The Death Of A Grand Final

As this season progressed the more certain I became of the outcome: Melbourne and Penrith – the dominant and most exhilarating teams of the past two years – to again take their rightful places in the Grand Final.

This article was originally going to be about that game. And what a game it promised to be. Penrith hell-bent on revenge and Melbourne seeking back-to-back titles that would establish them as one of the great outfits of all time.

We now know that game will not take place. In sport, as with world events, things can change very quickly.

In the compelling documentary Oswald’s Ghost an historian asks: “How could someone as inconsequential as Lee Harvey Oswald have killed someone as consequential as John F. Kennedy?”

JFK’s motorcade departed Love Field Airport at 11.55pm CST on November 22, 1963. The youthful smiling President of the United States and his popular endearing wife in their Lincoln open convertible cruised the streets of Dallas. The route was lined with adoring families and office workers; tantalisingly close to the most powerful man in the world. At 12.30pm amateur film footage – probably the most famous in history – shows Kennedy emerging from behind a street sign in distress from a sniper’s bullet through the neck. Seconds later, another removes the top of his head. By mid-afternoon there was a new President.

A fortnight ago, without warning and against the odds, Wayne Bennett delivered a bullet to the throat of the Panthers’ premiership hopes. The shot wasn’t fatal, not yet. Last Saturday, bleeding out and gasping for breath, they managed to hold out a gallant Parramatta.

By sending Penrith to Storm’s side of the draw Bennett’s masterful ambush also ended the prospect of there being the grand final that many expected, and wanted most.

And this is not to denigrate a grand final containing South Sydney or Manly. The resurrection of Des Hasler, the only current coach with a winning record against Bellamy, has been a wonderful story and Bennett has again shown his ability to change the course of events. A grand final involving either of these two eccentric masters and their tough resilient teams will be great viewing.

But love them or hate them, Melbourne and Penrith are special.

There are striking similarities between Penrith of 2020 and Melbourne of 2006; precocious youngsters who came from nowhere to win the Minor Premiership only to be beaten by almost the same margin (Panthers by 6, Storm by 7) in nail-biting grand finals.

Their success is a testament to the importance of player development rather than star recruitment. There is the famous photo of the boyish Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk at the Norths Devils and more recently the one of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai together in their junior Panthers days. Penrith have cultivated their Western nursey and Storm have always found fertile ground in Queensland and on Sydney’s NRL garbage tips.

They are wonderful teams to watch in attack and defence and the players appear to have a genuine affection for each other and their club. At the Storm the glowing tributes are from new arrivals (Reimis Smith: “The move to Melbourne has been the best decision of my life”) those re-signing (Papenhuyzen: “I’m excited and pumped because I love everything about this club.”) and those leaving (Addo-Carr: “I’m super blessed to be a part of this team and this organisation. They’ve changed my life around and it’s a special journey I’ve been on”).

The stories and changing fortunes of these two teams throughout this regular season was succinctly documented by Jamie Soward in his Power Rankings for NRL.com. South Sydney, Parramatta and later Manly would hover over proceedings but essentially it was about the Big Two.

At the beginning, Soward had Melbourne tentatively at number one and Penrith at two. After Storm’s tight losses in Round 2 and 3 to Parramatta and the Panthers he swapped the numbers but he was really just nit-picking: “The only thing that will stop Penrith is themselves..” and on Melbourne: “What a performance, what a club… they’re on another grand final collision course with Penrith”.

With a comparatively easy first half to the draw the Panthers purred along. A defining moment came in Round 14 when the Storm finally knocked them off the top of the ladder after consecutive losses without their Origin players. And Soward had this to say of Melbourne: “Clinical, so professional. They get the job done; it doesn’t matter who they’re playing. This is a side that understands who they are. I think the Panthers are looking over their shoulder a little bit now and realising that Melbourne might be their kryptonite”.  

But in another twist Melbourne begin to show signs of fatigue as they approach the all-time record of consecutive wins, and lose to Parramatta for a second time.  

