At the time of its conception the Melbourne Storm was deemed – and some still subscribe to this notion – to be a heartless moneyed construct in a city indifferent to the game of rugby league.
Two years ago when Cameron Smith was agonising over a multi-million dollar offer from the Broncos, the club who let the laconic and seemingly unexceptionable teenager pass by a decade earlier, his wife Barbara, knowing the decision was dragging on and dragging him down, sat him down to ask a key question.
It was the question the Storm faithful – passionate followers who had been there from the beginning – hadn’t dared ask lest they have their hearts broken.
The question went something like this: “Cameron, I know it’s a lot of money, I know you grew up in Brisbane, I know our families still live there, but what decision feels right for you?”
“To stay. This is our home now”, was the reply.
It was an exhilarating answer for the fans who despite the success knew that many previous players – the majority of who were cast-offs from Queensland and NSW – hadn’t really called Melbourne home. They were here only to prove they were worthy NRL players.
The coach too found himself in the southern outpost, not for family, coffee or “culture”, but to escape his mentor at Brisbane whose influence had become a shadow, and to create his own dynasty.
But once he had done that and St George Illawarra came calling he found he wasn’t capable of leaving: “The emotional attachment is very strong, especially with the players. I found that attachment too hard to break to be quite honest. I feel like a bit of a fan, I suppose. This is my club”, he said.
According to Matty Johns, this great team was inadvertently spawned by Brisbane when four men (the Big Four of Bellamy, Smith, Slater and Cronk) arrived at the Storm, spurned, neglected or ignored by the mighty Broncos, and made great by their desire to prove them wrong.
Most of its young players have followed the lead of their coach and captain and now consider Melbourne home. Teenage prodigies, like Cameron Munster and Curtis Scott, were prepared to leave the security of home to learn under Bellamy, Smith Slater and Cronk.
A Storm is the perfect image for a team that has instilled fear in a competition for the decade and half of its existence. Storms at their most extreme are scarier and have caused a lot more death and destruction than the powerful animals that many teams use as their mascots.
The German military with its Storm Troopers and Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was adept at instilling fear in opposition with references to the power of nature.
And like a screaming Stuka the Storm arrived in 1998 releasing its payload on to the established order of rugby league, winning a premiership in just its second year in one of the code’s most dramatic and exhilarating grand finals in a competition where a ninety-two year old foundation club hadn’t won one for seventy-seven years.
Based in a city ridiculed for its climate, weather was always going to play a part in the Melbourne club’s identity. But it’s not entirely appropriate. It drizzles here mainly. The real storms occur to the north in the game’s traditional home.
Also, blitzkrieg has never really been their style. From day one they have been patient and relentless. They never give up and are rarely stitched up which is why their 40-0 grand final drubbing at the hands of Manly is so sweetly savoured by many opposition supporters.
Bellamy’s great sides were more like the Russians than the Germans at Stalingrad. Unperturbed by the numbers and talent in front of them they defended ruthlessly and cleverly . Tiring the enemy, surrounding them and cutting the supply lines, they would send snipers like Slater and Inglis to pick them apart.
The 1999 premiership came after a Qualifying Final thrashing, and surviving the Semi and the Preliminary Finals by a mere two points.
And in the Grand Final, against their first final nemesis St George Illawarra, they were on the verge of an insurmountable second half 2-20 deficit when Anthony Mundine – who had been issuing Ali-esque taunts to the Storm throughout the week – failed to live up to his mentor’s ability to back up his words and lost the ball over the try line.
Watching that game now, seventeen years on, it’s easier to see clearly and understand what happened next. The Dragons’ disappointment at not burying Melbourne morphing into doubt and finally panic as the Storm kept coming, culminating in the penalty try that would sink them.
If you thought Melburnians didn’t care for their artificial construct, think again. Six hundred thousand of them watched that game on television and for those who travelled to Sydney to be part of the world record crowd at Telstra Stadium it was an experience that still lingers.
One of them going by the name of Sportymale commented on You Tube: “Why do I still get nervous and goose bumps every time I watch this? As a 16 year old sitting in the nosebleeds of the stand that is no longer there, it was one of the best days of my life.”
Contrary to popular belief the Storm gets significant media attention. With almost daily articles in The Age and Herald Sun it surpasses even Collingwood, the biggest sporting club in the land, for coverage.
AFL supporters on the street are always enquiring after them.
Understandably the salary cap breaches have left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. There are opposition supporters still screaming “cheats!”, six years on from the event, probably as much from sheer exasperation that a football team without a league culture has continued to be a major force – as from distaste over the morality of the breaches.
The wrestle whinging continues but Bellamy (with his great rival Des Hasler) has helped change the game for the better. The ruck and tackles have the power and intensity of rugby, players kick and mark the ball with the technique and dexterity of their AFL counterparts, and forwards goose step, sidestep and offload.
