Such is the expectation surrounding the Melbourne Storm that despite making their 12th consecutive NRL finals showing in 2022, some viewed last season as a disappointment.
Expected by many fans to add to their run of seven straight preliminary finals appearance following an explosive start to the year, the side eventually succumbed to an injury- raddled season to finish fifth on the ladder and were forced to play elimination finals football, where they were knocked out by the Canberra Raiders.
This season, the side will arguably be starting on the back foot and will again have to defy the doubters, with uncertainty surrounding the expected return from a fractured kneecap of star fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen and the departure from the club of four representative-level forwards.
However, with Craig Bellamy signed on to coach his 21st season in the NRL in 2023, and with a first-choice halves pairing the envy of the league, it will be a brave person who writes them off.
Predicted Round 1 team
- Ryan Papenhuyzen
- Nick Meaney
- Reimis Smith
- Justin Olam
- Xavier Coates
- Cameron Munster
- Jahrome Hughes
- Nelson Asofa-Solomona
- Harry Grant
- Christian Welch
- Eliesa Katoa
- Tariq Sims
- Tui Kamikamica
- Tyran Wishart
- Trent Loiero
- Alec MacDonald
- Josh King
Others: Tom Eisenhuth, George Jennings, Jonah Pezet, Will Warbrick, Aaron Pene, Dean Ieremia, Jack Howarth, Jayden Nikorima, Joe Chan, Jordan Grant, Marion Seve, Tepai Moeroa, Grant Anderson, Cole Geyer (development), Sualauvi Faalogo (development) , Tristan Powell (development)
While there isn’t anything concrete surrounding the return date of Papenhuyzen, thinking positively, the 2020 Clive Churchill Medalist will hopefully be on track to return to the field after heading to the United States to work with reconditioning specialist Bill Knowles to help recover from his fractured kneecap.
With the departure of Jesse Bromwich, Kenny Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi to the Dolphins and Brandon Smith to the Roosters, there are plenty of places in the forwards up for grabs, with some new recruits and up-and-coming youngers vying to play.
- Squad spots filled: 30/30
Much has been made about the loss of experience in the Storm forward pack, with skipper Jesse Bromwich, his brother the versatile Kenny Bromwich and Queensland Maroons and Tonga second rower Felise Kaufusi all moving north to the Dolphins.
Brandon Smith, who alternated between hooker and lock when coming off the bench, has also departed the club to join with the Roosters.
However, to counter the drain of experience, the side have secured Tariq Sims from the Dragons, while an exciting young signing is Eliesa Katoa from the Warriors, who could be anything under the coaching of Bellamy.
Joe Chan from Catalans is the son of former Storm player Alex Chan, with the second rower joining on a two-year contract. Prop Aaron Pene is also returning to the club after spending the 2022 season with the Warriors.
The squad is filled with all top 30 spots taken, but it is interesting to see what they do about their depth at dummy half, with only Harry Grant and Jayden Nikorima listed as hookers in the Storm squad.
Tyran Wishart proved last year that he is adept at filling in the role and is a useful utility, as his first-choice position is halfback.
All eyes will be on Papenhuyzen to see how quickly he can get back onto the field after spending two weeks in Philadelphia to help move the needle on his recovery.
While fans would be hopeful of a Round 1 return, Papenhuyzen has said he does not have a timeline for his return to playsharing prior to his US departure that he didn’t want to go into this with any expectations.
“I just want to go in and do my best and see how I come out after that,” Papenhuyzen said.
In good news however, skipper Christian Welch is on track for a Round 1 return after missing almost the entire 2022 season after suffering a season-ending Achilles injury in the opening game of the 2022 season.
Most contentious position
Thanks to their young and emerging forwards, the Storm have plenty of options to help cover the loss of Kenny Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi in the second row and also have strong contenders for prop with Jesse Bromwich also having departed – but the question is which of them will start.
Their depth was pushed to their limits during the injury-hit 2022 season, which gave otherwise fringe players the chance to experience some consistent NRL.
New faces Tariq Sims and Eliesa Katoa are also in the mix for starting spots, while Bellamy has shown he’s not afraid of giving young players an opportunity, with the likes of Alec MacDonald making his NRL debut in Round 1 last year, despite playing minimal games in Queensland’s Hostplus Cup.
The bench utility spot is also an interesting position, with Jayden Nikorima and Tyran Wishart the most likely contenders.
Despite some challenges to overcome, there are plenty of positives in the Storm squad that should have fans hopeful of yet another finals appearance this year.
Craig Bellamy is locked into the club until 2027, but this could be his final season with the clipboard in hand before he fully transitions into the coaching director role at the club.
However, one of the biggest strengths of the side are the spine, especially if Papenhuyzen is fit.
The signature of last year’s Dally M winning five-eighth of the year Cameron Munster was finally secured before he headed to the Rugby League World Cup in a huge boost for the side.
Munster played one of his best ever seasons last year and partnered with halfback Jahrome Hughes and hooker Harry Grant, the Storm can win plenty of games thanks to their skill.
If the spine can stay on the paddock, there is plenty of firepower to cause inroads in the competition.
Biggest question mark
The Storm will go into the 2023 season one of the most intriguing with key departures leaving plenty of pundits writing off their chances of staying a force in the NRL.
While the side will no doubt have a fire in the belly to do better and once again prove people wrong, there is no doubt that they do have losses to overcome.
Although there are a stable of young guns coming through the ranks, including the likes of highly regarded second rower Jack Howarth, big game experience and the ability to push on when the going gets tough can be priceless.
The dynamism which was offered by Brandon Smith will be another factor to address, while there is also a question mark on the players returning from long-term injury and if they will recover their best form.
- February 12: Melbourne Storm v Sydney Roosters at GMHBA Stadium, Geelong
- February 19: Melbourne Storm v Warriors at Orangetheory Stadium, Christchurch