With the fortuitous late season recruitment of Pangai Jr. and the return of Cleary and To’o from injury, and Fisher-Harris from leave, the vibe from the Panthers changes. Soward announces : “This is Penrith’s time now. It’s been Melbourne all year, but looking at the Panthers, they’ve got a bee in their bonnet. They’re fresh, they’re young – they might be ready to go.” On Melbourne: “A bit less confident in the Storm than I have been all year. Josh Addo-Carr has a hamstring injury and there are doubts about Cameron Munster’s fitness.”

And yet a week later the Storm demolish a confident Manly in their Qualifying Final: “The first week of the finals showed that you’re the champs until you’re the champs no more.. the Storm reaffirmed their standing as the best team in the competition”. And on the Rabbitoh’s ambush of Penrith: “I think this is the lowest I’ve had Penrith in the past two years. Really disappointed with what they showed.”

Throughout the year the premiership betting markets had Penrith and Melbourne as clear favourites on near equal footing but after the Panthers’ Qualifying Final loss suddenly the odds changed. On Wednesday the Storm were at $1.80 and the Panthers at $5.00, just 50c from the encroaching Rabbitohs.

Finals are often referred to as “a different competition”. If that is true, should they even exist as the defining moment of the original competition? Surely the best team, even with the inconsistencies of the regular season draw and the influence of injuries, luck and that  mystifying phenomenon known as ‘form’, is the minor premier.

But, of course, the allure of the Grand Final is unquestionable because it reduces the test as to who is the best to a single 80-minute contest.

In the great ones it can come down to the final seconds. Please excuse the digression but when the final siren of the 2015 Grand Final between Brisbane and North Queensland sounded the Broncos were ahead 16-12. The records tell us they lost 16-17. What happened in the final moments that cost them the premiership?

There was Thurston receiving a tired pass from Granville that could easily have been knocked on, he looks to go down the blindside but turns back to the middle. Adam Blair tries to end it with a brutal hit but overreaches. McCullough gets his hands to Thurston but is shrugged off and can only watch as the helmeted maestro sends Morgan on a diagonal run that draws several defenders and with a backhand offload puts Feldt over the try line as the siren struggles to be heard above the screams of joy and despair. Thurston’s missed conversion added further status to this legendary game but the overriding image was the one of poor Ben Hunt bowed and on his haunches after dropping the Golden Point kick off. He knows it’s all over and that he’s cost his team the premiership (and remember he had also given away a late penalty and had been stripped of the ball, which led to the Cowboys’ final try).

At that moment he was probably hoping there was a sniper lurking in the upper tiers of ANZ Stadium who would put him out of his misery.

As the other Cowboys players celebrated the error James Tamou, in a touching gesture, lent down to offer him some comfort.

It’s a shame Melbourne and Penrith won’t have the opportunity to provide such a grand final. Let’s hope their preliminary final comes close. Up against a refreshed and full-strength Storm, a ruthless attacking and defensive juggernaut with the greatest points differential in history, the weary looking Panthers are in the cross-hairs. 

With all the talk recently of Ivan Cleary’s unenviable record of having coached the second most games without a premiership it hasn’t been mentioned that as the Warriors coach he engineered two devastating finals losses for the Storm when they were minor premiers. The first was the 2008 Qualifying Final when his eighth placed team scored the match winning try with 2 minutes remaining, forcing the Storm into a do-or-die semi-final with Brisbane. Melbourne snatched that in what is one of the all-time great matches but a Grand Final mauling at the hands of Manly awaited them. The second was the 2011 Preliminary Final.

Melbourne appears to be cruising along the road to successive titles but perhaps on Saturday afternoon Cleary can deliver a fatal headshot of his own.

Crow

Driving home in the spring twilight. Through the window came the fragrant exhilarating air that stimulates birds into mating frenzies and fatal mistakes.

I’d just seen two noisy miners dipping dangerously close to the front of my car when suddenly I had to brake.  

