons underdone.
“In Melbourne, there was a specialised training program for him. He was able to get the best out of himself and start a season full of beans.
“We don’t just do rehab, we do pre-hab – treating injuries before you have them. Me, I’d rather wait til I get them but I’m old school.”
Some of the props who have left the Storm have struggled to maintain their standards. But the rise of Jesse Bromwich to Test status is proof that it’s not just the old and partially infirm who can benefit from bathing in that hidden fountain.
“You can learn a lot from the game from Craig Bellamy,” says Woolnough. “Not just about running into brick walls all the time.
“Even though, unfortunately, that is what he wants you to do.”
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK