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Will the Storm stumble?

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Fact: If the Melbourne Storm produces another brilliant season, makes the top eight, wins through the early rounds of the finals to make it into the decider, then triumphs on the last day of the season and wins the 2013 premiership – the club will only have held its own.

When you sit at the top of the competition, the only direction you can travel is down, but that is unlikely to upset the Melbourne faithful who are still riding high. They felt that the 2012 Grand Final victory was belated compensation for the humiliation and pain of having honours from 2006-2010 stripped. The triumph also brought relief that years of consistent excellence now have a tangible reward.

Storm followers may need to hold tight to those exultant feelings of last September because the 2013 season could see the competition's most consistent club slipping down the ladder.

In the Grand Final, the Storm formulated and executed a bold plan based around desperate up-and-in defence. The club's philosophy on player management is similarly audacious, with the same all-or-nothing approach. Melbourne has been blessed to have three champions at the club simultaneously: Billy Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk. They are not only critical to the club's on-field success but also provide a strong and attractive identity for the Storm franchise, invaluable in the difficult southern market.

However, because they chew up a huge proportion of the salary cap it leaves the club short of resources to build depth. Melbourne's ace is that players know that being at the club gives them a chance at finals football; that Craig Bellamy gets the best out of his men; and that most individuals' stocks rise dramatically after a stint at the Storm, which means they are prepared to play for less money initially with the promise of a bigger payday later.

It also means though that mid-career players keep leaving, having been developed into valuable commodities at Bellamy's school of hard knocks. The latest to depart are dynamic backrower Sika Manu, tackle-happy Todd Lowrie, rep back Dane Nielsen, tough prop

Richie Fa'aoso and utility Rory Kostjasyn. Luke Kelly went to the Eels earlier in 2012 and Jaiman Lowe has retired. These losses are not remotely offset by the recruitment of enigmatic trio Junior Moors, Junior Sa'u and Lagi Setu. The return of Mr Popular, Brett Finch, will cheer Storm fans (and he is reportedly playing for pocket money, although given Finchy's exuberant lifestyle that could mean a significant sum!) but he is only on board to provide cover at six, seven and nine.

Smith, Cronk and Slater all turn 30 in 2013. They will miss some Storm matches (as ever) due to rep commitments, and they are approaching the age where recovery from big games takes longer. Major injury to one or two of the big three will be a crisis. When Slater suffered his knee injury mid-2012 the club's fortunes plummeted. The trio have been remarkably injury free over their careers, but will this change?

Gareth Widdop, the fourth member of the spine, is probably the next most important player. He was solid in 2012 but failed to grow into the star he looked like becoming. He needs to take more playmaking responsibility next season, even if it means overcalling Cronk on occasion, for the sake of his own development and to reduce predictability.

Ryan Hoffman was magnificent in his return to the Storm in 2012 and led the forwards in metres and line breaks. Without Manu, his ability to break the line will be more important than ever. Jesse Bromwich is maturing into a high-quality prop and he has solid support from veterans Brian Norrie and Jason Ryles, but Melbourne needs to find young frontrowers in a hurry. Two they hope will emerge as star props are the very tall Jordan McLean and the very talented Tohu Harris. There are also hopes for hefty Mitch Garbutt, while Kenneath Bromwich (Jesse's brother) looks a prospect in the front- or backrow.

Next season will be Bellamy's 11th in charge of Melbourne. There have been countless rumours linking him to lucrative jobs at other clubs. Is he still hungry? Is he ready to push once again towards the top of the mountain? He demonstrated he still has some of his famous fire when he learned the fixture for the opening rounds of the season has the Storm flying back from the World Club Challenge in the wintry UK, playing in Melbourne, then five days later taking on the Cowboys in steamy Townsville. He is threatening to rest key players from the North Queensland encounter. Certainly that piece of fixturing looks harsh, but he of all people knows the season is long. Hiccups can be overcome if you're good enough.

Human nature dictates that it is hard to maintain maximum effort year in, year out. Storm players could be forgiven for dropping off by a few percentage points knowing that they have a (legitimate) premiership ring in their keeping. In a competition as tight as the NRL, any slackening off leaves you vulnerable to teams with more to prove. Melbourne's depth is a problem, and the continued reliance on the Big Three must backfire some time – mustn't it?

Here at Bigpond Sport we are predicting a stumble for Storm this year to seventh or eighth – nothing disastrous, but out of the premiership running. If that happens, the big challenge for Bellamy and his brains trust will be to ensure the club is well positioned to rebound to its accustomed perch come season 2014.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of BigPond Sport.

Follow BigPond Sport on Twitter: @bigpondsport


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