There was a build up in the right lane which was not unusual in this strip of commercial businesses.

But I realised it wasn’t a turning car holding up the line when I saw one  veer almost to the opposite side to avoid something. The queue began to inch forward and then I saw the reason:-

Not even the crow, the smartest of all the species, is immune to misjudgement during this silly season.

Large and magnificent, but crippled – shimmering wings useless and its feet dragging – it was hauling itself across to the centre of the road, its white luminous eye staring, its beak opening and closing in pain and shock. Does intelligence give it the capacity to hope against fate?

I was approaching and wanting to help as he reached a narrow painted traffic island – a refuge of sorts – but as I drew up beside and looked down, he died.

The next day he was just paste and a tattered wing. A week later there wasn’t even a stain to mark his last desperate act.

Is the Storm in decline and does the game want them dead?

These are strange times. The pandemic, while ushering in fear and uncertainty, has also had a hand in fomenting unrest.

Grievances are taking hold. Revenge for perceived injustice and past emasculation is being exacted.

Revolt is in the air, even in rugby league.

But let’s go back twenty two years to the night of Friday 3 April 1998 when the story of the Melbourne Storm really began.

The undefeated Storm had to wait until round 4 before they got to play their first home game at Olympic Park that drew more than a passing interest from the 20,500 AFL-bred Melburnians who turned up.

The down market venue struggled to get thousands in on time and when they did many were forced to sit it out on the edge of the athletics track surrounding the playing field.

They kept returning because the Storm kept winning. The opposition, with the startled expressions of exotic wildlife at a wet market, would stumble out into the screeching vocals of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and the mist and the frost and the booing.

Olympic Park came to be known as The Graveyard. But a graveyard is a quiet resting place for the departed. This crumbling concrete and corrugated iron roofed amphitheatre in a rugby league backwater was a slaughterhouse.

In an article I wrote on The Thrilla In Manila, one of the great heavyweights fights of all time between Ali and Frazier, a Roar respondent said he knew someone, seated behind Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, who was spattered with blood and saliva from the bout whose mesmerising brutality summoned the sad decline of both fighters.

None of the novices in the Olympic Park crowd were covered in blood and saliva but the sound of the impacts during that first game left a lasting impression.

Taking the hard hits in rugby league

Melbourne’s response to their team shouldn’t have come as a surprise, really. Four years earlier across the road at the MCG a world record league crowd of over 87,000 attended the second State of Origin clash.

During that match Peter Sterling expressed the pride of traditional league fans at the response to their game in AFL land when he said to fellow commentator Ray Warren: “Gets the heart pumping doesn’t it Ray?”.

I believe in the two decades since that pride has turned to resentment.

On the competition’s return from the shutdown the rules were suddenly changed. The Peoples Chairman Peter V’Landys claimed he was responding to fan polls calling for a more attacking game. The reasons given were based on enhanced aesthetics and, to be fair, on viewing the game there is some validity to that.

However, I believe the prime reason for the sudden change to a single referee and the six again rule is testament to the greatness of the Melbourne Storm. They had to change the rules to bring down an empire.
And I’m sure it was hoped that their fellow superpower, the similarly defence oriented Roosters, would crumble beside them.

And on the back of a recommendation and dossier by a certain former club chairman, a vehement critic of the Storm, the NRL commissioned a report on the ‘blight’ of wrestling in the game.

The results failed to back up those assumptions. It found less than 10% of tackles and 4% of play-the-balls involved any form of wrestling and that no club performed such tackles more than any other.

To further assuage the traditionalists, V’Landys ignored the success of the Melbourne Storm and its contribution to the game when discussing the location of a new team: “No good spending a lot of money in rusted-on AFL states. You want to go to the states that have the population that loves the game.”

You won’t find supporters who love the game more than those who follow the Storm Pete. The membership numbers and the game and television audiences are proof of that.

The only rust here was on the old Olympic Park turnstiles which ushered in a new compelling era for your game. They have since been replaced by electronic ones and the Storm fans continue to pass through.

