As the National Rugby League season draws closer, we look at how the Melbourne Storm will go in 2018.
The 2017 premiers will need to create history in 2018. No NRL club has gone back-to-back; Brisbane were the last consecutive premiers in a united competition (1992-93).
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Sam Kasiano (Bulldogs), Ryan Hoffman (NZ Warriors), Patrick Kaufusi (North QLD Cowboys), Sandor Earl (unattached), Ryan Papenhuyzen (Wests Tigers), Billy Walters (Brisbane Easts), Cooper Johns (Manly Sea Eagles), Kayleb Milne (NZ rugby).
Jesse Arthars (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Cooper Cronk (Sydney Roosters), Slade Griffin (Newcastle Knights), Tohu Harris (NZ Warriors), Jordan McLean (North QLD Cowboys), Mark Nicholls (Rabbitohs), Robbie Rochow (Wests Tigers), Jeremy Hawkins, Nate Myles (retired), Vincent Leuluai (Rabbitohs).
Canterbury (A), Wests Tigers (H), North Queensland (H), Cronulla (A), Wests Tigers (A).
WHAT TO EXPECT
Melbourne’s 2017 season was almost perfect, losing just four games and finishing three wins clear of the second-placed Sydney Roosters.
Parramatta gave Melbourne a scare in the qualifying final (Melbourne won 18-16) before the Storm destroyed Brisbane 30-0 in the preliminary final and North Queensland 34-6 in the grand final.
Revenge for the 2016 grand final loss motivated Melbourne. It worked.
With the premiership won and Cooper Cronk now in Bondi, will Melbourne’s motivation be as high in 2018?
Storm coach Craig Bellamy – one of the most passionate and intense coaches out there – will dangle a huge carrot to his players: celebrate their 20th anniversary as the NRL’s first back-to-back premiers.
Even the Storm at their 2006-2009 peak didn’t win consecutive titles (wins in 2007 and 2009, losses in 2006 and 2008).
MUNSTER TO STEP UP
Cameron Munster had an amazing 2017: playing five eighth with Billy Slater’s return, Munster played 21 NRL games, debuted for Queensland in Origin, played in the grand final (finishing third in the Storm’s Player of the Year voting) and played for Australia in the World Cup. With Cronk gone, Munster needs to take more responsibility, either in the halves or back at fullback, and look after himself off-field.
EARL’S COMEBACK AND HOFFMAN’S RETURN
Sandor Earl: While Raiders fans will be disappointed he’s not back in Canberra, Earl’s return from his four-year penance will be highly anticipated.
Earl scored 23 tries in 48 games for the Sydney Roosters, Penrith and Canberra, so once the early nerves fade and he finds his stride, the New Zealand-born Earl could form a devastating wing combination with Suliasi Vunivalu (who scored 23 tries last season).
Ryan Hoffman: After three years at the struggling NZ Warriors, Hoffman will be keen to return to Melbourne. The Canberra-born Hoffman played 245 games in two stints with the Storm (170 games from 2003-10 and 75 from 2012-14), playing in the 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2012 grand finals.
Now Cronk’s gone to the Roosters, Hoffman’s experience will be invaluable to Melbourne, along with Slater and captain Cameron Smith. Hoffman should play his 250th Storm game early in 2018.
MELBOURNE’S 2018 FIXTURE
Melbourne have a brilliant draw and should be minor premiership contenders again – and top four at worst.
– Round one: the season opener against Canterbury in Perth.
– Round three: a massive Thursday night grand final rematch against North Queensland at AAMI Park, followed by a round 12 Friday night game in Townsville.
– Round seven: a Friday night Suncorp Stadium blockbuster against Brisbane, a ground Melbourne’s enjoyed recently. Melbourne host Brisbane on a Sunday afternoon in round 14, the weekend after Origin I.
– Round eight: the traditional ANZAC evening clash against the Warriors at AAMI Park.
– Round 10: another Suncorp Stadium double-header, this time against Gold Coast at 5:30pm (Brisbane play Manly in the second leg).
– Round 16: the NRL returns to Adelaide with Melbourne playing Cronk’s Roosters.
Melbourne will survive the heavy Origin period, with a bye before Origin I and one game minus their Origin contingent (round 17 against St. George-Illawarra in Melbourne).
A third of Melbourne’s 24 games are against 2017’s bottom four teams (Warriors rounds eight and 19, Wests Tigers rounds two and five, Gold Coast rounds 10 and 24 and Newcastle rounds six and 15).
Top Tryscorer – Suliasi Vunivalu.
Top Pointscorer – Cameron Smith.
Club Player of the Year – Cameron Munster.
WHERE WILL MELBOURNE FINISH?
The Sydney Roosters, Brisbane and North Queensland are Melbourne’s biggest threat. Melbourne play the Broncos and Cowboys twice and the Roosters once. If Melbourne can navigate a relatively light Origin period and go on to win the minor premiership, they should continue to their fourth official title and consecutive premierships.
Melbourne to finish first and win back-to-back premierships.