Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
The Melbourne Storm surged to the 2017 NRL premiership with one of the most dominant seasons produced by any club in the current era.
But aside from becoming the first team in 25 years to capture back-to-back titles, the Storm have a significant motivation to feed off and a major challenge to confront in 2018: winning without Cooper Cronk and, to a lesser extent, Test forwards Tohu Harris and Jordan McLean.
Cronk has been the Storm’s halfback since 2006 – incredibly missing just 26 games in 12 seasons – and his influence will be impossible to replicate in the short-term. But the club possesses a Cronk clone in the form of young playmaker Brodie Croft, while Ryley Jacks will also push hard for that No.7 jumper.
Melbourne has also moved to shore up its forward stocks with the return of Ryan Hoffman and the acquisition of Sam Kasiano and Patrick Kaufusi.
Reports Origin and Test star Cameron Munster is on the nose with the club’s hierarchy over his off-field behaviour are a concern, particularly given he is set to become the senior halves partner this year, but the presence of champions Cameron Smith and Billy Slater should iron out any unrest.
In light of the progress made by Felise Kaufusi, Josh Addo-Carr, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Curtis Scott and Tim Glasby over the last 12 months – and the seemingly endless production line of depth in Melbourne – the Storm remain the team to beat, despite Cronk’s departure.
Their 38-4 World Club Challenge demolition of Leeds suggested it would be business as usual for the NRL’s preeminent force in 2018.
BEST RECRUIT: Sam Kasiano shaped as a curious pick-up for the Storm, but the early signs are he will become yet another veteran forward to enjoy a career renaissance under Craig Bellamy. A dynamic, ball-playing giant at Canterbury whose weight has prevented him from fully realising his potential, the 27-year-old is cutting a svelte figure during the Melbourne pre-season. Kasiano has started the majority of his 139 first grade games off the bench but he should be challenging for Cowboys-bound prop McLean’s starting role.
STRENGTH: Two members of the Storm’s ‘Holy Trinity’ – Smith and Slater – remain, along with some of the most talented young backs and high-quality forwards in the NRL. Behind their on-field dominance is coach Craig Bellamy ensuring the Melbourne machine runs as efficiently and ruthlessly as ever.
WEAKNESS: The Cronk factor and the slight weakening of their forward pack seems to be the only drawbacks capable of stopping the Storm from another inevitable march to the premiership.
KEY MAN: The Storm’s puppet-master, Cameron Smith, is coming off a season of extraordinary quality and success, leading NRL, Origin and World Cup triumphs while carrying off the Dally M Medal and Golden Boot honours – all at the ripe age of 34. With Cronk gone, the living legend’s crafty direction and leadership is hugely important to this Melbourne side.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Cameron Munster’s alleged off-field exploits are gobbling up pre-season headlines, but few players made bigger strides in 2017 than the versatile 23-year-old. A potential champion at five-eighth, fullback or centre, Munster starred on representative debut for Queensland and Australia, and played a key role in the No.6 jumper as the Storm romped to grand final glory. Expect him to brush off recent controversies and make it impossible for the Maroons to leave him out.
YOUNG GUN: Curtis Scott took the chance offered up by centre Cheyse Blair’s injury with both hands, immediately cementing a starting spot and scoring a try in Melbourne’s grand final victory less than three weeks after his 20th birthday. A NSW rep in the making.
UNDER PRESSURE: Brodie Croft has not looked one bit out of place in his five first-grade appearances to date, but there are bound to be a few teething problems as the grind of a long NRL season start to wear on the 20-year-old halfback. Croft’s uncanny resemblance to Cronk as a player will only add to the expectation and pressure on the young Queenslander. He was brilliant in the World Club Challenge rout of Leeds but produced a mixed bag opposite Johnathan Thurston in the Storm’s final trial.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Ryan Hoffman tried his guts out during three tough seasons for the enigmatic Warriors, but overall he was undoubtedly down on the form that saw him play for NSW up until 2015. Whether that was due to the quality of the team he was playing for, or merely age catching up with him is a question that will be answered when he returns to the Storm in 2018. Bellamy has several candidates aiming to partner Felise Kaufusi in the second-row, and the 34-year-old Hoffman won’t get an armchair ride on the basis of being a club great.
THE COACH: Craig Bellamy appeared as hungry, enthusiastic and forward-thinking as ever as he steered Melbourne to the 2017 premiership – arguably the crowning moment of his 15-season tenure at the Storm. The master coach is off-contract at the end of 2018 and yet to announce an extension; his decision could have major ramifications on the NRL landscape.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Craig Bellamy (2003-current)
Mark Murray (2001-02)
Chris Anderson (1998-2001)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $6.00
GAINS: Sandor Earl (unattached), Ryan Hoffman (New Zealand Warriors), Cooper Johns (Manly), Sam Kasiano (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Patrick Kaufusi (North Queensland Cowboys), Kayleb Milne (Auckland Rugby), Ryan Papenhuyzen (Wests Tigers), Junior Ratuvu (Auckland Rugby), Billy Walters (Easts Tigers)
LOSSES: Jesse Arthars (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Dean Britt (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Cooper Cronk (Sydney Roosters), Charlie Galo (released), Slade Griffin (Newcastle Knights), Tohu Harris (New Zealand Warriors), Jeremy Hawkins (released), Vincent Leuluai (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Jordan McLean (North Queensland Cowboys), Nate Myles (retired), Mark Nicholls (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Robbie Rochow (Wests Tigers), Jake Turpin (Brisbane Broncos)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Billy Slater
2 Josh Addo-Carr
3 Will Chambers
4 Curtis Scott
5 Suliasi Vunivalu
6 Cameron Munster
7 Brodie Croft
8 Jesse Bromwich
9 Cameron Smith
10 Tim Glasby
11 Felise Kaufusi
12 Ryan Hoffman
13 Dale Finucane
14 Kenny Bromwich
15 Nelson Asofa-Solomona
16 Sam Kasiano
17 Christian Welch