On April 22nd last year David Gallop’s tanned and haggard face made an announcement that wiped from the history books the achievements of one of the great rugby league teams of the modern era: the Melbourne Storm.
Storm supporters – outsiders who had been following the Sydney-centric game with an insistent slightly paranoid dread that somehow (through biased refereeing, suspect tribunal decisions, or rule manipulation) their team would be deprived of its deserved glory – had their worst fears realised that day.
Who would have predicted that the man responsible would be the club’s own CEO Brian Waldron?
Gallop had no option, I suppose. And to reinforce the punishment he made the Storm pay for the sins of previous rorters by disallowing retention of its champion team through pay cuts.
Waldron thought he had to retain the champion side through illicit means. He thought wrong. The “big four” – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater , Greg Inglis, and Cooper Cronk – have since said that they were going nowhere and would happily have renegotiated their contracts if they’d known. The role of player agents in fermenting fear among clubs of player departures is a significant one.
Anyone who thinks the Storm’s success was a direct consequence of the rorting is fooling themselves. After Gallop described the details of the rorting he commented: “the team’s results speak for themselves”. The dominant opening performances in 2011 by a salary cap compliant Storm also speak for themselves.
The saddest thing about the whole affair is that Waldron, while tainting the reputation of one of the great sides, has also threatened the grand legacy of one of the great coaches in Craig Bellamy.
Bellamy was the reason for the team’s success. His squads, unlike some today which are a result of desperate attempts to fast track success by purchasing star halves and entire forward packs, were not bought. The only star signing of the Bellamy era has been that of Michael Crocker who was unwanted elsewhere.
Lumbered with a bunch of rejects, youngsters and rouseabouts (like trackwork jockey Billy Slater who drove twenty hours in a bombed out Holden to make a one-off Storm trial; Matt King, the garbo who had previously sat on the interchange bench for the Cronulla reserves; and Jeff Lima, the journeyman plucked from a second tier French competition) he moulded them into a formidable outfit.
Along the way he also lost more quality players than any other team: players like Scott Hill, Matt Orford, Stephen Bell, Matt King, Israel Folau, Jake Webster, David Kidwell, Nathan Friend, James Maloney, Jeremy Smith, Clint Newton, Ben Cross, Antonio Kafusi, Steve Turner, Michael Crocker, Will Chambers, Joseph Tomane, and Dallas Johnson.
Transplanted from country New South Wales and Queensland into the cool climate metropolis of Melbourne, the players have become close-knit and loyal.
It trains harder than any other team as confirmed by every player who has come to it from another club. In 2007 Clint Newton, spurned by Newcastle mid season, couldn’t walk after his first session. Former Canberra veteran Troy Thompson said recently: “It’s probably the hardest pre-season I’ve done in my 14 year career”.
Most NRL players, if asked who they would most like to play under, would answer Craig Bellamy or Wayne Bennett. Interestingly, the esteemed Bennett, who is rated by most as the best coach, wants to coach like Bellamy. Wendell Sailor noted that the Dragons’ culture and style of play had been modelled on the Storm.
It’s not really surprising when you consider Bennett’s awful record against his former assistant. Even in 2006 when the Broncos had the best personnel ( a roster incidentally that today would not be accepted as salary cap compliant) the Storm was the best team. And not just because of the Minor Premiership. Wayne Bennett knew his team couldn’t win the Grand Final playing their natural game. They had to stop the Storm playing theirs. Experience, stolid defence, a tinkle of individual brilliance and inordinate luck won them that match. They were a great team led by a great coach but the spectre of poor refereeing still hovers over the Premiership.
English Super League team Wigan knew they would never get Bellamy so did the next best thing and recruited his assistant Michael Maguire who immediately won them the title.
Then it was Parramatta, realising their culture stunk, who snapped up Bellamy’s main assistant Stephen Kearney. In a sad irony for his former club, Kearney is planning to shop in the Storm supermarket. You can’t blame him really, considering he helped develop products like Adam Blair and Matt Duffie.
The salary cap scandal reignited the contempt felt towards a club without a league culture, whose survival was guaranteed by News Ltd. and whose launch coincided with the death of traditional teams. Ridiculed in its inaugural year, a band of Super League leftovers, and fading, jaded superstars won the Premiership the following season. In its twelve years of existence, it has made the finals on ten occasions.
It appears the Storm has not been forgiven for its existence or its success. And the resentment has been simmering. As Humbert Humbert said: “The poison was in the wound you see. And the wound never healed”
Fans of the Raiders, the first team to be found guilty of salary cap rorting in 1991, abused Storm players and then wrote on blogs and to newspapers describing the “arrogance” of Storm players for celebrating tries.
Some sections of the Sydney media showed a keeness for fomenting the hatred with some appallingly biased coverage. A sports editor of a Sydney daily, in a rant describing the pride shown by the Storm in the first game after the scandal broke as sickening, belittled Matt Duffie, the teenage debutant, for running over to congratulate a teammate for a try-saving tackle.
Some commentators absurdly likened the Storm (a team that won ten of the eighteen games in which it was ineligible for points, and whose players were not implicated) to baseball’s Chicago Black Sox, the infamous team who threw matches in the 1919 World Series.
Many opposition supporters also took the opportunity to advertise their contempt for Storm’s “plain mechanical and boring” playing style.
Boring? The Storm has invigorated the game, melding the wrestle and gang tackle of union, and the pinpoint kicking and overhead marking of AFL, with the exhilarating passing and running of league. The NRL highlights package of the past four years is dominated by it: Israel Folau’s grand ‘speccy’ in his first game, Greg Inglis fending off a Manly winger while tip toeing along the side line in the 2007 Grand Final, Cooper Cronk’s no-look pass to Billy Slater who waltzes around three Dragons’ defenders to score.
The most satisfying highlight for the many Storm players who have found themselves in Melbourne after being rejected by other clubs, was Brett Finch’s superbly weighted pass – right there for his ex coach Daniel Anderson to see – that put Ryan Hoffman through for the first try of the 2009 Grand Final.
It hasn’t all been vitriol emanating from Sydney though: “I’m a die hard Sharkies supporter but I’m heartbroken for every single Storm fan. I hope that they can find it in their heart to keep supporting their club and fight for the future of the Melbourne Storm. I know if it was my club, I would.”
The Daily Telegraph‘s “50 reasons to be excited about the 2011 NRL season” didn’t include Storm’s re-entry into the competition. It should have because Craig Bellamy, with his dimunitive “big three” and a new bunch of rejects and youngsters, has begun his second crusade.
He has nothing to prove, of course. Despite what the history books say.