It’s both easy and lazy to write off the Melbourne Storm in 2018.
Cooper Cronk has gone to NRL darlings Sydney Roosters, Jordan McLean to North Queensland, Tohu Harris to New Zealand Warriors and Slade Griffin to Newcastle Knights – that’s four players from last year's premiership team who need replacing.
Plus no team has won back-to-back premierships in the NRL era.
So, it would be easy to call Melbourne Storm to finish fifth or seventh or 15th and scream that the premiership foundations at AAMI Park have started crumbling.
But what the Storm have proven for the past three years is they regenerate their side better than anyone in the NRL and they have a record of proving the doubters wrong.
Some might think it’s the doubters who power Storm, but it’s more the desire to maintain all that has gone before them and continue the success which has followed the club throughout its 20 years in the competition.
As returned Storm second-rower Ryan Hoffman said at the club’s 20th anniversary gala: “If you drink from the well, remember those who first dug it.”
Those forebearers will continue to be honoured in 2018 as the Storm aim for a piece of NRL history.
It won’t be easy, success in the NRL marathon never is, but this year’s Storm are just as deep, just as versatile and perhaps a little more unpredictable than the side which claimed the NRL premiership last year.
But the talk stops once Storm run out for their round one meeting with Canterbury Bulldogs at Perth Stadium on Saturday night.
The key players
New half-back Brodie Croft is a star in the making but he will be put under the spotlight while Cameron Munster has already faced an off-season of scrutiny after some questionable behaviour while away with the Kangaroos – parts of that scrutiny were fair, others unfair but the star back can silence it with another stellar season.
Croft will lean on his veterans as he learns the ropes but he doesn’t lack confidence and loves a try, watch for him 20-metres from the line.
Munster looks likely to start the season as a full-back in place of Billy Slater before returning to his regular five-eighth role – which position he plays in the future will be decided by Slater’s retirement plans as much as Munster’s form.
The buck will again stop with captain Cameron Smith who took all before him last year and looks every bit ready for a repeat dose – the drive and the grunt work required for back-to-back titles will come from the skipper.
Wingers Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr will again score in bunches although centre Curtis Scott and Croft have histories as try scorers too.
But where the Storm’s season will truly be decided is in the growth of their forward pack.
Jesse Bromwich looks as refreshed as he has ever been after a proper off-season break, but Felise Kaufusi, Tim Glasby, Dale Finucane and Nelson Asofa-Solomona all enjoyed career seasons in 2017 and whether they can maintain the fitness, form and mental freshness to last until the last Sunday in September will be the decisive factor.
Perhaps spreading that forward load will be what helps get them as Brandon Smith, Kenny Bromwich, Sam Kasiano, Patrick Kaufusi, Christian Welch, Joe Stimson and Ryan Hoffman should offer plenty of cover and even the odd rest weekend should the front-liners start feeling the strain.
This is another thorny area for Storm who kept winning during State of Origin and made full use of their bye rounds during last year’s campaign.
But the loss of the international bye in May and not having their first bye until round 13 will test out the Storm in a far different way in 2018.
The high-performance staff have long been working on how the Storm will manage a 13-week stretch without a break as those four or five-day mini-holidays during bye weekends have been essential to refreshing the players physically and mentally.
That being said having more rest time around State of Origin could balance out the drain of those early months with the round 13 bye coming just before Origin I at the MCG and leaving the club with no games from May 26 until the June 10 showdown with Brisbane at AAMI Park.
But if the likes of Finucane, centre Curtis Scott and star winger Josh Addo-Carr are promoted to the New South Wales side then plenty of Storm’s stars won’t enjoy much rest at all.
The big games
Storm won’t lack for marquee match-ups starting with Johnathan Thurston and the North Queensland Cowboys' visit to AAMI Park on March 22, it could be an early grand final preview.
New Zealand Warriors come to AAMI Park for the annual ANZAC Day game on April 25, while the James Graham/Ben Hunt-led St George-Illawarra visit on July 5.
Mid-August clashes with old rivals Cronulla and emerging rivals Parramatt, both at AAMI Park, will add plenty of spice to the run to the finals.
Storm play in Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Auckland, Newcastle and Townsville along with regular trips to Sydney but they only have one game at grand final venue ANZ Stadium which is their August 3 clash with South Sydney.
Sadly, Cronk and the Roosters aren’t scheduled to play at AAMI Park – strangely their only meeting will be at Adelaide Oval on June 29, although there is every chance they will run into each other during the finals.
• Emerging Kiwi utility Brandon Smith will soon become an impact player off the bench, Smith impressed last year before a wrist injury ended his season. He has a powerful running style and a nose for tries.
• Storm will again have some NSW State of Origin players – surely Finucane, Addo-Carr or Scott will earn a nod.
• Storm will have six or so losses in 2018, only four defeats in 2017 was outstanding, but a tough draw makes it hard to repeat such consistency.
• Another Storm young gun will emerge, keep an eye out for the likes of Harry Grant, Scott Drinkwater, Billy Walters and Ryan Papenhuyzen should their chance come.
Storm will go back-to-back, but they will be pushed right up to the final minutes of the grand final – the Roosters, the Cowboys and plenty of others will threaten, but when it comes to the crunch Storm will be the last team standing.