There has been evidence of a decline. It looked like the party was over just three years in after the departure of players and inaugural coach Chris Anderson. They failed to make the finals in 2001, and in 2002 when the  laconic teenager Cameron Smith turned up.

The following year saw the arrival of a coach, who had learned under the greatest at the time, and a little punk called Billy Slater.

Then, in 2014, everything aligned with the recruitment of another boyishly named nobody in Cooper Cronk.

A trio of Queensland youngsters whose abilities and superhuman work ethics would forever haunt the rest of the competition, but especially the club that let them by.

Four consecutive grand final appearances, three consecutive minor premierships and two premierships followed before THAT day arrived 22 April 2010 when David Gallop announced THOSE penalties for systematic breaches of the salary cap of 3.7 million over 5 years.

The erroneous assumption that Gallop and many understandably angry fans made at the time was that the Storm had ‘bought’ themselves success. Now while this isn’t an excuse for the rorting, they didn’t – and still haven’t – bought any star players during the Bellamy era.

Even after the departures of Cronk and Slater the club looked inwards. It didn’t work out for Brodie Croft so they turned to a fullback Jahrome Hughes who has slowly but surely become a potent number seven. And Slater’s replacement, the sinewy “third string” Tigers reject, Ryan Papenhuysen will most likely be making his Origin debut after only one full NRL season.

As Bellamy has lamented from the start, the club is outside the game’s heartland and is forced into luring youngsters and rejects from there and turning them into champions only to see the other clubs come poaching, and yet it doesn’t receive any compensation or salary cap concessions.

The team’s dominance was seen to be due to the fortuitous recruitment and illegal retention of the Big Four.

The first major victim of the salary cap scandal was the great Greg Inglis who went on to help the Rabbitohs win a title with his former Storm assistant Michael Maquire as coach. Then one of the great half backs of the modern era left … for love, but in so doing helped another club win consecutive premierships. Then the greatest fullback of all time retired to a chorus of boos and abuse.

One recent TV skit by Nathan Hindmarsh and Bryan Fletcher, a time-travel piece, opens with:-

The year is 2060… and Cameron Smith [cut to an image of a grey haired and bearded Storm captain] is playing his 63rd [actually it would be his 59th] season for the Melbourne Storm”. We then see three versions of Hindmarsh – a current day, a middle aged, and a sickly elderly one – seated together on a couch. One of them picks up the remote and asks: “Time for some league boys?”. One replies: “As long it’s not a rerun of the 2009 Grand Final.” Another mutters: “F…ing Melbourne Storm!” and the third follows with: “F…ing cheating bastards!”

It’s been a running gag among his contemporaries since Hindmarsh’s retirement that the 330 game Parramatta great failed to win a premiership. Despite his good natured response to the jibes (and the fact that Parramatta are now officially cheats also), the aforementioned 2009 Grand Final loss to a team later found to be rorting the salary cap must burn deeply.

Although witty and lighthearted the skit expresses the exasperation, if not underlying contempt, for the way the Storm have achieved their seemingly never ending success. Also significant is its identification of Smith, the greatest player of all time according to Andrew Johns, as the lynch-pin of the club’s modern reign.

Most supporters would gladly have the family pet Cavoodle put down if it would get Cameron Smith to their club yet they still view him as the embodiment of arrogance, sly diplomacy and questionable morality.

In response to the incessant booing before, during and after his final game in the 2018 grand final loss to the Roosters, Billy Slater could have been excused for replying: “You’ve just won the competition, with the help of our great former halfback, and one of the greatest players of all time is retiring and will no longer cause you palpitations playing against your club and State, so give me some respect you lousy b——s!”

