“I’m a cybernetic organism. Living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 rolled off a Skynet production line in the future and was sent back in time. First to kill Sarah Connor, then protect John Connor.
It may not be past judgement day and there may not be a Sarah Connor to hunt down, or a John Connor to protect, but down in Melbourne, they have a continuous stream of rugby league machines that seem to roll off a production line.
Those Melbourne machines hunt down their opponents with a determination and ruthlessness akin to that of the T-800.
There isn’t just the one generation of T-800 either. Every year a new model is called upon whether due to retirement, injury or suspension, and almost every year that new model steps up to the plate.
While most teams watch their premiership prospects rise and fall like the tide, the Storm have enjoyed a premiership window for the past 15 years.
They are a club that success seems to follow but it only does so through incredibly hard work, high standards and the continued reinvention of their style of play.
Melbourne’s standards have been high from day one. In their second season, they won their maiden premiership.
22 years down the track, and they are the defending premiers.
The Melbourne Storm were one of the beneficiaries of the Super League war of the mid-1990s. Melbourne was originally in the ARL’s sights in 1994 as an expansion franchise.
Australia’s second largest city was without a rugby league side to draw attention to the sport in the home of AFL.
With the Super League war breaking loose across 1995-1997, Melbourne’s admission to the competition was put off, with the governing bodies busy setting up franchises in Perth, Adelaide, New Zealand and Queensland.
By 1997, Melbourne was identified as a key part of the future ARL competition and it was established by former Super League boss John Ribot alongside former Brisbane Broncos centre Chris Johns.
Melbourne’s establishment was fairly unique. Unlike the majority of the other teams in the ARL for 1998, the Storm did not have a local catchment of junior players it was developing.
They couldn’t do what the likes of the Broncos, Parramatta Eels or Canterbury Bulldogs could do.
Instead, they had to rely on smart recruitment to not only be competitive, but be successful.
If rugby league was going to succeed in Victoria, it needed to have a team that was a premiership threat.
Melbourne’s initial recruitment drive saw it feast on the corpses of the Super League franchises freshly cast aside at the end of the war.
Glenn Lazarus, Brett Kimmorley, Tawera Nikau, Matt Geyer, Robbie Ross, Robbie Kearns and Scott Hill formed the nucleus of the Storm side.
Helping to piece that side together was former Bulldogs winger and then-Melbourne assistant coach Greg Brentnall who had spent more than a decade as a development officer in the Riverina.
“Initially we just needed to be successful. Those initial years 98, 99, 2000 we needed to have immediate success. We certainly weren’t looking down the track at that time,” he says.
“At that stage there was very little footy being played in Victoria so then we had to look at where we were actually going to feed from. So what we created was a pathway at Norths Devils in Brisbane. For the first 10 years of operation that was what we did.
“We created the pathway up there with Mark Murray and Anthony Griffin who created the system and had a network of scouts throughout Queensland. So we looked at the south east and a little further up in Queensland as an area for us and we brought them through in an area, in Norths in Brisbane.”
The pathway in Brisbane has since become the lynchpin of Melbourne’s development process, while it continues to grow its local systems.
By setting up in Brisbane, the Storm did what the NRL has been trying to do ever since – develop a pathway to first grade in Queensland that can rival Brisbane. The Cowboys are too far north, while the Gold Coast take up more of the juniors towards the border and into northern New South Wales.
With Brentnall at the Storm were also fellow Bulldogs alumni Chris Anderson and Peter Moore. The trio brought with them the much vaunted “family values” of Canterbury and applied it to the fledgling Melbourne side.
“We had the family values that we needed to push pretty heavily because again we were relocating a lot of these young kids and having to bring them together in a family atmosphere without a lot of support base around them because they didn’t have relatives and friends or whatever in Victoria.
“So the club had to become their backbone and that’s where we developed that family atmosphere and seemed to be what we went through at the Bulldogs.
“And that was again part of the values and the culture we got from, with Chris Anderson and myself, from the Bulldogs and we brought a few other people from there. Initially Peter Moore had a fair bit to do with putting the initial squads together.”
Following Melbourne’s early success, the beginning of the 21st century saw the club go through its first rough patch. In 2001 the Storm experienced its first losing season, missing the finals in the process.
In 2002 the club slipped to 10th.
What had essentially happened is what many teams still go through today. The players they picked up for 1998 and won the premiership with in 1999 all steadily departed or began their downhill slide.
Their premiership window closed and the squad had to be rebuilt, but this time with both a short term and long term focus.
By the end of 2002, the club knew it had to get out of its rut quickly if it was to survive.
“We had a down time during the early 2000s. We sort of had I guess a drop off in support for the club and we lost the free to air rights for the TV. Channel Nine I think got the rights for the AFL for 10 years. So we were getting no free to air coverage so the game was sort of on the backfoot then.”
So Melbourne took a punt on a rookie coach who had learned his trade under Wayne Bennett. Craig Bellamy was handed the reins.
At the same time as Bellamy was being appointed, Melbourne’s system in Brisbane was about to lay a collection of golden eggs.
Recruiting an Immortal
As Brentnall explains, a couple of teenagers from Queensland had been scouted by the Storm while they were overlooked by the Broncos and came through their Norths system.
“At that time, all of the Queensland kids were virtually Broncos so that was the only option for them. But what we created for them very early was a pathway through Norths in Brisbane to play NRL with the Storm and again that was a big part of what we were able to do with Cameron (Smith) in particular and the big three (Smith, Cooper Cronk, Billy Slater) right through.
