The Penrith Panthers may have won 17 games on the trot heading into Sunday night’s NRL Grand Final – but in 17 years as the Melbourne Storm’s coach, Craig Bellamy has never backed down from a challenge.
As the Storm come in unchanged for Sunday night’s title decider at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, Bellamy and club captain Cam Smith have been fronting the media this week with a spirit of laughter, mirth, and hubris that could easily be likened to a classic comedy duo.
But in the seriousness of the Storm having a job to do on the all-conquering Panthers, the light display of Bellamy as the punchline maker and Smith as the straight man is just a front for the team’s tunnel-vision focus.
On the other hand, perhaps their display remains indicative of the relative lack of pressure on the Storm, compared to the more local and parochial focus on the Panthers, in spite of the fact that they haven’t won the league championship since 2003 and Penrith being located 50 kilometres west of Sydney’s CBD.
And also in spite of the fact that Bellamy’s Storm are in the NRL Grand Final for the fourth time in the last five years.
Winning only in 2017, however, does signal that Bellamy’s current side still possesses a hunger to take care of the Panthers’ challenge on Sunday.
Chaos versus calm, success versus hunger. If all of this sounds confusing, don’t worry; Bellamy has the situation under control, and after leading the Storm to nine NRL Grand Final Week campaigns over the years during his reign, he knows exactly what he is doing.
Bellamy’s display and mannerisms over this grand final week, and over the latter weeks of this crazy 2020 season, has been a masterclass in leadership.
He has helped Smith diffuse speculation over his future, for beyond this season, and whether or not it is with the Storm or with another team at all. Simultaneously, Bellamy has also crafted a winning equation unique to the Storm’s 2020 roster – or, given the nature of Melbourne’s winning traditions over the last 17 years that he has been there, he has merely tinkered the team to fit not just one strength but many of them.
The Storm’s legendary holy trinity of years past of Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk has given way to the new powerful trio of Smith, Cameron Munster, and Ryan Papenhuyzen.
But like any championship side, and despite all the attention Smith, Munster and Papenhuyzen receive as playmakers and gamebreakers alike, the Storm are so much more than just three key players.
Jahrome Hughes has been given more freedom to attack and be a playmaker this season, and his mindset under his purple helmet led to him laying on for three of the Storm’s four first-half tries against Canberra in last week’s preliminary final.
And according to his captain, Hughes is displaying a hot run of form.
“Jahrome’s back end of the year has been really unbelievable. He’s been in our best three players, in my opinion, every week,” Smith said after the win over the Raiders.
Bellamy has retained faith in Christian Welch through the prop incurring two ACL injuries, one which caused him to miss out on the 2017 premiership, as well as his own emotional heartbreak of playing in two grand final-losing sides with the Storm.
Of course, having a strong support staff has aided Bellamy in his management duties – in this case, Jacqui Louder, a sports and performance psychologist who has earned Welch’s praise.
“It has been a great year personally to come back and play well and be a part of this team, because it is a really special club,” says Welch.
“I suppose the last couple of years we have had really strong seasons, but just fallen short a couple of times. [Louder] has been really good for us in trying to channel our best performance for those big games,” adds Welch.
And overall team speed has been a major factor in the Storm getting their results week in and week out – and could be their biggest strength among them all.
Panthers wingers Josh Mansour and Brian To’o will have to be at their best, and likely require help, in order to keep the likes of Josh Addo-Carr, Sinulasi Vinuvalu and Justin Olam honest, aside from the threat of Papenhuyzen making line breaks out of the middle.
And not forgetting the other parts to the Storm’s puzzle, either.
The dirty work done by the Bromwich brothers of Jesse and Kenny as well as Dale Finucane, the hard running of Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Timo Faasuamaleaui and Felise Kafusi, and the versatilities of Nicho Hynes and Brandon Smith – the eventual heir apparent to Cam Smith’s role with the team at hooker – all players have their roles to play.
Bellamy, fitting of his long legacy with the Storm as its coach, has gotten the best out of every player in their strongest positions.
In fact, beyond man-management, Bellamy cites that every player on the team has played their roles well in a challenging year that has included interstate relocation, being away from families, and other obstacles mandated by the current pandemic, and responded with flying colours.
“We’re going to rely on what we have been good at over the last two or three weeks. We’ve made some good steps forward with some parts of our game, and we’re always looking to sharpen that up a bit,” Bellamy says.
“We’re aware of what we do really well, and they [Penrith] are also very aware of it, too – you don’t win 17 games in a row without that sort of awareness.
“We want to make sure that the things we do really well, we keep doing very well, and using every player in that 17-man squad to play to their strengths, and hope it gets the job done,” adds Bellamy.
Should the Storm win, as many expect them to do on the basis of their big-game experience as well as ability, perhaps this NRL title may serve as the best testament in Bellamy’s coaching career with Melbourne.