Instead, realising the nature of fan passion, Slater responded with: “If Wally Lewis can cop boos, I’ll be OK with it.”
I think many in the media have also had a gutful of the Storm.
There are at least two journalists who regularly ooze contempt for the club. It began with the salary cap and the use of wrestling and the supposed “dark arts of jiu jitsu” and now focuses on Cameron Smith’s influence on referees.
And however hard he may try, Greg Alexander (“Was there a Storm hand in there, I think there was …. surely that was a Melbourne forward pass!”) just can’t hide his bias against the team.

Phil Gould – with the fearsome features of Jabba The Hutt and the wisdom of Yoda – issues intense monologues on the nature of the game. A former NSW State of Origin winning coach who had witnessed the salary cap rorting and yet still wrote the foreword to Craig Bellamy’s 2013 autobiography Home Truths:-

“Melbourne Storm is everything you want your football team to be. They take kids, develop and nurture them, and turn them into champions. Every club would like to do that.”

These days, however, he has become more critical or simply tired of their influence on the game hence his increasingly unenthusiastic, almost biased, commentary of their matches.

On Jahrome Hughes’ equalising try off an error against the Roosters in Round 8, compare Andrew John’s comments with those of Gould:-

Johns: “They’re just an incredible club. Think of the legends they’ve lost. Other teams lose legends in certain positions and they struggle for years. This club just keeps powering on”.

Gould: “Another fortunate try for the Storm”.

Despite winning the opening games in two of the toughest road trips against Manly and Cronulla, the Storm were disappointing in their Round 3 loss to the then premiership favourites, an impressive Canberra.
Gould had this to say: “They [Storm] are not the side they were. It’s been an incremental decline in them over the years. “I don’t see a premiership in them this year, I don’t even really see a top four”

Incremental decline? They were last year’s minor premiers by three games and a massive points differential and the same two years before that when they won the premiership at a canter. Ten minutes from the 2018 regular season ending it looked they had that minor premiership sewn up too before the Roosters steamrolled Parramatta.

Understandably many were hostile towards the Victorian team on its arrival at a time other clubs were facing extinction or amalgamation.

But many good judges saw the Storm’s entry as a bit of a joke: a band of Super League leftovers and eager youngsters with an ageing decaying former star as captain by the name of Lazarus (but, unlike his namesake, was deemed beyond resurrecting).

Even the locals were sceptical about the club’s prospects. However their success was immediate. Those who had previously been giggling into their Tooheys at the prospect of playing a motley crew thrown together in a pathetic attempt to make the game a national one couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

Suddenly the narrative changed to one of invasion sponsored by News Ltd. It became the story of cultural appropriation of the game.

It’s said the Storm introduced the wrestle. What’s wrong with introducing something? There is strong evidence that Wayne Bennett introduced it but Bellamy perfected it.

Everyone says how great the game was before the Storm became dominant. I don’t agree. Perhaps viewing themselves as outsiders with something to prove they saw the game as a novice might: tackled players wobbling and thrashing about on the ground like suffocating fish in order to milk penalties and stiff-arm cheap-shot tackles.

I believe the game has become more aesthetic. Organised defences and perfectly executed shoulder on shoulder, shoulder on hip tackles.

And has it really been an empire? Four premierships (two stripped) from eight grand finals. Went very close in 2006 and 2016. Were never in it in 2008 and 2018. Didn’t make the Big One after winning the minor premierships in 2011 and 2019. Seven minor premierships (three stripped).

But the success of a team can be gauged on its influence on other clubs’ eagerness to import a winning culture. At the start of the season six of the NRL coaches were former Storm assistants.

Also, it doesn’t take long to forget that a player used to be at another club. I watched the Cowboys in one of their games and realised they had four former Storm players in the team. Former premiership players Jordan McLean and Justin O’Neill, Ben Hampton and young star Scott Drinkwater.

When Ryan Papenhuysen kicked that long range drop goal to level the scores against the Roosters there was a chap behind the posts with a towel and water bottle, his head following the ball’s curving trajectory willing it to miss. It was Matt King. The former garbo and Cronulla reserve team bench warmer who the Storm picked up and made a star.

