Melbourne Storm: 2018 season preview

RealSport previews the Melbourne Storm, to see whether they will defend their premiership from last season, which was won comprehensively.

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Picture Credit: Mark Ehr

Overview

Although there is minimal doubt that the Storm will feature in the finals for yet another season, there are major questions which confront them for the 2018 season. Those questions are whether they will successfully defend their crown, and how they will fare with the long-serving Cooper Cronk departing the club after 13 years. 

However, Cronk is not the only loss that the Storm has undergone. The likes of key forwards Slade Griffin, Tohu Harris, and Jordan McLean have all departed over the summer. The difference in this department is that the respective voids are filled by such acquisitions as Patrick Kaufusi, Sam Kasiano and former Storm player Ryan Hoffman (for the second time). 

Given the obvious strength of the Storm line-up in both the backs and forwards, especially with the likes of stalwarts Cameron Smith and Billy Slater in their ranks, one can expect the Storm to be up there yet again, especially with super coach Craig Bellamy at the helm. It is well known that Bellamy will do everything in his power to keep his charges honest. 

The spotlight will be focused on the halves pairing of Cameron Munster and youngster Brodie Croft, to see how they perform without Cronk to guide either of them. 

Moreover, irrespective of how formidable this team is, the fact remains that no team has achieved consecutive premierships since the Brisbane Broncos side of the early 1990s. This means there is even greater pressure on the Storm to accomplish such a feat. 

The new faces

The Storm will welcome back the well regarded Ryan Hoffman for the second time, after his stint across the Tasman with the New Zealand Warriors, thereby adding strength to their already formidable forward pack.

Moreover, they welcome the likes of young gun Patrick Kaufusi from the North Queensland Cowboys, as well as Sam Kasiano from the Canterbury Bulldogs. By all reports, Kasiano has shed some of the weight he has been carrying and is, therefore, cutting a leaner figure. However, by no means does this mean he has lost his strength. It simply means he is in better shape to make the required metres for his new team. As such these two additions help bolster an already formidable pack. 

In addition, the sons of league legends Matthew Johns and Kevin Walters (Cooper Johns and Billy Walters) will be joining the Storm ranks. Undoubtedly, it will be very interesting to see how these two perform, and whether they carry their respective families’ legacies. 

The arrival of Sandor Earl is an interesting one, with the Storm keen to help the troubled star resurrect his troubled career, given his previous four-year drugs suspension. Unfortunately, he has suffered an ACL injury, meaning his comeback will be further delayed.

Gains: Sandor Earl (N/A), Ryan Hoffman (New Zealand Warriors), Cooper Johns (N/A), Sam Kasiano (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Patrick Kaufusi (North Queensland Cowboys), Kayleb Milne (rugby union), Ryan Papenhuyzen (Wests Tigers), Junior Ratuvu (N/A), Lachlan Timms (N/A), Billy Walters (N/A)

The departed

The arrivals of Hoffman, Kasiano and Kaufusi have been necessary to offset the departures of premiership winning trio, Jordan McLean, Slade Griffin and Tohu Harris to the Cowboys, Newcastle Knights and Warriors, respectively. This means that the Storm has lost some key players, all of who possess the experience of winning a premiership. Another experienced forward, Nate Myles, has decided to call time on his playing career. 

The other losses include various fringe players, in what can be described as a win-win situation for both parties. This is given that these players would have been unlikely to see regular NRL game time (given the conspicuous strength of the Storm line-up), they have an opportunity to attain playing experience with other teams. For the Storm, it frees up some space in their salary cap.

Losses: Jesse Arthars (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Dean Britt (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Cooper Cronk (Sydney Roosters), Charlie Galo (released), Slade Griffin (Newcastle Knights), Tohu Harris (New Zealand Warriors), Jeremy Hawkins (released), Vincent Leuluai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jordan McLean (North Queensland Cowboys), Nate Myles (retired), Mark Nicholls (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Robbie Rochow (Wests Tigers), Jake Turpin (Brisbane Broncos)

Predicted line-up

1 Billy Slater 10 Tim Glasby
2 Suliasi Vunivalu 11 Felise Kaufusi
3 Curtis Scott 12 Ryan Hoffman
4 Will Chambers 13 Dale Finucane
5 Josh Addo-Carr
6 Cameron Munster 14 Brandon Smith
7 Brodie Croft 15 Sam Kasiano
8 Jesse Bromwich 16 Kenny Bromwich
9 Cameron Smith 17 Nelson Asofa-Solomona

Key players

Billy Slater

In what could potentially be his final year with the club and as an NRL player (having signed a one year extension), Slater will be keen to repeat his 2017 feat, in which he returned to his absolute best form en route to a premiership over his boyhood team, the Cowboys, winning the Clive Churchill medal in the process. In addition, he helped Queensland win State of Origin last year, as well as significantly contributing to Australia’s Rugby League World Cup victory on home soil. 

It is well known that Slater is extremely difficult to contain, especially when on song. Moreover, he demonstrated last season that he is still playing as though he were in his early 20s, despite being 33 years of age. Given the departure of Cronk, it will be very interesting to see whether his potency in attack remains the same.

