By STEVE MASCORD
IT’S not unusual for grand finals be contested, and celebrated, in an atmosphere of vindication and even vengeance.
In 2010, multiple St George Illawarra players and their coach made reference to the label of being “chokers” after the club’s first premiership. In 2003, Penrith coach John Lang said “you reward cheap shot merchants” – a reference to the injustices he felt the media had visited upon his son, Martin.
But if any premier in the history of the game could have been a short priced favourite to thumb their noses at the world after winning a title, it was the Melbourne Storm.
Twitter and twitpic were fringe sites used by very few people when this reporter snapped a shot of the Storm celebrating their premiership triumph over Parramatta in the middle of ANZ Stadium hours after the grand final in 2009. A few months later, that piece of silverware and everything they won two years previous were stripped from them for salary cap abuse.
As a group, they were labelled “cheats”. Whatever your theories about what occured, it beggars belief that the majority of the squad knew the minority were getting hidden payments. Yet they all had money thrown at them when they played away, had to compete for nothing and – justly – lost team-mates to other clubs.
I had only one person in the Storm rooms say to me on Sunday night that they hoped they would get credit for this premiership. It was said politely and sincerely, not sarcastically or maliciously.
In the post-match media conference, Stormers Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith called reporters by name, honoured the Courier Mail’s Steve Ricketts by allowing him the final question of his final assignment before retirement, and spoke for 17 minutes, which I’m pretty sure is the longest presser of the season.
In the sheds … well, they invited hundreds of fans, sponsors and members and media into the giant warm-up room. Beer was flowing, families mingled, everyone smiled and the noise could no doubt be heard down the hallway in the rooms of the vanquished.
This is what grand final rooms used to be like – before the Super League War and all the bitterness and rancour that followed.
This was a room which the Dragons locked reporters out of two years ago. Storm players spoke to as many people who wanted to speak to them and posed for as many photos as anyone’s memory card could hold.
You might say: “So should they, they’ve just won a comp”. But that’s not the way things are anymore.
The reason for all this is, clearly, the captain and coach. Craig Bellamy and Cameron Smith are not grudge-holders, mindgame players or in any way Machiavellian. Bellamy is not a manipulator, as so many in his profession are. Smith is not precious or selfish.
Those who dismiss the Storm as soulless have clearly had very little to do with them.
To me, the Storm’s culture is the most distinctive in the entire competition. A driven, expletive-spewing, but completely straight coach and a bunch of players who he has motivated not by pushing their mental or emotional buttons and playing games with them but by leading by example and showing his passion at every turn.
If most coaches are icebergs, Craig Bellamy levitates 100 metres above the water. It’s all there to see – warts and all.
When other coaches fear they are losing their mojo, they do – and their jobs follow soon afterwards. Players sniff weakness and stop responding. When it happened to Bellamy, halfback Cooper Cronk told him to snap out of it because the losses were his – Cronk’s – fault. Does that sound like a souless club to you? Like a flimsy News Limited shopfront?
The Melbourne Storm could have fuelled their campaigns this year and last on a bottomless supply of negativity and bile. Instead, they chose to take the higher ground – and for that they should be universally admired.
Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK
By STEVE MASCORD