More significantly defences have become so highly structured, relentless and brutal that it takes either a penalty or something special to score a try. Hence the exhilarating rise of athletic, acrobatic wingers and centres the size of forwards.
Last Saturday, a decade after their first minor premiership – with Inglis long gone and Slater absent – they won another. Afterwards, an incredulous Paul Kent on Fox’s NRL 360 asked: “How have they managed to do it?”
Hate them for their corporate beginnings, for their playing style, for the salary cap breaches, and even for where they come from, but don’t pretend these words from the great Phil Gould aren’t true:-
“Melbourne Storm is everything you want your football team to be. They take kids, develop and nurture them, and turn them into champions. They turn the team into a champion team , and the club into a champion club. Every club would like to do that. Every supporter would love to have a team like the Melbourne Storm”.
Hail to the Storm.
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.
When Muhammad Ali surprised George Foreman with a powerful right in the opening seconds of their famous Rumble in the Jungle, Norman Mailer described the sound as “the unmistakable thwomp of a high-powered punch. The sound of a bat thunking into a watermelon.”
That was the type of noise I heard on the day I wandered over to Olympic Park for Melbourne Storm’s first ever home game in 1998; an intrigued observer only, but aware of the disloyalty being shown to my childhood football code of Australian Rules.
The slap and thud of wingers colliding on the near edge was what first drew my attention.
But then from the middle came another sound – deeper and more complex, brought to me by the south-westerlies that were allowed free entry into that open-ended stadium: the noise of two props colliding at speed.
It was the sound of a carcass being reduced to bonemeal.
For me it was a turning point. The game I had previously seen only occasionally on television and dismissed as too ground-based, congested and low-scoring had become something more exhilarating.
It was like boxing because there was nowhere to hide. Players couldn’t pass the ball fifty metres backwards when they didn’t like what they saw in front of them.
There was the option to offload but more often than not they took a brutal hit to retain possession.
They become a legitimate target for impact.
Boxing, of course, is at a higher, awful level. It is fighting, with gloves – a more skilled and patient version of what thugs do to each other on the streets with knuckledusters.
The head, deemed sacrosanct in all other mainstream contact sports, is the prized target.
Ali’s scorching hit on Foreman brought cries of expectation and then a hush from the crowd, as people struggled with contradictory impulses: exhilaration at the spectacle of condoned violence, reverence for the talent of Ali, and concern for Foreman.
For some, there was also the guilt of being there – complicit in the brutality.
Fuifui Moimoi’s massive frontal assault on Brett White in the 2009 grand final drew varied responses.
From caller Ray Warren, it was disbelief: “I can’t believe he got up!” Phil Gould, a renowned lover of big hits, yelled out with glee: “Ah yes! Yes, yes… yes yes yes Mr Moimoi! Get that into you!”
All while White’s partner watched in horror as her beloved’s head rocked back and his eyeballs disappeared from view. I couldn’t believe he got up either, or held onto the ball as it bobbed in the hands while his brain realigned itself.
That was the compelling but troubling highlight for me. The ability to continue the task while the brain was traumatised.
Earlier in the same game, Dallas Johnson (not for the first time) was concussed, when he fell into a another tackle by the rampaging Moimoi, copping the swinging Popyeye-ish forearm on the jaw.
Johnson didn’t move immediately after Moimoi, and second tackler Todd Lowrie had extricated themselves.
Then, with unnatural instinct, (the natural one was to stay down) he slowly got to his feet and methodically and correctly played the ball.
Only when this was done, did the effects of a temporarily damaged brain take hold and Johnson stumbled sideways.
Sometime later, Peter Sterling commented: “The trainers are signalling to the sideline that Johnson’s no good.” They
wanted him to come off. He didn’t.
These big men are built like the massive metal cars of the 1950s that were near indestructible on the outside in a
collision, but destroyed anything inside.
Post-mortem studies in the United States of the brains of ex-NFL players are now revealing the extent of the damage that goes on inside.
The crowd naturally feels protective of the children playing the game at half-time. They shouldn’t. Their young bodies are built for impact.
Like the cars of their era, they are flexible, absorbing and then repelling the shock.
Our sympathies should lie with the halves, the little men who draw traffic from props looking for an easy way through.
Boxing weight divisions, in increments of two to three kilograms, are enforced to avoid giving fighters free rein to annihilate lighter ones.
So you can appreciate the toll that is taken when a league halfback is hit by a mass 20kgs heavier than his own.
Followers of other sports probably dismiss league as mindless and brutal. But even with the truly brutal sports like bullfighting and boxing, there is intelligence and artistry too.
There are magicians like Inglis, Slater and Thurston whose artistry is illuminated by the suffering going on around them.
I still follow Aussie Rules, the game I played and grew up with, but when given the choice of watching that or the “stupid brutal business” of rugby league, I choose the latter.