Cameron Smith

Smith needs absolutely no introduction, being the captain of the Storm, Queensland and Australia. 2017 was the year of all years for Smith, given he won the Dally-M player of the year award, led his side to a comprehensive and well-deserved premiership victory, led his beloved Queensland to yet another State of Origin series victory, won the Golden Boot award as the best player in the world, and to top it all off, captained Australia to World Cup victory on home soil.

Smith’s leadership skills and tireless work rate is very well known. He has been a workhorse since his debut in 2002, and given how indefatigable he is, there is little doubt that he will be doing the same again this season. However, given the well-publicized departure of Cronk, who has been a vital member of the Storm spine for over a decade, it will be interesting to see whether any part of his game changes.

Cameron Munster

Munster has performed at the highest level since he acted as Billy Slater’s deputy at fullback for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He would the make the switch to five-eighth in 2017, upon Slater’s return to the squad. This is a position in which he would fill with aplomb, as he would contribute greatly to the Storm’s dominance over the 2017 season, with their spine being largely responsible. As such he was duly rewarded with a debut for the Maroons in the deciding State of Origin match, as well as a place in Australia’s World Cup squad. Moreover, he would emerge a winner on both fronts, with Queensland winning the State of Origin series, and Australia emerging victorious in the World Cup.

However, a substantial amount of eyes will be focused on Munster for this season, given he will be paired with a new halves partner, after Cronk’s high profile departure. As such, while he will no doubt leave no stone unturned, it will be very interesting to see how he performs as the more senior player of the halves combination. Moreover, this is an even greater opportunity for Munster to take on a leadership and more senior role.

Brodie Croft

Although Croft has only featured in 5 NRL appearances, he was resigned by the club for a further 3 years as a long-term replacement for Cooper Cronk. It proved to be impeccable timing, given Cronk’s departure to the Sydney Roosters. Some of his appearances justify his contract extension, given his golden point heroics over the Cowboys at home, as well as his hat-trick and 2 try assists in the Storms’ thrashing of the Knights away. 

Although these were impressive feats, he will undoubtedly need to produce this across an entire season, as a vast majority of eyes will be focused on him, given the calibre of the player he will be replacing. As such, Croft has enormous shoes to fill, and it is unlikely they will be completely filled at season’s end. However, he has a high calibre of players who will support him to the end.

Key fixtures

Round 1 vs Canterbury Bulldogs at Perth Stadium

The Storm opens their title defence against the Bulldogs at the newly opened Perth Stadium. They will be up against a new-look Bulldogs team, led by a new coach, one of their club legends in Dean Pay. Moreover, new recruit Sam Kasiano will be eager to rip into his old teammates, and the feeling is very likely to be mutual towards him from the Doggies as well. 

Round 3 vs North Queensland Cowboys at AAMI Park

Here we have the first installment of the 2017 grand final rematch to be played in Melbourne, with the return leg to be played in Townsville in round 12. However, this is the match in which the Cowboys will travel to the southern capital, eager to exact revenge on their heavy defeat in the decider. One can also bet that the Storm will be eager to assert their overall dominance over the men from Townsville, and further remind them of why they were such worthy premiers. 

Round 7 vs Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium

This is one rivalry between two of the competition’s heavyweights, which attracts an abundance of interest from the supporters of the respective teams. The Brisbane Broncos will be very keen to rip into the Storm after being destroyed in the preliminary finals last year, and they have the opportunity to do just that in front of their passionate fans. Having said that, the Storm are just about the only team who have a dominant overall record over the Broncos. Moreover, the Storm hold absolutely no fears about travelling to Suncorp Stadium, having experienced an abundance of success at the venue. Adding spice to this already fiery rivalry is the rivalry between Broncos coach Wayne Bennett and his former protégé, Storm coach Craig Bellamy.

Round 16 vs Sydney Roosters at Adelaide Oval

This fixture is the mother of all key fixtures for the Storm this season, which can also be described as somewhat of a grudge match for the Storm. The reason being is that they are up against another of their main premiership rivals in the Sydney Roosters. The Roosters won the race for the signature of former Storm halfback Cooper Cronk. Although this match is based in Adelaide and is classed as a home game for the chooks, the Storm have a multitude of supporters in Adelaide. Moreover, although Cronk had long secured legendary status during his long tenure at the Storm, there are many Storm supporters who are somewhat unhappy of his choice of destination, and thus it will be interesting to see the type of reception he receives from the Storm faithful. In addition, his former teammates are sure to want to rip into him.

2018 prediction

2017 was one of the most dominant seasons (if not the most dominant) for the Storm in their relatively short history. It saw them lose only four matches en route to a convincing minor premiership finish. Their finals run saw them account for the Parramatta Eels, destroy the Broncos and the Cowboys en route to their premiership victory. 

When you look at the line-up of the Storm, you can almost guarantee that they will be challenging for a top-4 finish at the very least. However, this will be a very different season without star halfback Cooper Cronk, with young halves Munster and Croft charged with leading the team around the park. 

The Storm will to their absolute best to defend their title, but without Cronk calling the shots in the all-important halfback position, they are more likely to fall short of successfully defending their crown. More than good enough to finish 3rd or 4th.

How do you think the Melbourne Storm will fare in 2018? Let us know in the comments and poll below.

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