With the odds stacked against them yet again, the Melbourne Storm managed to produce another amazing season despite falling short in the preliminary final.
The reigning premiers were an unstoppable force during the season equalling a NRL record 19 straight regular season wins.
As coach Craig Bellamy yet again proving he is a master coach with his rebuild on the run coming into full effect.
Despite their dominance throughout the year they fell agonisingly short, losing to eventual premiers the Penrith Panthers by four points in the preliminary final.
The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the year in review for the Melbourne Storm.
Everything seemed to go right for the Storm this season with their offence being their major weapon, scoring 40 plus points on 12 occasions.
They also scored the most points (861) and tries (151) as they established themselves as a true offensive powerhouse of the competition.
They also broke through oppositions defences with ease with the most linebreaks in the league (177), they also had the fifth most post contact metres (13,667), the fourth most run metres (45,097), and the most dummy half runs (399).
While their offence was on song, their defence was also up there with the best in the competition.
They averaged the second least points per game this season (13.2), had the third fewest missed tackles (704) and the fourth fewest ineffective tackles (360).
This year, many teams seasons were derailed by injury, but the Storm managed to take them in their stride and and fill the holes left by star players.
Ryan Papenhuyzen, Harry Grant, Cameron Munster, George Jennings and Dale Finucane all missed large chunks of the season but such is the depth of their squad, players such as Nicho Hynes, Tui Kamikamica, Dean Ieremia all stepped up their output to help fill in during their absence .
While the Storm’s season went off without much going wrong, the layout of their fixture was one thing that worked against them this year.
In the opening three rounds the Storm played three of the eventual top six teams and only just managed to defeat the Rabbitohs in round one before losing to the Eels and Panthers in the following two rounds by a combined six points.
However, in the following 15 weeks the Storm cruised along accounting for every team they came up against, including five of the eventual top eight teams.
Due to injuries and suspension to rival teams the Storm remained largely unchallenged throughout this period of time.
In the last six weeks of the season the Storm faced four eventual top eight sides, including wins over an undermanned Panthers as well as the Titans and Sea Eagles, and a loss to the Eels in round 24.
While it was totally out of their control, the way the Storm’s fixture fell didn’t help the teams chances with large periods of time between genuine finals matchups.
After the retirement of Cameron Smith, the pressure was on Brandon Smith to perform this season especially with the return of Harry Grant from the Wests Tigers.
However, Smith exceeded expectations with a career best season. He scored 11 tries, had 10 try assists and ran for 2,333 metres.
And it was his partnership with Grant that made him even better as the pair shared the role allowing Smith to shift into the middle forward position and use his speed and agility combined with his strength to expose an oppositions tiring forward pack.
After joining the Storm on a train and trial contract in 2019, Nicho Hynes finally showed the whole league what the Storm saw in him when they signed him.
Hynes filled in for Papenhuyzen after he suffered a shoulder injury early in the season, but was granted a sustained run in the number one jersey after Papenhuyzen suffered a sickening concussion in the round 10 win over the Dragons.
Hynes filled in perfectly for Papenhuyzen scoring seven tries, kicking 58 goals, had 17 try assists and ran for 2,809 metres.
His stellar season was capped off with a spot in the extended New South Wales Blues squad for game three.
Hynes will join the Sharks next season to take up a role in the halves.
Halfback Jahrome Hughes was another Storm player who had a career best season as he picked up some of the playmaking slack left behind by Cameron Smith.
Hughes had nine tires, 19 nine try assists and 2,642 running metres with his speed on the ground making him extremely dangerous in the Storm’s passing offence.
However, most impressively, Hughes became a real threat kicking the ball this season. He kicked for 5,758 metres at an average of 239.93 metres per game. Whilst this was only the 11th most metres in the competition, it was an improvement of 2,390 metres from 2020.
Hughes was recognised as one of the top halfbacks in the league at the Dally M Awards as one of the four nominees for the Dally M Halfback of the Year.
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When the Storm came up against the North Queensland Cowboys in round 19, they were 14 games into their win streak and were at the peak of their powers after scoring 40 plus points in their four previous games.
However, it was a much more tight affair than many predicted as the Storm snuck away with a four point win against the 13th placed Cowboys, proving they still had it when their back were against the wall.
After scoring two tries before the 20th minute the Storm looked in control, however, Coen Hess managed to sneak one across the line before half-time to bring the Cowboys back in the game.
A Kyle Feldt try in the 51st minute put the Cowboys in front before the Storm iced it with tries to Reimis Smith and Josh Addo-Carr, despite a late Kane Bradley try.
This close encounter had the Storm primed for match-ups against the Panthers and the Sea Eagles in the next fortnight.
After such a dominant season, many predicted the Storm were destined for another Grand Final appearance at a minimum.
However, it wasn’t to be as they suffered a four point loss in the preliminary final to the Panthers in what Bellamy described as “our poorest performance of the year”.
The Storm lost Smith and Christian Welch to concussion which halted their offence as they struggled to get through the Panthers defensive line.
They also made an uncharacteristic 16 errors after only making on average 9.8 per game for the rest of the season.
Number one off-season priority
Bellamy’s biggest headache heading into this off-season will be nailing down his starting dummy half.
Grant and Smith shared the role this year, which was helped by the fact that Grant struggled with a hamstring injury during the season.
However, if Grant can have a full preseason and maintain his fitness in 2022, sharing the role might not be enough for the pair who are both arguably in the top five dummy halves in the league.
The Storm should also be looking for ways to ensure their fans, new and old, return to AAMI Park in 2022, with only five games being played at the stadium over the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The clubs administration has already put the wheels in motion offering free memberships to those who had memberships in 2020 and 2021.
However, after a study found they were the most widely supported NRL team this season, they must ensure they capitalise of their success and solidify AAMI Park as a fortress for the team.
Way too early best 17 for 2022
While the Storm have a few key players departing the club this offseason, they have tried their best to cover their losses.
Xavier Coates will arrive from the Broncos to help cover the loss of try-scoring machine Josh Addo-Carr, and Nick Meaney from the Bulldogs will look to seize the bench utility role vacated by Nicho Hynes.
The departure of Dale Finucane opens up a spot at lock that could ultimately solve Bellamy’s dummy half headache, with Brandon Smith possibly transitioning into the middle forwards full-time.
All in all it was an extremely successful season for the Storm, despite faltering within touching distance of yet another grand final appearance.
Despite losing some talent they will look to be the team to beat yet again in 2022.
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