Scandals cast cloud on Melbourne but Bellamy can weather all storms

Australian Rugby league, Cameron Munster, featured, League, Melbourne Storm, NRL 2022

The Storm have been rocked by a series of recent dramas involving several key players and farewelled more stars for the fourth year in a row but can still lay claim to being one of the premiership favourites.

Melbourne are in the midst of one of their most disruptive off-seasons and it will be one of the toughest assignments of Craig Bellamy’s glittering coaching career to keep the team on track for what would be a sixth grand final in 11 years if they can make it back there in 2022.

The drama started soon after their preliminary final loss when footage emerged of Cameron Munster, Brandon Smith and Chris Lewis partying in a room which contained packets of white powder. The players using the old “too drunk to remember what happened” explanation didn’t stop the NRL and the club from fining them heavily and banning them from round one.

Munster, who entered a rehab clinic to sort himself out in the wake of the incident, is on his last chance and CEO Justin Rodski has stated any more breaches could cost him a further $100,000 fine and possibly end up in his lucrative contract being torn up.

Smith compounded his error with his controversial appearance on a recent podcast in which he claimed his 2023 destination, the Sydney Roosters, were a more united club than the Storm and that Melbourne had a boozy culture.

Worse still was prop Tui Kamikamica being charged in late November with assault occasioning bodily harm after an incident with a woman at a Brisbane nightspot. The 27-year-old Fijian has been stood down by the club until the conclusion of the criminal case – he will appear in Brisbane Magistrates Court on January 10.

On top of all this has been the ongoing problem of Kiwi forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona refusing to have a COVID-19 vaccination, which means he is not allowed to train with the team under Victorian government regulations.

The off-field distractions are the last thing Bellamy needs as he looks to again keep his team in title contention following the annual poaching raids on his roster.

Bulldogs recruit Josh Addo-Carr is the latest elite player to farewell the Storm, with the Test winger following Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk in heading for the exits in each of the previous three years.

Blues lock Dale Finucane, who was Melbourne’s co-captain last season, and Nicho Hynes, arguably the most improved player in the NRL in 2021, have linked with the Sharks in another body blow for the Storm’s chances of winning a fifth premiership.

Despite all this turmoil, they are considered joint favourites alongside Penrith for the title at $5.50 with PlayUp.

Their chances will depend greatly on their spine of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant, which – along with the added mercurial element of Brandon Smith – is the most potent in the NRL.

Smith will likely fill Finucane’s lock position when he returns from his suspension in Round 2.

Ryan Papenhuyzen of the Storm is tackled

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Papenhuyzen and Grant missed crucial game time in 2021 and although Melbourne barely missed a beat during the regular season, they were rarely able to field their best squad before their campaign ended in the preliminary final loss to Penrith.

There’s always a pre-season pundit or two who will brave it and say this could be the year Melbourne drop off – they are invariably left with egg on their face.

Give Bellamy a chance to sort out his wayward players in the off-season plus a healthy roster for the competition proper and it would be extremely brave or foolish to write off their title hopes in 2022.

What’s new

The Storm rarely make big recruitment splashes but they could have a genuine star of the future on their hands with former Brisbane winger Xavier Coates. He is lightning fast and a tackle breaker who has already had Origin experience with Queensland and once he learns how to make reads in defence, Coates has the natural tools to become truly elite.

Melbourne have boosted their depth with Canterbury utility back Nick Meaney and Knights forward Josh King plus a couple of wild cards in New Zealand rugby sevens outside back William Warbrick and former Roosters playmaker Jayden Nikorima, who has not played in the NRL since 2017, after a stint in the Intrust Super Cup.

He avoided jail in 2019 despite being found guilty of bribing a teammate to sign a statutory declaration to say he had spiked Nikorima’s drink during Mad Monday celebrations so the halfback could avoid a second strike and mandatory ban under the NRL’s illicit drugs policy.

Star on the rise

Young forward Trent Loiero is a Craig Bellamy kind of player – a hard worker on the training and playing fields, who was blooded last season with six NRL appearances. With Felise Kaufusi heading to the Dolphins in 2023 and Kenny Bromwich in the veteran class, Loiero is seen as a potential second-row mainstay of the future.

Who’s under the pump

Cameron Munster needs to show he’s matured. He’s shed weight and been training the house down but the responsible attitude needs to be sustainable. Off-field issues have dogged the Maroons star in recent seasons and the days of having the luxury of deferring to superstars like Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater are long gone. With even more experienced Storm stars missing from last season’s team, Munster needs to prove he can be the cornerstone of Melbourne’s next era.

Best-case scenario

They can again be the last team standing on grand final night – they’ve still got a classy spine, an imposing pack, strikepower in the outside backs and the best coach in the competition.

Brandon Smith looks to pass.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Worst-case scenario

The impending departures of Brandon Smith and Felise Kaufusi, along with the contract speculation about Cameron Munster and Harry Grant could become a distraction. Also, their depth has been depleted in the off-season following the losses of Sharks recruits Nicho Hynes and Dale Finucane, Josh Addo-Carr and Max King to Canterbury and Brenko Lee to the Broncos.

Round 1 predicted team

1. Ryan Papenhuyzen
2. Xavier Coates
3. Reimis Smith
4. Justin Olam
5. George Jennings
6. Cooper Johns
7. Jahrome Hughes
8. Jesse Bromwich
9. Harry Grant
10. Christian Welch
11. Felise Kaufusi
12. Kenny Bromwich
13. Nelson Asofa-Solomona
14. Tui Kamikamica
15. Nick Meaney
16. Tepai Moeroa
17. Thomas Eisenhuth

Others: Brandon Smith, Chris Lewis, Cameron Munster (all suspended until Round 2), Trent Loiero, Jordan Grant, Jack Howarth, Dean Ieremia, Josh King, Jayden Nikorima, Jonah Pezet, William Warbrick, Tyran Wishart

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