Matty Johns: The science behind the Storm
OVER the past dozen years, people have predicted a Melbourne Storm slide on numerous occasions.
The loss of players such as Israel Folau and Greg Inglis. The rebuild after the 2010 salary cap scandal. And, of course, Cooper Cronk moving north. Each time, the Storm have found a way to stand their ground.
But this campaign was viewed as the year most likely. No Billy Slater, No Cronk. Just Smith left standing of the famous 'Big 3'. Surely they would succumb.
Well, three rounds in and guess who's top of the table? Three from three. Smart people who are willing to work hard always find a way, and once again Craig Bellamy and his men have found a way.
Melbourne continually evolve. But this 2019 brand of football isn't so much reinvention as a return to key principles and a return to exact science.
One of the hallmarks of Craig Bellamy's Storm teams has been a willingness to practise to perfection.
Every facet of defence and attack is thought out. Everything is deliberate.
They work their attacking plays at practice relentlessly - to this exact science: the ball players communicating and attracting their target defender; the ball runners never late, always hitting the right part of the gap created.
Each player is aware of their role, learning it through hours of monotonous drills … again, this exact science.
Some coaches like their training sessions to be fun. Bellamy prefers purposeful.
At the end of the 2016 season, the Storm knew their game needed to evolve. On grand final night, they were disciplined in every aspect, following the game plan and completing high … yet they lost to Cronulla.
In 2017, they decided to take more risks. They played sideline to sideline at times, encouraging offloads and allowing Cameron Munster a licence to play how he liked.
It was the perfect mix, Cooper Cronk and Cam Smith still executing the exact science through the middle, but with Munster providing more width and chance.
From the early rounds right through to when the final whistle was blown in 2017, they only ever looked grand final winners.
But if they got the balance of exact science and risk right in 2017, in 2018 things got lost. The ball movement and risk football took over and the first casualty of this was the team's discipline to execute the exact science.
In the early rounds of 2018, Melbourne struggled and people pointed to teething problems with the new half Brodie Croft, but the truth was things around him were uncharacteristically disjointed.
The ball runners were a half a metre too late, a fraction too wide, possession lost, completions down.
They got their football back on the rails at times but they were never able to find the balance, and as a consequence their football suffered.
The scary thing is they were still good enough to make the grand final. But the pre-season just passed has seen Melbourne once again returning to the practice of perfection, and already we are seeing the benefits.
In each of the three games, they've dismantled their opposition: building pressure, playing the long game, content to wear the opponent down over 80 minutes.
In Bathurst last Saturday night, they took on a Penrith side who are expected to challenge for the title.
At half-time, Melbourne led the Panthers 8-2, the scoreboard indicating Penrith were still in the contest, but the body language told a different story.
The Storm gave Penrith nothing and the Panthers players came out after the break looking like a team expecting the worst. Full-time: Melbourne 32, Penrith 2.
This Sunday, the Storm play the Dogs, a game that is potentially a dangerous one. The bad news for Canterbury is that for Melbourne, the opposition's position on the ladder is irrelevant.
Once again, it's all about getting their own football perfect.