Smart Signings: The Storm have invested everything in the spine – but are the days of ‘next man up’ over?

With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.

Craig Bellamy has been in the game long enough to know when there’s a problem brewing. And despite his side making another Preliminary Final and finishing in the top four again, there certainly are issues at Melbourne that can’t be ignored.

It’s not to say that the Storm were lucky in 2023, because they are the masters of making their own luck and it’s really not a fluke at this stage, but there were points at which things were clearly not right and little could be done to change them.

The cliche that Melbourne never beat themselves is oft repeated – which is because it is true.

They scrapped to 16 wins, generally the benchmark for a top four place, but did so on the back of a final four matches that saw the Storm face a Raiders team in freefall, a Broncos Q Cup select and two sides, the Titans and Dragons, with nothing to play for an coaches that were leaving. 

Duly they were thrashed by the Broncos and Panthers in the finals, and probably should have lost to the Roosters too but for a dramatic late winner from Will Warbrick.

In a year in which two of the competition’s best rosters, Parramatta and Souths, missed the eight entirely and a third, Easts, didn’t kick a ball until halfway through, 2023 was in many ways a testament to the Storm’s enduring ability to stay competitive even when not playing that well. They are the ultimate high-floor team.

The stats bear this out. Melbourne finished third, but were fourth for tries conceded and sixth for tries scored. They were good, but not that good.

Dive further and the picture reveals itself even more. They were second best for metres conceded but just ninth for metres made; fifth for line breaks conceded but a whopping 13th for line breaks made.

With the ball, they were St George Illawarra, but without it, they were almost the Panthers. In fact, go one further: if you imagine the Dragons but they have three Ben Hunt level creative players, then you’re not a million miles off.

That’s the great strength of the Storm, but also their weakness. Bellamy’s system has long depended on one, two or all of Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant doing enough to make points happen, with the other guys essentially interchangeable defensive units.

The genius of it is that you can lose a whole heap of bodies and it’ll basically be fine, because the points against column never goes too high. 

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

In 2023, ten Storm matches had 36 points or fewer and they won seven of them – and two of the defeats were the 26-0 reverse in the finals to the Broncos and the midyear 26-6 at home to Penrith. 

Manly were the third, 18-8 at Brookvale in Round 7, in a game in which Melbourne played 15 minutes with 12 v 13.

Essentially, if it’s a low-scoring game, Melbourne will win unless it’s against the absolute best of the best or something drastic goes wrong.

This tightness is also a weakness, however. It’s great that they have three exceptional playmakers, but in an increasingly competitive league with systematised attacks, it has become easier to mark their best out of the game entirely. 

They didn’t lay a glove on the Panthers, losing 98-26 across three games, and struggled badly against the Broncos, winning at home when they should have lost (Brisbane had three binned at AAMI Park), playing a reggies game in the final round, then getting horsed in the finals.

When you intend to play at the top of the comp, you measure yourself against the best. In that regard, Melbourne were way off in 2023 – and that was in a year where, as mentioned, three of the sides that might also bat at that level were largely rubbish.

In 2024, the Storm must contend with Brisbane and Penrith again, of course, but also the likelihood that Souths, Parra and the Roosters won’t be as bad for as long as they were last year.

The good news, roster wise, is that the elite spine will perhaps get even more elite. If Ryan Papenhuyzen gets back fit and stays fit then that is an immediate extra spark from fullback.

Nick Meaney isn’t going anywhere either, and adds another creative player into their backline when he shifts to, in all likelihood, centre, and Sua Faalogo has burst onto the scene as a third potential option at 1.

Then you chuck in Will Warbrick and Xavier Coates on the wing, Nelson Asofa-Solomona in the forwards and Grant at hooker and there’s plenty of reason to suggest that this side can really do something.

The areas that can be immediately improved upon are pretty easy to see – attacking metres and line breaks – and given the current construction of the squad, there might well be solutions out there.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Bellamy’s love of plug-and-play reliable types is well known, but it has left the forwards looking a little one-paced. Take Nelson’s impact out and what remains, especially in the back row, could certainly be upgraded.

Eliesa Katoa did this a little in 2023, but he wouldn’t make a top ten strike backrowers in the NRL while Josh King and Trent Loeiro, while incredibly reliable, combined for just four line breaks all year. 

Statistically speaking, King is essentially Jake Trbojevic but without a pass and without a quick play the ball, while Loeiro doesn’t make the top 25 backrowers for any ball-carrying metrics while also not being among the elite for defensive workload either.

Both are clearly excellent first graders, but realistically a team aspiring to win Premierships could and should look for better.

King played all but one game of last year as starting lock and, in a competition where everyone is now expecting their 13 to play a little with the ball, his 14 touches, 11 runs, 3 passes per game is right down the bottom.

Obviously, Bellamy likes this kind of player, but to evolve, there are options out there. The standout from the November 1 list would be Jack de Belin, who trounces King in both ball-carrying and ball-playing metrics while also topping him for defence.

Whether the Storm would take on his record culturally is another thing entirely, but on a purely on-field basis, the PNG international is someone they could get, at a very reasonable price given his age and number of options, who would instantly upgrade what they have.

Alternatively, if the idea was to lean even further into the solidity, then two options scream out.

Nat Butcher, the NRL’s outright best defender in 2023, is yet to extend at the Roosters and covers both lock and second row, churning out ten more tackles per game than Loeiro while also do more with the ball on a per carry basis. He also achieves roughly double the number of sub-3 second play the balls with more than 50% making that grade.

A combination of him on one edge and Katoa on the other would be formidable – or, alternatively, Butcher at lock as a specialist defender with Asofa-Solomona able to spend more time on the edge as a strike option, as as been trialled at times.

A potential dollar dazzler in the role – and available today – would be Angus Crichton, also of the Roosters. 

They have been attempting to get someone to take that contract for a while so that cash can be freed up to extend Siua Wong, representing an interesting opportunity for another club to come in, potentially with Easts kicking in part of the deal, or as a chance to do a trade.

Our Smart Signings: Chooks Edition already recommended Tepai Moeroa as exactly the sort of player that the Roosters could do with – invoice to the usual address, Bellyache – and their need for the sort of workaday forward that Melbourne churn out is well established.

Crichton’s numbers in 2023 were perhaps not representative of his calibre as a player given off-field issues, but the pedigree is there given previous rep experiences and the chance to start anew in a stacked Storm side would likely be one he would jump at.

Even in a bad year, his per action data – averaged across how many carries, minutes, tackles etc – outstripped Loiero. 

It’s out of keeping somewhat for Melbourne to go into the market to upgrade so readily, given how much they pride themselves on internal improvements, but then again – don’t be surprised either. 

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