Nick Politis admitted he bought Cooper Cronk to win the competition and to use him – just as he intends to use Sonny Bill Williams – as a coach and mentor after retirement.

Both Luke Keary and James Tedesco have attributed their rise to superstardom to the former Storm orchestrator.

Brisbane, their grand final vanquishers of 2006, have been a rabble ever since against Melbourne. Manly, the great rival of Storm’s modern era, and Cronulla have come and gone as genuine premiership contenders. And that’s no criticism; it’s a tough relentless competition.

So how have Melbourne remained at the pinnacle?

It’s exhausting being at the top. I watch other games and they are rarely at the same intensity as those involving Melbourne. Every side – those on the rise wanting to prove their premiership credentials and those at the bottom with no prospect of a finals berth in the foreseeable future – play at grand final intensity against them.

Titans and Queensland prop Jarrod Wallace recently commented that beating Melbourne in a regular season game back in 2017 was his most memorable victory in club football.

For all his success in league and boxing, Anthony Mundine, by his own admission, remains haunted by the Storm and his mistake in that 1999 Grand Final.

Australian writer Robert Dessaix wrote: “Can there be a more important word than ‘home’ to make your own in the English language? “Love” I suppose, although I wonder sometimes if they might amount to much the same thing”

Virtually no one at the Storm hails from here. For the several New Zealanders it’s at least closer to home than Sydney. They’re closer knit for being outsiders. And with the current forced cohabitation in Queensland it seems, if club footage is anything to go by, they have become even closer.

The necessity of having to create a home for its recruits is shared by Canberra, who have an equally dreadful climate and unwelcome culture for kids spawned on the beaches of Sydney and Queensland.

On the excellent but now defunct all-female host show League Life, Ricky Stuart was asked how difficult it was to attract young players from places like Bondi, Manly and Cronulla to the bureaucratic icy wasteland of the nation’s capital. With his usual surliness Stuart refused to concede the disadvantages of his location and instead repeated: “They’ll play for me!”

Fed up with potential recruits deciding to stay home or back-flipping on deals he came up with the brilliant idea of summoning a squadron of forwards from the north of England used to ordinary weather. I assume he didn’t tell them that despite being half way to Sydney, Canberra is actually colder than Melbourne; or that training in Wigan and Hull during the middle of summer is preferable to training in Canberra in mid winter.

Cameron Munster after a game commented: “We miss Melbourne. That’s our home and we’ll never forget what Victoria has done for us as a club”.

A ‘V’ with the words ‘Our home, Victoria’ now has a permanent place on the front of the jersey. I think that should be a source of pride for the game.

So what are the Storm’s secrets?

All recruits, Brenko Lee being the latest, say the same thing: meticulous preparation, hard work and gaining self belief. And without exception, whether they’ve been at other clubs or believed they were never going to get to play NRL, they mention their pride at being given a Storm jersey.

The great clubs have no diseased segments. Everyone works to the best of their ability (without admitting to themselves they’ve achieved their best) towards the same goal which is success. Successful culture is about winning but it also has the more endearing aspects of mateship and passion. It’s extremely difficult to pull that off, even with a financial advantage which the Storm, being a one city (albeit an AFL one) team, and the Roosters whose board is stacked with business gurus who can legally exploit the third party system, certainly have.

For the Storm, I’m sure the level of success will end, eventually. The one failing so far has been the lack of promotion of Victorian talent to the elite level. Without an AFL style draft this may be the club’s eventual undoing.

Soon they bid farewell to three more players they made into stars, as Josh Addo-Carr, Suliasi Vunivalu and Tino Faasuamaleaui, return home and/or take advantage of their enhanced market values.

After the retirement of Bellamy and Smith will promising youngsters and rejects still travel south in the belief they will be coached by the best?

Whether the changes this club have brought to rugby league are good bad or ugly, or a combination of the three will depend on your perspective. Some judgements will be measured, others will be tainted with envy and resentment, or blind passion for the club.

