Last night, Melbourne Storm officially started the countdown to the 2018 NRL season, playing the World Club Challenge against Leeds Rhinos. We copped some stick over on Twitter for calling it a BS game, but other than the fact we’ve spent this week working on our season preview (look out for it!) we always think of this annual contest as a bit of a non-entity. Fun, sure, but never a truly great game. Last night, it was proven once again that Super League is inferior to the NRL, that the team that travels all the way around the world into odd conditions is at a disadvantage and finally...that Melbourne are basically unbeatable.
If you count the Premierships won by the Melbourne Storm and subsequently stripped from the club by the NRL, no team in the history of Australian Rugby League has ever been so successful. In their 21 seasons played, with five Grand Final wins, they basically start a season with a 25% chance of ending that year as Premiers. It’s mind boggling.
While most fans will agree the Storm salary cap rorts are up there with the greatest sports scandals of all time, the way the club has responded and rebuilt its culture, fanbase and reputation proves that there is more happening south of the border, down Mexico way than just dollars and cents. The question to ponder though, is how do they do it? How do they continually refresh their team, identify young gems and polish them, reboot stalled careers and continually roll through the rest of the NRL?
We have our own theory on what makes Melbourne so successful. It is generally agreed however that the first two factors in their continued success are playing strength and coaching know-how. We don’t disagree. The current (till recently) Slater-Cronk-Smith axis has been the spine and core of their team for the best part of a decade. They’ve been on the park in all FOUR of the Storm Grand Final wins of the new millennium even as a cavalcade of superstars came and went around them.
Then there is Craig Bellamy. When considering win percentage, comps won over seasons played etc. the guy has no peer. Consider that, of coaches who’ve had more than 100 games, only Norm Provan as Captain coach of an unbeatable Saints team in the 60's has a better winning percentage than Bellamy. He is a constant innovator, who often seems to be able to bend the rule book to his will. The Storm coach (and the club) certainly have haters, but most are just cringing at his stunning success. A stint as Origin coach is the only blemish on his copy book and at the time further solidified the feeling amongst naysayers that his players had a greater hand in the Storm’s success: coaching against his legendary spine three years in a row he came up short every time.
Which brings us to our theory.
Firstly, let us point out that neither the players nor the coach are single handedly responsible for the Storm’s success. Additionally, whilst there is little doubt that the combination of each gives them their edge: players + coaching = culture and success...our take is that a third factor, that never gets a mention is the true secret ingredient.
The city of Melbourne itself.
If you’ve ever been to Melbourne, you’ll know it’s a decent, fun, well organised and interesting city. You’ll also know it has a parochial attitude, a legendary ‘chip on shoulder’ rivalry with Sydney and a disdain bordering on Xenophobia for anything from Sydney. In our opinion the difference between Melbourne and Sydney can be summed up thus; you never hear a Sydneysider going on about how great Sydney is and bagging Melbourne in the same breath. Sydneysiders just KNOW they live in one of the greatest places on Earth. Melburnians always feel a need to tell you about how great it is and naturally why it’s better than Sydney. In the harbour city, we never feel such a need.
Now invert this culture and consider the attachment felt by the entire state of Victoria to AFL. In terms of straight commercial success and saturation level of attention, nothing in Australia can rival the AFL. The sport is followed by everyone - men, women, children, grannies, migrants - E-V-E-R-Y-ONE loves AFL in Melbourne. It is dissected daily on radio, TV, web, print, mags, taxis, trams and in workplaces and school yards to a level mostly unseen outside of Baseball and NFL. Therefore, coming into Melbourne with a team playing Rugby League, the sport from Sydney, was always going to be met with disdain and hostility. Sure, stay for 20 years and be immeasurably successful in that period and you’ll get some attention, even some pride perhaps. A feeling of beating the enemy at their own game. This is all to emphasise in a roundabout way...why the key to the success of the Storm is Melbourne itself. Because of everything we just mentioned, no-one really gives a toss about you. They’ll wish you well, but they won’t hound you, fawn at your feet or revere you like AFL players. If you find the right characters for an environment like that (see Slater, Cronk, Smith) then you’re onto a winner. Consider Cameron Smith, future Rugby League Immortal, multiple record holder, Queensland and Australian captain etc. etc. making his million a year and not being bothered by people on a daily basis. He works every day for success and isn’t subject to other distractions, unwanted attention or undue stress. He can walk about his town with his wife and kids and be recognised for his achievements as an extraordinary athlete and leader sure, but not be troubled. To the right type of player, to the right type of character, which just happens to be the type who puts success on the field above all else, this is an enormously attractive lifestyle.
One object of fascination for us will be how Cronk handles being in the fishbowl of Sydney, especially the Eastern Suburbs fish bowl. It's interesting in the context of the points we're making here that he chose to move for love, and the love a TV star at that. The difference between his life in Melbourne and Sydney couldn't more marked if he tried. No doubt, supreme talent and professional he is, he'll handle it all with aplomb. But don't be surprised if the odd chink appears in the CC armour during 2018.
Melbourne and its rabid love of AFL are a key to why the Storm are so successful and why unless Bellamy stops being a revolutionary and evolutionary coach, stops identifying talent and making them even better and unless the club were to lose its famously insular culture (another feature of being a Rugby League player in Melbourne) then everyone else...is simply playing catch-up.
HEY YOU, YES YOU!
Look out for our mammoth season preview featuring player losses and gains from each club, statistical analysis from one of the best there is, our guide to speaking to fans from each team and some Fantasy player tips. Posting right here on our blog, March 1st!
Image: By Tom Reynolds from Melbourne, Australia (DSC_0247) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons