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?

A Tale of Two Cities: A Preview Of The 2018 NRL Grand Final

Many years ago my father was offered a job in Sydney.

No one in the family wanted to go except me, transfixed as I was by the blue harbour, the multi coloured taxis, the vibrant chaos of the place, the light and warmth. The sheer Australianness of it.

Then someone mentioned they didn’t play Aussie rules there. My love and affinity for that game, one I was excelling at, changed my mind. Ironically it’s the Sydney game I follow now.

And tonight, this grand final promises to be one of the code’s great ones.

An NRL official lamented that the Sharks and Rabbitohs weren’t playing because that game would have generated more revenue.

Perhaps, but this game is between the two best sides. The powerhouses (yes, a cold soulless description and the spectre of salary cap rorting and unbridled poaching hangs over the Storm and Roosters respectively) of the competition.

And a contest between the best is what a grand final is about.

The strange thing about successful people in all endeavours is – despite opinions about compromised character and the often awfully selfish means of achieving success – other people are drawn to them. They can’t help watching.

The production designer of the film Death in Brunswick made this poignant remark: “It’s about characters who normally don’t get their stories told. Because they’re losers. And most people are losers you know, in some way or another. That’s a very real thing.”

Us losers will be watching tonight and the runner up technically will be a loser but as Greg Norman once remarked ; ” I’m a winner. I just didn’t win today”.

And failure brings us to Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson.

Bellamy, the player, was there when the Raiders established themselves but was left out of the 1989 premiership side. He was in the 1990 grand final winning team but you wouldn’t know it. Robinson played a mere 4 games at the top level but was always asking questions. Like most great coaches these two, lacking nature’s physical gifts, sought answers.

Their rivalry is in its infancy: 7-4 to Bellamy. I wonder if this game will mark the beginning of a rivalry the equal of the Storm and Broncos; and the Roosters and Rabbitohs.

Robinson had immediate success taking the Roosters from 13th to the premiership in his first year . Bellamy’s rise to greatness (5th, 6th, 6th, minor premiership, premiership) was a more gradual process as he moulded his disparate group of promising youngsters and rejuvenated rejects into a formidable outfit.

In the coach’s box Robinson is, outwardly at least, the most relaxed. He looks like a man who knows he has the players but is focused on how to utilise them. Bellamy – whether the Storm is winning or not – is constantly ill at ease, mumbling to himself, shouting and darting to the back of the stall while his assistants, seemingly unaffected by the antics of their eccentric boss, remain focused on the game.

But they are both thinkers. More importantly their players respect their knowledge ideas and authority. They care for their players and the players play for them.

In an enlightening interview by Peter Sterling in 2016 I learned that Robinson was not your typical NRL coach. Firstly he is a Francophile (“I love France”) after spending time at Toulouse Qlympique as a player and coaching the Catalans Dragons. More importantly he is sensitive and articulate: “Coming home after Monday’s loss you don’t stop thinking about it and then you walk in the door and you see the kids and that light comes back into you a bit”.

You feel he has sacrificed other things of immense interest to him in order to excel at what he does now. “When you become a football coach you narrow your interests. I was a much more interesting guy 10 years ago than I am now.”

With Bellamy you sense he can’t, or wouldn’t, do anything else.

In the week of the preliminary final Bellamy strolled next door to address the Collingwood players before their clash with premiership favourites Richmond. Nathan Buckley acknowledged the generosity of the gesture in view of the Storm’s upcoming match against arch nemesis Cronulla and said the aura that success brings and Bellamy’s message expressing his deceptively simple ethos of hard work (“the harder you work, the luckier you get”) and “playing your role” transfixed his players and was significant in propelling Collingwood into the grand final.

The Storm is a phenomenon. The greatest team of the past decade and more, one of the greatest of all time has not bought a single star player under Bellamy. Over 15 years of sustained success and dominance in a city without an established rugby league culture, an outpost. That must be unprecedented in the history of professional sport.

Bellamy took over what appeared to be a waning unsustainable enterprise – spent from the exhilaration of winning a premiership too early in only their second year in the most memorable and dramatic decider the code had seen.

The Roosters with the formidable business interests and connections of its long term chairman Nick Politis have used what Melbourne CEO Dave Donaghy politely termed “a different model” of recruitment ie attracting potential premiership winning stars with very attractive – but salary cap compliant – third party deals (apparently Cronk was finally lured by an opportunity of studying at Harvard).