“Billy came a bit through there, although he did it himself. We didn’t actually recruit Billy. He came down from Innisfail and had a trial and was given an opportunity to play the first 12 months for Norths in Brissy. And Cooper was picked up through rugby union in Brisbane by one of our scouts. I guess that was a system we had to set up because we had very little rugby league being played in Victoria so there was no pathway there.”
While every club looks for talented juniors who can be the future of their NRL side, the challenge is finding the balance between talented footballers and good people.
The ethics of a club can impact on the type of players they recruit and it’s at this point some sides fall short. They chase the talented players but don’t background their recruits well enough.
The flow on effect can lead to a poor culture within the club, which in turn can hurt its onfield performance.
It’s an issue the Storm have always been aware of and tried to address through their recruitment process as Brentnall says.
“We weren’t just looking for the potentially best rugby league players in that area but we looked thoroughly into their backgrounds and particularly with ones like Smithy and those guys that came through.”
Melbourne had an additional hoop to jump through. They had to convince families to send their teenagers south, to a new state, often while they were still in high school.
“We used to have to sell Victoria too. It’s a pretty hard sell when we’re potentially talking about taking away their sons from thousands of miles away to chase their dreams. Relocating them to Melbourne to make it in the game was a tough sell.
“We used to look after the parents and tried to create an environment down in Melbourne that was conducive to those young kids, being able to be away from their loved ones and still produce good footy.”
Sometimes Brentnall would go the extra mile to get the parents onside.
“I still remember Cameron coming down with his mum and dad at about 16 or 17 then. I took him out to dinner with my young bloke Mark and he sat with Cam because we had to sell Melbourne to them too and at that stage it was a pretty tough sell because rugby league was in its infancy there.
“But we took a lot of time to sell it to the parents that we were creating a really good environment. We had really good facilities and Melbourne was a good place to live.”
With Craig Bellamy’s arrival came a new philosophy for the Storm. Much has been written about the labouring work new recruits have to complete when they join the club as well as Bellamy’s taxing pre-season regime which has earned him the nickname Bellyache.
As a head coach, Bellamy is more concerned about the week-to-week function of the team, leaving much of the recruitment and retention to be orchestrated by football manager Frank Ponissi who arrived in 2007.
“Things changed when Craig came in. We were still built on good foundations but we then started to plan a bit and I always talk about Frank Ponissi. Frank started to then look at the planning and structure of things,” says Brentnall.
“Craig is all about what’s happening next week whereas I think Frank’s beauty is that he can look further down the track. I think that partnership has had as much to do with the success they’ve had in the last 20 years as anything.”
That sustained success is something rugby league hasn’t really seen before and doesn’t hinge on one or a group of players.
Matt Orford was there at the start of the Bellamy reign before moving on and Cooper Cronk took over. Alongside him were the likes of Billy Slater and Cameron Smith.
Outside the big three, as they are termed, were a continuous production line of Origin and international players.
Greg Inglis, Israel Folau, Kevin Proctor, Jeremy Smith, Jason Ryles, Dallas Johnson, Ryan Hoffman, Will Chambers and Gareth Widdop were but a few.
The one team Melbourne gets compared to the most are the New England Patriots of the NFL, who also have enjoyed an unprecedented two decades of success under head coach Bill Belichik.
However, unlike Melbourne, the departure of superstar quarterback Tom Brady saw the Patriots slide down the rankings to miss the playoffs in 2020.
Without the Big Three
At the height of Melbourne’s powers, it was believed the big three of Cronk, Smith and Slater would be irreplaceable. That when they departed the Storm would resemble something of a normal team.
But that production line in Melbourne has simply continued.
Slater retired. Ryan Papenhuyzen has filled his spot. What makes that more surprising is the fact Papenhuyzen was third choice behind Jahrome Hughes and Scott Drinkwater.
Cooper Cronk left and Cameron Munster stepped up. Then Bellamy somehow turned Jahrome Hughes into a premiership winning halfback.
But surely. Surely once Cameron Smith left that would be the beginning of the end for Melbourne?
For most teams, the loss of the lynchpin in the spine would be the end of that side’s dominance and a struggle to replace him.
Think of Parramatta without Peter Sterling. Newcastle without Andrew Johns.
Well, in Melbourne, another model simply rolls off the line.
First it was Brandon Smith bringing the physicality of a prop to the hooker position. Then Harry Grant, fresh off a loan to the Tigers, slotted straight in and it was almost like Cameron Smith never left.
Outside the spine and the Storm just now how to pick up players from obscurity and turn them into stars.
Brenko Lee couldn’t even score a contract with the Gold Coast Titans at the end of 2019. Melbourne took him from Queensland Cup and by the end of 2020 he was a premiership and Origin winner.
Nicho Hynes had been plying his trade for the Mackay Cutters before Melbourne signed him. Now he’s one of the most in demand players in the NRL.
Almost any player that comes to Melbourne gets re-programmed and turned into a machine that wins.
They win with Immortals and without Immortals.
A day will come when Craig Bellamy is no longer in charge and we’ll get to see if Bellamy has been the master mind, or if Melbourne actually have a rugby league facility down there that programs players to fit into their system.
It’s not Skynet. It’s Stormnet, and they’re here to terminate every team in the competition.