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'Coming in after Bradman': Inside Storm's plans for post-Bellamy era

As Melbourne's grand final winners kept their ski masks close at hand lest that celebratory champagne result in a casualty ward update, the libations kept coming back in Sydney too.

Unable to join their players in their Sunshine Coast bubble, Storm chairman Matt Tripp, CEO Dave Donaghy, board members and recruitment manager Paul Bunn toasted their success overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Amid the backslapping Melbourne's powerbrokers began planning the club's 2021 premiership defence in earnest, less than 24 hours after securing the crowning glory of a season like no other.

This Saturday, Tripp will fly to the Gold Coast for a few quieter beers with Craig Bellamy.

The veteran coach's future sits high on the agenda along with those 2021 plans, all part of a grander scheme to make Melbourne the top sporting outfit in the country.

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'It's a bit like coming into bat after Don Bradman'

As has been the case throughout recent campaigns, there is upheaval aplenty in the Storm's roster this summer.

For months the club has anticipated Cameron Smith's retirement, at the very least his exit from Melbourne's playing ranks, with hopes of keeping him involved in a management, board or coaching capacity.

Tino Fa'asuamaleaui and Suliasi Vunivalu are also gone from their grand final side.

Josh Addo-Carr is going at the end of next season and now Brandon Smith will follow too if a suitable replacement is offered to Melbourne in return.

But above them all sits Bellamy.

The 61-year-old has indicated he would step away from head coaching at the end of the 2021 title defence.

The Storm are battling arch-rivals Brisbane to keep him on deck in 2022, both clubs outlining flexible coaching director or consultancy roles Bellamy could hold while living on the Gold Coast.

It makes these next 12 months all the more critical for the game's premier club.

A "changing of the guard" is how Tripp sees it rather than the end of an era.

Ideally because Bellamy's eventual successor will come from the long line of coaching proteges he has cultivated.

With a verdict expected by the new year, Tripp's preference for a familiar face has ex-assistant Jason Ryles leading a host of former Storm staff to eventually fill Bellamy's spittle-sprayed coach's box.

"As soon as we have a view on what Craig is doing in 2022, I think we'll move pretty quickly on that process of who would be that suitable replacement," Tripp told NRL.com.

"It's a difficult one, it's a bit like coming into bat after Don Bradman.

Jason Ryles has served a lengthy apprenticeship as Storm assistant coach.
Jason Ryles has served a lengthy apprenticeship as Storm assistant coach. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

"It's not a deal breaker if they're not a Storm person.

"But to provide that level of continuity and consistency around the expectations that have always been there from Craig and his support staff, I think that experience would go a long way.

"They're huge shoes to fill and whoever we get will need a huge amount of support from all areas of the club to ensure they continue on successfully."

Ryles's five-year Storm coaching stint ended a few days after Melbourne's October 25 grand final triumph, with the former Test front-rower joining England's national rugby union set-up under Eddie Jones.

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He is contracted with England until the 2023 World Cup, but it's believed an offer to succeed Bellamy would be looked upon favourably by Jones.

Other NRL coaches intimately familiar with the Storm system include Stephen Kearney, who is back at Melbourne as an assistant, Newcastle's Adam O'Brien, Parramatta's Brad Arthur and Wests Tigers mentor Michael Maguire.

A new two-year deal for Maguire at Concord is close to being announced, while Newcastle are also already looking to extend O'Brien.

More presently, Tripp says his looming catch-up with Bellamy and the seismic decision accompanying it will come with the best intentions of both parties.

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"I'd like to think we'll keep Craig at the Melbourne Storm," Tripp said.

"But at the end of the day, and I've said this to Craig throughout, he's got to do what's best for his family at this stage of his life and career.

"Both parties want what's best for each other here. Craig doesn't want to leave Melbourne in any way vulnerable, and we want him to do what's best for him and his family.

"I have to keep Melbourne's best interests at heart, but I also think the club owes everything to Craig Bellamy."

Building around a 'Big Three'

The Storm loathe any comparison of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster and Harry Grant to messrs Slater, Cronk and Smith, who in turn never liked the Big Three tag anyway.

The emerging trio of stars are their own men, the genuine greats before them among the best to have ever played the game.

The "Big Three" analogy does no one any favours, except the recruitment model that has trumped all others for a decade.

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Around his champion creators, Bellamy has famously developed the products of Melbourne's pathways system - along with other club's offcuts - into world beaters. 

Smith is the last of Melbourne's bonafide icons but his exit won't see a departure from the mantra which has set the club apart all these years.

With Munster signed until 2023 and Papenhuyzen and Grant tied up until 2022, the Storm once more have a playmaking nucleus as good as any in the game tied up long-term.

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"I think the model and the way we've gone about it has been sound," Tripp says.

"So regardless of what happens with Craig, in terms of material changes to how we go about things, I'd say no.

"It's a system Craig built but it's one that's been executed by the entire football department.

"Frank Ponissi, I think he's the best footy boss in any code, he's done a remarkable job in all sorts of circumstances over the years and has handled everything so professionally.

"The plans that have been in place work off a template that's been successful, and we'll execute in the same way.

"Paul Bunn's a brilliant recruiter and he continues to land young guys that come into our system and make the most of it, because it produces excellent players and excellent people."

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Benchmarking against the best

When Tripp first came on board with the Storm, he and previous club chairman Bart Campbell put together a five-year plan, outlining ambitions to win an NRL title, double Melbourne's membership and "stand on our own two feet financially".

Those three key parameters were all ticked off and a new five-year outlook set in motion at the start of 2020.

Already that premiership aspiration has been met in this new five-year cycle, by a group playing interstate for 123 days by the time Penrith were defeated at ANZ Stadium.

Tripp declined to outline specifics of the new plan, but acknowledges it as "fairly bullish".

He says the club is constantly looking to international counterparts for an edge, with 2020 a rare off-season free of a US fact-finding tour due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Closer to home, the Storm are looking not just at the likes of the Roosters and Rabbitohs, but their closest rivals geographically.

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AFL juggernauts Richmond and Geelong and Super Rugby's Canterbury Crusaders were among those that trailed Melbourne when they were crowned Australasia's best sporting team for the second straight year.

The recent analysis by Gain Line Analytics - headed by ex-Wallabies prop Ben Darwin – in combination with Platinum Asset Management is based on rolling five-year outcomes (2016-2020).

Melbourne's four grand finals for two titles in that period is a record as good as any, and measured as such by the analysis of sporting components stability, cohesion and good governance.

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For Tripp, ensuring the Storm's constant evolution – including the eventual post-Bellamy era whenever it comes – is all part the grandest of plans.

"The pandemic set back a few metrics around membership and the like, but it's time to go to the next level," he said.

"The best benchmarking you can do is against your peers in your market, and ours is NRL and AFL.

Craig doesn't want to leave Melbourne in any way vulnerable.

Matt Tripp

"We make ourselves aware of what those clubs are doing and we want to be the most prominent sporting team in the country.

"Melbourne's a big city and we have it to ourselves in terms of rugby league.

"It was difficult early on to get market share in what was described as foreign territory, but it's not foreign territory now.

"Everyone in Victoria knows Melbourne Storm.

"You might barrack for Carlton or Collingwood, but 99 per cent of people would follow the Storm as their rugby league side now, and know what they're going to get every week from them.

"We want to go from being everyone's second-favourite team into their team of choice.

"And we've got the runs on-field in terms of performance, and off-field conduct and business approach to give that a decent crack in the future."