TWO OUT OF THREE AIN'T BAD
Cameron and Cooper lost their buddy Billy but won even more respect
THE STORM PROVED MASTERS AT REINVENTING themselves in 2016, enabling the club to remain an NRL superpower. At the start of the year many pundits did not have the Storm in the top eight, and certainly not in the top four. The belief was that their aura of invincibility had faded – a view based partly on the way the Cowboys had dismantled the Storm in the 2015 preliminary final with a power-based forwards game. Much soul searching followed and out of that wreckage emerged a pack fiercely determined not to be out-muscled in 2016.
At full strength they boasted a mobile, powerful pack that included big boppers Jesse Bromwich, Jordan McLean, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Tim Glasby and Christian Welch.
The Storm overcame the adversity of losing champion No.1 Billy Slater for the season after round one, with Cameron Munster filling in and having a sensational year.
There was more heartache when representative centre Will Chambers missed three months with injury. Cheyse Blair filled the breach in the centres and had his best NRL season with nine tries in 17 games.
The blooding of dynamic Fijian winger Suliasi Vunivalu, who stunned the NRL with 23 tries in his 21 games, gave the Storm strike.
Meanwhile, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith just keep getting better with age.
At every turn, Melbourne just kept on being Melbourne, despite what the doomsayers were predicting.
“I’m not proud of the boys because of us proving people wrong,” says Smith ( pictured above).
“That’s because we all had the belief at the start of the year that if we played consistently well that we’d be up the top of the ladder somewhere.
“I’m most proud of the way we applied ourselves to our pre-season after we were challenged at the end of last year by Craig in our review.
“He said some things we weren’t looking forward to about our season in 2015, and 2014 as well. We’d struggled with consistency and our mental toughness, something we’d never been questioned about before.
“But all the guys involved in our pre-season worked extremely hard to change that around.
“We lost virtually all our outside backs in the space of four weeks at the start of the season.
“Then we got to the Origin period where we hadn’t been so successful over the past two seasons, but we lost just one game in seven weeks due to the younger group and the emerging leaders in our team such as Tohu Harris, Kevin Proctor, Tim Glasby and Dale Finucane.
“They all took responsibility when the rep players were away.”
Vunivalu’s remarkable rise stunned even Smith, after the 20-year-old was expected to maybe get a taste of NRL action this year.
In a highlight reel showcasing outrageous athleticism and speed, perhaps the standout was an astonishing first half at Brookvale Oval in round 24 when Vunivalu scored four tries before half-time.
“Suli was amazing all year,” Smith says. “He was great again in the grand final. Nearly each time he got the ball he put the team in a position to score points and there aren’t many guys in this competition who can do that, and even less who can do it on the biggest stage.
“Our whole squad aimed up this year and I’m just extremely proud of what we achieved through tough circumstances. To put ourselves in a grand final, you can’t ask for more.”
Smith and his men crave another title after falling heartbreakingly short in the decider, and they already have high aspirations for 2017.
“I want to be there, and take this club back to No.1,” Smith says.
Smith and Cronk powered through the season in a sign they still have plenty of top-class footy left in their weary legs.
Slater will be back next year and the Storm will be better for it, but Munster deputised brilliantly.
The Storm pack appreciated the impetus the livewire gave them starting their sets.
“Imagine that – coming in for Billy Slater would have to be one of the toughest jobs in rugby league,” prop Jesse Bromwich says.
“But Munster came in and did an awesome job. Nothing fazed him. He has such a strong carry of the ball and he’s such a tough little fella.”