Cameron and Cooper lost their buddy Billy but won even more re­spect

Rugby League Week - - Rlw 2016 Annual - BY JOEL GOULD

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.”

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