NRL

During a chaotic few years, Melbourne Storm remained the NRL’s benchmark side. But can the reigning premier retain its dominance following the retirement of Cameron Smith? By Adam Burnett.

Melbourne Storm forecasts

Melbourne Storm’s Cameron Smith celebrates with coach Craig Bellamy following the team’s 2020 NRL grand final win over Penrith Panthers.
Credit: Cameron Spencer / Getty Images

When fronting the media, Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy can cut an irritable figure at the best of times. A press conference just minutes after a last-gasp round two defeat is a long way from the best of times, particularly when you’re awaiting the inevitable question, the one that will likely dog you throughout the 2021 season. Would Cameron Smith have made a difference?

But this isn’t Bellamy’s first rodeo. Amid the two-decade Storm dynasty the 61-year-old has headed, disaster and triumph have been frequent bedfellows. And so his response is curt yet measured.

“I don’t think Cameron needs to be there to teach us how to get the ball down over the line, that’s been a bit of a problem with us for a couple of weeks,” he says. “We’re going to miss Cameron for a while in certain areas … but tonight those areas weren’t the places where we let ourselves down.”

It has been another challenging, strange 12 months in the Storm’s history. From temporary relocations to Albury and the Sunshine Coast, to a premiership, to the drawnout retirement of their captain, goal kicker and hooker. Now the club is writing the first pages of its next chapter: “Life after Cameron Smith”. And as is the Storm’s way, nothing new will be built without a reliance on the existing foundations.

  

It was in the unlikely locale of Miami, way back in 2013, that Bellamy first heard the saying. The intensely competitive coach has always chased self-improvement, and in legendary NBA coach Pat Riley, then at the Miami Heat, he found a like-minded individual.

“We spent 45 minutes in Riley’s office,” recalls long-time Storm football manager Frank Ponissi, “and at one point he used a line that really resonated with Craig: ‘The main thing is to remember to keep the main thing the main thing.’

“And that’s what Craig does: he works out what is the absolute key part of your job and asks you to keep your focus on that. If I had to tell you his two greatest coaching traits, I’d say his consistency and his ability to simplify.”

Consistency and simplification. Two of the Bellamy tenets. Others include meeting expectations and a steadfast refusal to take shortcuts. They’re not simply orders from on high, either. Bellamy practises what he preaches and, in a football club full of impressionable young men, that makes all the difference.

“There are lots of people and factors that make the Storm culture as strong as it is, but in realistic terms, if there’s one person at the top of that pile, Craig’s the one,” says Ponissi.

“There’s a set of expectations and behaviours players and staff are asked to adhere to. Everyone’s clear about what those are and we’re all made accountable. Then it’s about doing it consistently. There’s no magic bullet, there’s just a strong sense of this is what’s expected of you – do it.”

For a long time, the Storm culture has been the envy of many. Former Sharks coach Shane Flanagan, who enjoyed a grand final win over Melbourne in 2016, makes no secret of the fact.

“At the Sharks, I wanted us to be the Melbourne Storm,” he says. “We did it for a while ... but Melbourne have been No. 1 in consistency for so many years.

“They must put a lot of trust in the in-built systems and processes they stick to in order to have the long-term success they’ve had … to have that level of consistency, you need it to be ingrained within the walls.”

Twelve months ago, when the 2020 season was suspended due to Covid-19, Bellamy put that trust to the test. As his players prepared to go into lockdown, their coach brought them together for one final message.

“There was uncertainty as to when – or if – we would get back together that season,” Ponissi says. “[He told] the players, ‘You’ve just come off a really good preseason … don’t waste it. When you get that call that we’re back, be ready.’

“When the players did come back, they’d heeded his words – everyone was in really good condition.”

During lockdown, Bellamy had watched the 1986 Clint Eastwood film Heartbreak Ridge. In it, Eastwood’s character uses the phrase “you improvise, you adapt, you overcome” to his Marines platoon. It struck a chord with the coach, who sensed it might become pertinent amid a season of unknowns. He flipped the final two verbs and presented it to the group.

Recalls Ponissi: “He said, ‘This is going to be a year like no other – whatever’s thrown at us, we have to overcome it and adapt to the new norm.’ I don’t think we’ve ever had a more relevant mantra.”

As Australia’s sporting clubs came to terms with what the pandemic would mean, the Storm got proactive. At the time of their relocation to Queensland, only the New Zealand Warriors and the two Western Australian AFL sides had been required to make similar moves. From Melbourne HQ, phone calls were made to each of those clubs: What have been the biggest challenges? What have you got right? What would you have done better?

“The biggest thing coming back was at that stage none of them had had their families there … and that was becoming an issue,” Ponissi says. “So we made a very strong point that we needed our families [inside the bubble].

“That got us through. As resilient as the players were, I don’t think we would have survived for that long without our families.”

By season’s end, the Storm had their second premiership in four years. This time it had been won without Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, legendary players whose absence would have set most clubs back years.

“And they can overcome those losses because of the culture and the systems Craig has in place,” Flanagan explains. “So Cooper goes, and they don’t replace him with another Cooper – it’s not possible, but they knew that and they didn’t ever try to do that. Same with Billy, and the same thing now with Cameron. They’re not trying to replace him – that’s impossible – they just need to get on with life.”

As the Smith retirement question bubbled along through summer, the Storm again made shrewd decisions. First, after the stresses of the 2020 season and its late conclusion, they pushed back the beginning of their preseason to January 4. For Bellamy, it was no small concession, particularly given the potential repercussions.

“There was no doubt we were going to be not at our absolute best for these opening rounds, and we accepted that – it was never going to be an excuse,” says Ponissi. “Then we got the [draw for] the first three rounds and that just made it all the more challenging.”

After beating Souths in round one, the Storm lost to the Eels and Panthers. Both defeats came in the dying minutes. All three matches were against serious top-four contenders. Yet inevitably, the Smith questions were posed.

“Against the Panthers, maybe Cameron gets that game done – but maybe not,” says Flanagan. “Good players come up with big plays and I think the Storm are going to miss Cameron in that sense.

“But they’ll be up there somewhere. Penrith played a fantastic game and the Storm could’ve got them at the end. There was nothing in it against Parramatta. That’s how close they are.”

Now it is on Bellamy and his players to overcome and adapt. Typically, that process is already well under way. The other canny move made in the summer came when Bellamy took the Smith factor off the table. At the Storm’s preseason camp, he decided the team would prepare for their season as if Smith had retired. If he played on, that would be a bonus.

A shared leadership model was ushered in so no one player was saddled with the task of replacing Smith as captain, and tactics were devised around the Storm’s other, more ball-running hookers, Brandon Smith and Harry Grant.

With the loss of Cronk and Slater, the Storm have been here before, though Ponissi concedes “this is the biggest of those transitions”.

“There’ll be times after moments in games where we’ll refer to not having Cameron there,” he adds. “It’s not living in the past, it’s a learning moment. So [for example], ‘Okay, just because Cameron’s not there and he would’ve done this, what can we do now that we haven’t got him?’

“It’s going to be a transition with some bumpy moments. And Craig has spoken about that with the players, reinforcing the fact it’s about how we deal with those bumpy moments and learn from them.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 3, 2021 as "Storm troopers".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Adam Burnett is the features editor and writer at cricket.com.au. He has also written for The Sydney Morning Herald and Britain’s Telegraph and Guardian.