Melbourne Storm – 2014 NRL Preview

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The Melbourne Storm were unable to successfully defend their NRL premiership in 2013, after crashing out following back to back semi final defeats. Do they have what it takes to bounce back and claim their second premiership in 3 years? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts below.

2013 review

Another strong season for the Storm ended on a sour note as they were eliminated from the finals following consecutive losses to Souths and Newcastle. Prior to the finals, Melbourne won 5 of their remaining 6 games, but they simply ran out of petrol so to speak. The long season for the star players Cronk, Smith and Slater did show as all three were not quite at their best at the end of the season. It will be interesting to see how they start the 2014 season, especially after their successful world cup campaign in October and November.

Statistically, Melbourne’s defence was again very strong in 2013, as they conceded just less than 5 points fewer per game than the season average. However, their 2013 defence conceded half a point more per game than their premiership winning defence of 2012. The Storm’s attack was even stronger in 2013, as they were able to score just under half a point more per game than they did in 2012. This was more than four points per game higher than the season average. In summary, Melbourne has a great attack and a great defence. The key for the 2014 season is to make sure that they are as healthy as possible and in the best form at the end of the season. If this means that they have to rest Smith, Slater and Cronk from the Origin series, then this NSW supporter would be in favour.

Outside backs

I think it’s safe to say that Melbourne has the fullback position covered, with Billy Slater there. In the two games that Slater missed, Ben Hampton did fill in when Slater missed two games last season but Hampton is a good chance to play five eight this season. If Slater does miss some games, it will be interesting to see who will replace him. In the centres, Melbourne has lost some depth with the departures of Maurice Blair and Junior Sa’u. As a result, the likely centre combination for the Storm is potential Queensland representative Will Chambers and the much underrated Justin O’Neill. This opens up a spot on the wing, which will be fought out between Mahe Fonua, Matt Duffie and signing Travis Robinson. The other winger will likely be Sisa Waqa. All four are good players and the club is well served with depth on the wings.

Halves

The big question for Melbourne leading into the 2014 season is who will play five eight this season, following the departures of Gareth Widdop and Brett Finch. It appears that Ben Hampton will get the first chance there, following an impressive performance when he filled in for Widdop after he sustained his hip injury against the Titans last season. They have signed Ben Roberts to provide depth at this position and maybe Craig Bellamy can get him to perform consistently, if he is given a chance in the top grade. The other position in the halves, the halfback, is under much less question. Last year’s Dally M winner Cooper Cronk will definitely be starting there if he is available to play.

Author’s note: In the Parramatta preview, I had Ben Roberts as an option for the Parramatta team. At the time of writing that article, Roberts was yet to sign for the Storm and I was unaware that he was released by the Eels. I apologise for the inaccuracies in that article.

Front row

Just like the halfback and fullback positions, Melbourne is settled at hooker, as they have Australian captain Cameron Smith. If Smith is unavailable, they do have Ryan Hinchcliffe and Slade Griffin to fill in, even though both are more likely to play in the back row. In addition to this, the Storm has signed Joel Romelo to provide further depth to the hooker position. At prop, the starting combination of Jesse Bromwich and Bryan Norrie will be there again. I am a huge fan of Bromwich and I believe that he is one of the top 5 props in the league. In regards to Melbourne’s depth at prop, they have Jordan McLean, Kenny Bromwich, Junior Moors, Mitch Garbutt, Tim Glasby and signings George Rose and Dayne Weston. Rose is there to provide experience to compensate the retirement of Jason Ryles and could be a very astute signing. Some of those players mentioned have a lot of potential but are still quite raw and will need time to develop.

Back row

Last year’s starting back row of Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman and Ryan Hinchcliffe are all still at the club in 2014 and should be the starting back row. Proctor and Hoffman are good attacking back runners who threaten the defence with good lines at the edge of the ruck. Hinchcliffe on the other hand, is a workhorse who does also provide some ball playing ability. Outside of their starters from last season, the Storm also has Tohu Harris, Slade Griffin and Mitch Garbutt to provide depth in the back row, which has been somewhat depleted with the departure of Lagi Setu.

Bench

Last year, the Storm played two props and two back rowers on the bench and I am expecting them to use a similar structure in 2014. The reason for this is because of one player in particular, Slade Griffin. His versatility allows him to cover the back row, hooker and the backline. As a result, the Storm can carry three specialist forwards on the bench. The bench should have a bit more impact this season, with the addition of George Rose and the likely improvement of the impressive Tohu Harris.

Coach

Craig Bellamy is one of the best, if not the best, coach in the league right now. Over his 11-year tenure at the club, he has developed some of the greatest players in the history of the game and has led the team to the finals in every season bar the 2010 season where they could not acquire any competition points. He is known as a hard worker and his players have followed his lead. Some of the tactics that the club has employed over his tenure have raised the ire of supporters, but it’s a coach’s job to win at any means possible. If a coach doesn’t do this then they will likely find themselves out of a job.

Best squad

  1. Billy Slater
  2. Mahe Fonua
  3. Will Chambers
  4. Justin O’Neill
  5. Sisa Waqa
  6. Ben Hampton
  7. Cooper Cronk
  8. Jesse Bromwich
  9. Cameron Smith
  10. Bryan Norrie
  11. Kevin Proctor
  12. Ryan Hoffman
  13. Ryan HInchcliffe
  14. Jordan McLean
  15. Tohu Harris
  16. George Rose
  17. Slade Griffin

Prediction

5th. The Storm will be very good again in 2014, yet I can’t help but wonder how fatigued their star players Smith, Slater and Cronk all are following the world cup campaign. I’m expecting a slow start to the season as a result of this, but they are helped by the fact that they play 5 teams who missed the finals in 2014 in their first 8 games. Again, the big issue will be the ability of their big players to return from the Origin series. With less experience in the side than in previous seasons, the Storm will need some of their young players to really step up during the middle of the season. I’m just not sure if they will be able to effectively cover the big three this season, following the departures in the halves.

2014 Ladder Prediction

  1. Canterbury Bulldogs
  2. Melbourne Storm
  3. Penrith Panthers
  4. Newcastle Knights
  5. North Queensland Cowboys
  6. Cronulla Sharks
  7. Gold Coast Titans
  8. St George Illawarra Dragons
  9. Brisbane Broncos
  10. New Zealand Warriors
  11. Wests Tigers
  12. Parramatta Eels
  13. Canberra Raiders
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