But it hasn’t all been about blatant poaching and financial advantage. There have been the hardworking loyal mainstays like Anthony Minichello, Jake Friend. Boyd Cordner Mitch Aubusson… and Mitchell Pearce.

What are the thoughts of Mitchell Pearce with his former team in the grand final? Does he believe he could have got them there without Cronk?

It wasn’t, I’m sure, the intention of the Roosters to be rid of Pearce. They needed the final piece to a Premiership jigsaw – and that was structure, composure, meticulous attention to detail. The instinctive attacking backs “play what was in front of them” but coming up against a defensive fortress like Melbourne where there are rarely any gaps in front of you the dynamics alter. Unsuccessful attacking raids can be as tiring as repeat defensive sets, and more demoralising.

I feel sorry for him. An excellent player often blamed for Origin losses. But he was up against the greatest spine that will ever play the game. Nathan Cleary will never face that.

Cronk is not quite the player he was at the Storm. Whether that’s the absence of Slater sniffing about for a sublime no-look pass, age, the mellowing of temperament that comes with marriage and fatherhood, different coaching strategies or culture we won’t know unless someone asks him for the truth. And would Cronk truthfully respond to the question: What club do you feel more at home at?”

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”

This week Cameron Smith explained: “We’re all from interstate, or from overseas somewhere, all down there together just looking after ourselves”.

“Home” has been a serious issue for the Storm. They’ve been forced to steal youngsters from their beds in the dead of night – the parents and oblivious both to the possibility of their sons leaving them and of the child’s potential for sporting greatness.

Equally significant though has been the resurrection of aging forwards and those deemed plodding hacks by their former clubs.

It’s been unseasonably cold here in Melbourne.

Yes – too cold for too long – even for this town’s drear frigid climate. It’s a place where a Storm fan lies in bed – the window shuddering with the powerful freezing southerlies thinking how long can we keep players brought up in northerly climes.

Prodigies like Curtis Scott, Brandon Smith, Brodie Croft and Scott Drinkwater bunk down together. Instagram and Storm videos show they are mere boys. Bare walls, piles of unwashed clothes. They don’t even know who they are yet. Scott has his framed premiership jersey resting against the bedroom wall. They’re humble and unassuming despite playing in one of the greatest sides of all time and destined for greatness if the dynasty is to continue.

And there is the odd couple (perhaps orchestrated by Bellamy) of Business graduate Christian Welch and North Queensland larrikin Cameron Munster.

For those players with family it has been the presence of wives and young children at the games.

Later with success, some are lured back home for money and to be with family.

Perhaps when more Victorians play at the elite level and miss home the Storm can lure them back like Kenneth Williams was from a hot sojourn in Crete: “I should be glad to get back to my own country… the delight of being able to be cool”

Also the problem of having such dominant figures like Smith, Cronk and Slater means players search elsewhere for greater opportunities and responsibilities.

Gareth Widdop played in the 2012 premiership but I think he felt a bit like Mike Collins during the moon landing. While Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin danced on the lunar surface and were being praised to high heaven by President Nixon poor Mike was stuck in the command module on the other side of the moon. And just as Armstrong was delivering his famous line: “That’s one small step … Mike was heard on the radio asking: “How’s it going’?

On Tuesday night there was the chill factor of Slater’s looming Grand Final suspension and things felt grim.

At 8.45 when news of Slater’s reprieve came through I suddenly found myself in a balmy paradise. One of the great grand final exponents was going to play his last game in the quest for back to back premierships.

Cooper Cronk’s injury – what a horrible thing fate is: a warrior like Cronk – a stationary vulnerable target for late hits from stampeding forwards twenty to thirty kilograms heavier than himself his whole decorated career plays an entire season but finally succumbs, to miss out on a Grand Final. Not that he will have any self pity: he has played in seven already.

If he recovers and plays I’m sure he would prefer to play against an opponent he despises than one he loves and respects. The Roosters hierarchy would have privately hoped it would not come to this. Their star recruit spawned in the Melbourne culture and having to defeat it. Lose and the ploy has failed. Win and it will always be said you stole success.

“Every time a friend succeeds something inside me dies”, wrote Gore Vidal.

Will it be Cooper Cronk or Billy Slater who dies a little inside as their close companion lifts the Premiership trophy?