How a drizzle turned into a Melbourne Storm
When the Melbourne Storm entered the newly-formed NRL in 1998, there were serious questions about how they would perform in a sporting market utterly dominated by the AFL.
Now, as they enter their 20th season in the competition, the Storm are considered one of the powerhouse clubs in Australian sport and will head into the 2017 Telstra Premiership as title favourites alongside the Penrith Panthers.
It's a remarkable journey for a team that has been through so much over the past decade. From premiership success in 2007 and 2009, to the pain of the salary cap scandal in 2010, and then redemption in 2012, the Storm have been there or thereabouts for longer than any other team in the NRL.
It wasn't always that way.
What started with a first-up win on a wet night in Wollongong in 1998 was quickly followed by premiership success the following season, but that's when things started to slow down.
When Cameron Smith debuted for the club in 2002, the Storm registered just nine wins in what was statistically the worst year in their history.
That year the average crowd at Storm home games at Olympic Park was just 9,103, a figure that slumped to 8,887 by 2004.
Coaches were coming and going, support was waning, and it was starting to show on the field.
It looked like the naysayers were right. The hysteria generated by the 1999 premiership was fading.
Enter the 'Big Three'. Smith and fullback Billy Slater, along with coach Craig Bellamy, were established figures, but Cooper Cronk's emergence as first-choice halfback in 2006 signalled a colossal change in the club's fortunes.
With the rise of Greg Inglis as a superstar centre, the Storm made four grand finals on the trot, winning premierships in 2007 and 2009 that would later be stripped as part of salary cap punishments.
That could have been a hammer blow to the organisation. Instead, it galvanised the club.
The Storm averaged 14,670 fans per game that year – a record at the time – having made the permanent move to the state-of-the-art facilities at AAMI Park.
On-field success returned with an emotional grand final win in 2012, and they nearly went all the way again last year, only for the Sharks to celebrate their own fairytale win in dramatic circumstances.
But the most profound change has happened off the field. The Storm boasted a record crowd average last season (19,024) and there is a genuine buzz around the city of Melbourne when it comes to rugby league.
As of February 22, the club has registered 16,296 members – nearly 3,000 more compared to the same time last year and fourth amongst the 16 NRL clubs – and that's the tip of the iceberg according to their skipper, Cameron Smith.
"We're nearly passed our membership mark of last year and we're aiming for 20,000 this year which would be fairly significant for a rugby league team in Victoria," Smith told NRL.com.
"If someone said 20 years ago that there was going to be a successful rugby league team in Victoria then you probably would have been laughed at. It's come a long way in a short amount of time.
"That's on the back of what the club and the players have put into Victoria, particularly the Melbourne region.
"Victorians love their sport, and they get behind their local teams. We're fortunate to be the only league team in town but we don't see ourselves competing with AFL; we want to work alongside those guys to create the best product possible for Victoria.
"People that follow football in general – no matter the code or who they support – they'll come down to support the Storm and be a part of our organisation."
While the Storm have been the main attraction over the past 20 seasons, the NRL has rewarded Melbourne for its continued support of the game with blockbuster events such as the 2014 Four Nations clash against England, State of Origin matches, as well as the 2017 World Cup opening fixture later this year.
"A lot of the credit has to go to the NRL," Smith said.
"They've taken some pretty significant games down to Melbourne – World Cup games, Four Nations matches… State of Origin has been hugely successful down there. We had the largest State of Origin crowd in history two years ago with roughly 92,000 fans coming to the MCG.
"It shows there is huge interest in our sport and you can see it at junior level."
That rise in junior participation has been evident on and off the field, with former Storm centre/winger Mahe Fonua the first Victorian born and bred player to represent the club in 2012.
He was closely followed by Young Tonumaipea who became the second local junior to represent the club in a sign that more and more kids in Melbourne are participating at grassroots level.
"There are so many more kids playing our game down there now," Smith noted.
"Anywhere we go in the community, most people know who the Melbourne Storm are, what we're doing down there, and they know a lot of the players as well.
"It's clear to see how far we've come – we still want to make it bigger and better for kids coming through to play our game – but it's certainly in a great spot at the moment."