When the northern border is reopened I wonder if the soon to be completed bronze statues of Cameron Smith and Billy Slater will, as is consistent with the mood of the times, be pulled down by a mob chanting “Cheats and Grubs!” and hurled into the sludge lined shallows of the Yarra River.

Or strung up from the rafters of AAMI Park as a warning to Victorians, who dare to excel at a sport that’s not their own.

I appreciate not everyone wants the Storm dead; rather that they just become an ordinary team, for a little while at least. I can understand that.

To the NRL, I thank you for allowing the great game to take hold down here. I realise it’s been controversial and that for many the experiment has been too successful.

But it has been a compelling time. The story of the Melbourne Storm is one of the great ones in Australian sport.

Published on The Roar

Are the Storm in decline and does the game want them dead?

No one looking good at Maroondah Hospital

Sallow complexions all round thanks to the harsh light rebounding off the cream walls.

There are animal murals (hanging monkeys, lounging zebras, feeding giraffes) for the kids but in outpatients today it’s the elderly couples. Typically, the man is the patient.

Later in the evening it will be teenage boys in moonboots, after jumping drunk from bridges and roofs, laughing loudly at unfunny YouTube clips of drunken yobs jumping from bridges and roofs.

“Mr Cedric Saunter to the colonoscopy room please”. Poor old tubby Cedric with a big bandage on the top of his head and two hearing aids – the men also have the hearing aids – struggles up out of his seat producing a fart (think, bubbling hotpot casserole) and totters off to his appointment led by his doting equally portly wife.

Is it time to go Brodie?

Two years ago the words “A star is born at AAMI Park!” were heard as the gushing accolade for a teenager who in just his second NRL game, coolly as you like, sunk the match winning Golden Point field goal.

That teenager, of course, was Brodie Croft. He only appeared one more time that year wearing the jersey that for 12 seasons had been wrapped around the torso of superstar Cooper Cronk.

Then, in his first official outing as the successor to the great halfback, he produced a near man-of-the-match performance against Leeds in the World Cup Challenge.

And yet after just five games into the season he was gone from the team. An error-riddled Storm found themselves tenth on the ladder and much of it was put down to Croft overplaying his hand, and his lack of structure.

A more subdued and “solid” Croft eventually returned to the team and played in the grand final against his former mentor.

But then after playing the first 22 rounds of this season – just three from the finals – for a team on the verge of the minor premiership, he was dropped again.

As everyone knows, no player makes it at the Melbourne Storm if they don’t put the effort in.

That’s why when Croft heard Bellamy’s media explanation for the decision (“It gave me no pleasure. The kid tries hard”) he knew his time was up.

The star has talent and tries hard, but it’s not enough.

And notice the sad replacement of the word ‘star’ with ‘kid’.

In the final game against the Cowboys when Croft was recalled to “warm the rested Cameron Munster’s No.6 jersey” Gus Gould asked Billy Slater: “What do you make of this young fella Brodie Croft Billy. Still developing?”

And of course it’s not really all about the performances of Croft. It’s also about the rise of a superstar whose ascendancy, it seems, will result in the dimming of the star that shone so briefly at AAMI Park two years ago.

Oh yes, Ryan Papenhuyzen. The skinny “third string” fullback whose plutonium-powered entry on to the big stage (112 avg running metres, over 200 avg running metres as starting fullback, eight tries, 13 linebreaks, 59 tackle busts) has the Wests Tigers reliving the same mortal dread they feel every time they watch another of their bargain priced products Josh Addo-Carr streak down the field.

If his slight frame and disconcerting tendency to bend his neck in tackles don’t prove his undoing, he’s going to get better. Although, other than gaining strength, I don’t see all that much room for improvement.

Exhilarating acceleration and top end speed combined with an impressive cardio capacity, he already has a deft late offload. During his Round 9 dismantling of Parramatta just watch the break he made, with the monster Blake Ferguson bearing down on him, that sent Addo-Carr to the tryline

But what happened to Brodie Croft? That combination of fluency, sleight of hand and bristling confidence exhibited against Leeds has not been seen since.

