Melbourne has broken another NRL record with an 18th straight win, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that that decline just isn’t coming.
The Storm have been able to keep a steady flow of victories since April 2. That’s 133 days, and countless relocations to and from Queensland and Victoria, ago.
So how have they done it while 2020 grand finalists Penrith dropped off during State of Origin period, Parramatta hit a wall of epic proportions and South Sydney fumbled and stumbled before finally hitting top speed?
The Kiwi, Fiji and PNG Storm
Part of the reason Melbourne has kept this run up through the often difficult mid-season period is a lack of reliance on Australian stars.
A lot was made of Melbourne signing Broncos winger Xavier Coates earlier this year, because he was the first State of Origin representative they had signed in 15 years. But in reality, Melbourne doesn’t want Origin players unless they’ve built them in house.
This year, despite being the best team in rugby league, Melbourne only lost Cameron Munster, Josh Addo-Carr, Christian Welch, Dale Finucane, Felise Kaufusi and Harry Grant to Origin duty.
While wingers like Addo-Carr are more important than ever, Munster is one of the best halves in the game, and the forward pack lost about half of its players, Melbourne managed that tricky nine-week period because they’ve been fishing in international waters.
The Cowboys and Titans must be screaming into their couch cushions every time they watch Kiwi sensation Jahrome Hughes tear defences apart in the purple number seven.
The outside backs are bolstered by New Zealand’s Reimis Smith, signed from Canterbury, and Papua New Guinea’s Justin Olam, signed from the Hunters in the Queensland Cup; both of whom Melbourne has helped turn into world-class talents.
Brandon Smith, Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Kenny Bromwich are New Zealand stars who would be at home in the front six for any NRL team.
Then there’s Tui Kamikamica.
No doubt, lesser teams would have fallen in love with the Fijian’s size and athleticism and rushed him into first grade, played him too much too early, and possibly cost him a full NRL career.
Instead, after stints in Parramatta’s under-20s team and rugby union, the Storm signed Kamikamica in 2016 and stashed him in Queensland Cup to keep working on his game. Now he’s one of their most devastating ball carriers and has started 11 games for this historically great side.
None of that top-rate talent will be eligible for Queensland or NSW teams in coming years.
At this rate, don’t be surprised if they try to convince Coates to realign his allegiance to PNG next season.
Injuries are no fun, but they may yet help the Storm
Melbourne is bringing Ryan Papenhuyzen and Harry Grant off the bench at the moment. That’s just not fair.
No-one enjoyed watching Papenhuyzen get flattened by Tyrell Fuimaono 13 minutes into the Magic Round clash with the Dragons.
It ended one of the most scintillating starts to an NRL season in recent memory, sidelined Papenhuyzen for eight weeks, and cost him an Origin debut.
Papenhuyzen has also spoken about how much he struggled with the lingering effects of that concussion, telling the Sydney Morning Herald about headaches, mood swings, a loss of fitness and a loss of weight from his already slight — for an NRL player — frame.
As he eases his way back into contact after some of the most difficult weeks of a meteoric rise to superstardom, former understudy Nicho Hynes has emerged as the new hottest ticket in town, even nabbing Papenhuyzen’s spot on an extended Blues bench for Origin III.
Playing for his first big contract and knowing Papenhuyzen would get the number one back at some point once he returned allowed Hynes to play with confidence and freedom not seen since … well, Papenhuyzen’s first nine weeks of 2021.
Hynes has emerged as one of the best young playmakers in the game, got a lucrative deal from Cronulla and even clung to that starting fullback spot as Papenhuyzen tries to rediscover his form.
Up front, hooker Harry Grant missed the first four weeks of the season, then rounds 10 to 13, then 16 to 19.
Again, injuries aren’t fun for any player or team, but having Brandon Smith as a back-up option can soften the blow. It could also play into Melbourne’s hands heading into the finals.
Dummy half is one of the most physically demanding jobs in rugby league.
Often the smallest player in the forward pack, stuck in the middle, running into the teeth of the defence and having to take the opposition’s best hits on the other side of the ball.
Grant has played just 10 NRL games plus an Origin this season, which could come in handy with three weeks left before finals.
Grant and Smith are reunited as one of the most devastating positional rotations in the game, and Papenhuyzen has hopefully returned early enough to get his feet back under him before the most important games of the season, which is incredibly important for a team trying to go back to back.
So who can stop this well rested, versatile, deep team? Well, speaking of injuries…
The Panthers aren’t done
You could be forgiven for missing the grand final rematch against the Panthers in round 20. After having that game circled on the calendar for months, it was a bit of a fizzer.
Queensland’s COVID outbreak meant the game was bumped from Saturday to Sunday at the last second, ensuring there would be no fans at the ground and plonking the game on the same day as Australia’s best Olympic medal haul ever. Penrith was also missing five representative stars, which definitely helped Melbourne coast home 37-10.
It’s not really a fair representation of the teams, with the third-round 12-10 win for the Panthers probably closer to the reality of a full-strength contest.
Isaah Yeo is back, Api Koroisau and Nathan Cleary are set for their returns, and Brian To’o and James Fisher-Harris are coming down the road as well.
As a sign of their search for an extra edge, they also signed the enigmatic Tevita Pangai Jr on what is effectively a loan deal before he heads to the Bulldogs, although the former Bronco’s debut has been called off due to “a deeply personal and sensitive matter”.
Mass Origin absences and a slew of injuries contributed to Penrith going 4-3 through seven games recently, but this is the same team that won 12 straight to start the season, and you can expect them to start peaking at the right time with revenge for the 2020 grand final on their minds.
Rabbits on the run
Speaking of peaking at the right time, South Sydney is on fire right now.
The Rabbitohs have won nine straight since getting belted 56-12 by Penrith in round 11, which came two weeks after a 50-0 embarrassment against the Storm.
South Sydney’s run, combined with Parramatta’s three straight losses, has seen the Rabbitohs latch onto a breakaway group that’s riding over the horizon away from the peloton.
Sparked by five-eighth Cody Walker and fullback Latrell Mitchell, South Sydney have looked every bit as scintillating as Melbourne in attack and stingy in defence to boot.
They’ve leaked the most points of any team in the top five this season — 394 — but after conceding 23 points a game for the first 11 weeks of the year, they’ve cut that back to just 15.7 during this winning streak; better than Penrith’s 16.9 during the same stretch, although well shy of the Storm’s 12.2.
In the past month, Melbourne narrowly beat North Queensland 20-16, and got 10-point wins over Manly and Canberra.
That proves they’re not invincible, but those less explosive victories have also showed they have a league-best defence to go with an attack that has so far scored a record 743 points this season.
Even the Storm’s clouds are lined with gold at this point.