Appreciating a team as an all-time great side can be difficult in the moment, but 2017 brought about arguably the best iteration of the Storm in their decade-plus-long dynasty, utterly dominating the competition by such a large margin that a usually cut-throat, insanely competitive league was an afterthought for the eventual premiers, who were head-and-shoulders above the competition from the early stages.
Some significant departures change the equation heading into their title defence, but Melbourne, as we’ve come to expect, still remain one of the favourites to be there competing for the title at the end. No one has won back-to-back championships in the past two decades, and the allure of history is about the only motivation left for Bellamy, Smith and co. to chase after ticking all the boxes in the past 24 months. Can the Storm, without Cronk for the first time, continue their domination of the league?
2017 SNAPSHOT: 1st (Won 20, Lost 4); Points For – 633 (1st), Points Against – 336 (1st).
BEST RECRUIT: ‘Skinny’ Sam Kasiano is the easy pick here, and whilst he looks great, we’ve seen this narrative before — we’ll have to see him in action before we believe it’s real. Instead, it’s another savvy, under-the-radar pickup that will makes the most impact, with Patrick Kaufusi moving south from the Cowboys. A high-quality forward comfortable playing across the pack, he’s an easy early favourite to become the next guy Melbourne transforms to become a key part of their rotation — both Jordan McLean and Tohu Harris are huge losses up front, but the acquisition of Kaufusi negates some of that pain.
“He’s always looking out for me. I really appreciate having him in my life” – Patrick Kaufusi on brother Felise.
— Melbourne Storm (@storm) 18 December 2017
KEY MAN: Who else? The best player in the world managed to put together a strong candidate for the best season of his career at age 34, leading the Storm’s domination in every facet whilst continue to refine his game and influence games with his masterful control. His World Cup performance was Cam Smith at his very best, controlling the tempo through the ruck and getting out and ball-playing whenever possible, a great sign for the Storm as they’ll no doubt ask him to pick up some of the duties left by Cronk. Slater and their latest teammate to take a star turn, Cam Munster, should also both pick up their output and carry some of the burden in Cronk’s absence.
UNDER THE PUMP: Being under pressure at Melbourne is a relative title, but Jesse Bromwich has plenty to prove after 2017 saw him suffer his first dip in form after multiple stellar seasons. Some unfortunate off-field actions may put his status as Storm captain-in-waiting in slight jeopardy but a return to his usual output will see him once again become an invaluable member of their leadership group. Brodie Croft is a fair shout here, too, but there isn’t a much better infrastructure to help introduce young talent, and a strong internal confidence suggests that he may be up to such pressure as a rookie.
— SEN 1116 (@SENNews) 14 December 2017
SELECTION POSER: Nobody on the reigning premiers is holding a jersey without merit, and with the squad running legitimately 25 players deep, competition for Tohu Harris’ vacant spot is about the only line-up decision left to make. There’s no shortage of options: Kenny Bromwich is more than capable of picking up a starting role after years in waiting, Ryan Hoffman was exceptional in this very role for years, Patrick Kafusi and Christian Welch are both versatile enough to play on the edge full-time and Joe Stimson was fantastic in his stint their last season covering during Harris’ injury. Truthfully, the hardest decision will be deciding who to omit from the 17 with so much quality to choose from. Don’t sleep on Melbourne’s depth.
YOUNG GUN: There’s very few players more apt to replace the legendary Cooper Cronk than his 10-years-younger clone. The comparisons have stuck since day one because the resemblance is uncanny and the influence is obvious, and everything from Croft we’ve seen so far looks the real deal. Rookie halfbacks don’t usually equate to team success in their early years, but no one has ever been given the keys to a team quite as good as this.
— telegraph_sport (@telegraph_sport) 23 January 2018
BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: It feels like destiny that Nelson Asofa-Solomona takes another huge leap and continues on the path to ascend to one of league’s most damaging forwards. Impressive off the pine for the Kiwis through the World Cup, and with Glasby and Bromwich in front of him, NAS will be tasked with filling a similar role for Melbourne, and will quickly become one of the best impact players in the league.
THE STAT: Plenty of other statistics highlight the minutiae of their dominance across every element of football in 2017, but at the end of the day having the number-one ranked attack (lights out at 26.3 points per game) and defence (easily the stingiest, only giving up 14 points a game — three points better than second place) is a recipe for success.
COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Low – Unless Craig Bellamy quits, he’s the coach of the Melbourne Storm.
— Daryl Liberto (@DanielleBeezz) 21 January 2018
THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – Opportunity to continue their streak of hot starts with seven of their first 10 games against non-finals teams from last season. Also finish strong with four of their last five games at home. Never play more than two games on the road consecutively.
Glass Half Empty – Three five-day turnarounds, the most of any team. A particular worry for a team with plenty of well-travelled veterans and representative players.
POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:
1 Billy Slater
2 Sunasi Vunivalu
3 William Chambers
4 Curtis Scott
5 Josh Ado-Carr
6 Cameron Munster
7 Brodie Croft
8 Jesse Bromwich
9 Cameron Smith
10 Tim Glasby
11 Felise Kafusi
12 Patrick Kafusi
13 Dale Finucane
14 Nelson Asofa-Solomona
15 Kenny Bromwich
16 Sam Kasiano
17 Christian Welch
Sam Kasiano (Bulldogs), Ryan Hoffman (Warriors), Patrick Kaufusi (Cowboys), Sandor Earl, Ryan Papenhuyzen (Wests Tigers), Billy Walters (Brisbane Easts), Cooper Johns (Sea Eagles), Kayleb Milne, Junior Ratuvu. #NRL pic.twitter.com/WKx1NNwCUK
— NRL (@NRL) 3 January 2018
WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Premiership Contender, Top four