A linebreak or two, even a brilliant try scoring one, but the underwhelming nature of his tenure brought murmurings from greats like Johnathan Thurston who has been a constant but well meaning critic of both his defensive and playmaking performances, and from the club’s own supporters. I’m reluctant to admit that I called for his axing midseason for Hughes and Papenhuyzen. It has been the right call, but an unfortunate one.

He is strongly built and at the height to nail a large forward around the hips or legs. But if he he isn’t in the perfect position could also be run over, a common scenario this season while defending his tryline; a defensive weakness that his replacement Jahrome Hughes doesn’t appear to share.
He seems timid and uncertain with ball in hand. Often almost just handing it off to the nearest runner while Smith and Cameron Munster run the plays, attack the line and execute the offloads and cutout passes. He would take the planned dutiful kicks on the last tackle and into touch.

Is Cameron Smith part of the problem?

Since Croft’s axing last season Smith clearly imposed himself on the playmaking to the extent that he is now a hooker and a half back. Croft – once an exuberant precocious playmaker exhilarated at the prospect of steering the greatest team of the modern era – has become a mere foot soldier under General Smith.

In an on-ground interview after the Anzac Day clash against the Warriors in which the Storm luckily scraped home, Smith jovially responded to a question about Croft’s match sealing field goal that would have embarrassed the young halfback: “I came across to play the ball and I saw Brodie sprinting across to our left-hand side where Cameron Munster already was. So I turned around and I said, ‘Get over here and kick the field goal!’”

He did but only after it deflected off the upright. His response wasn’t one of euphoria, or even of relief. More, a withering self belief and a little simmering resentment towards his skipper.

He mentioned mid-season about seeking professional advice on confidence issues.

Storm’s partly enforced developmental model provides exciting times for supporters to see players slowly emerge but also to feel stress at the inevitability of losing some to calls from home and big contracts.

The sad fate of Croft has coincided with the inspiring story of Max King. A couple of months ago the forward was withering away in reserve grade for the wooden spooner Titans and now he is a finals player for the Minor Premiers: “Every Game I play I go back and think on everything that has happened and I get a bit emotional. It is crazy how it has happened so quickly and I appreciate every opportunity I have been given”

But back to Croft. Did he exceed expectations too early? Has the pressure of having Cooper Johns and Billy Walters, sons of legends, breathing down his neck and wearing Cronk’s no.7 jersey proven too much?

Ironically, with his confidence shot, what he most needs are some words from his predecessor, one of the mentally toughest players of all time.

Many have said he needs more time, that he is still learning.

But perhaps he just doesn’t fit in this team. The Melbourne Storm may not be for everyone. “Just playing your role” doesn’t suit the natural game of some. It can be stifling and self defeating for a ball playing half

It’s not often mentioned that James Maloney made his NRL debut with the Storm in 2009. I watched that game. Smallish but fast eager and aggressive, I didn’t quite know what to think of him.

In light of the astute recruitment of five eighth Brett Finch and imminent rise of the Victorian raised Englishman Gareth Widdop, he left for the Warriors and it was then that I knew what to think of him.

Two years later he was instrumental in knocking out his former team in a preliminary final and went on to claim a premiership with the Roosters and then to deliver a second reason for Storm to lament a lost recruiting opportunity by denying them a premiership with Cronulla’s historic 2016 grand final victory.

James Maloney is a winner and even more so against the Storm. But at least they helped him be one. On the eve of that 2016 grand final he admitted: “I learnt a lot about footy down there. It was a big part of me going down there”.

Maybe it’s time for you to go too Brodie. Like Maloney, Widdop and Cody Walker before you who moved on to become creative dominant playmakers, and prospered.

If you do, I wish you the best.

But please don’t play well against the Storm; your former mentor has caused it enough grief.

Originally published on THE ROAR

https://www.theroar.com.au/2019/09/14/is-it-time-to-go-brodie/