Even without Cameron Smith, Melbourne look set for another strong campaign as they chase back-to-back titles in what could be coach Craig Bellamy's final season.
While there's been no official word on whether Smith has retired, it appears certain that his 430-game Storm career finished in fairytale fashion with last year's grand final victory against the Panthers.
Melbourne have long planned for life after their most-decorated captain, with Harry Grant - returning from a loan stint at the Wests Tigers that netted him Dally M Rookie of the Year honours - and Brandon Smith more than capable of handling the hooking duties.
After spending more than four months living in a Sunshine Coast resort due to Victoria's coronavirus restrictions in 2020 - still managing to win the premiership - the Storm are well-equipped to handle any further adversity that comes their way.
And with 61-year-old Bellamy uncontracted beyond this season, negotiating with rival clubs as he prepares for the next phase of his career, Melbourne will want to perform for their revered mentor.
Star winger Josh Addo-Carr has announced he will join the Bulldogs in 2022, so the club will also be keen to send him out a winner.
The Storm's 2020 season in review
The 2021 outlook
Along with Smith's departure, premiership heroes Suliasi Vunivalu, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Paul Momirovski, Albert Vete, Ricky Leutele and Sandor Earl have all moved on.
Grant, back from the Tigers, stepped into the No.9 jersey for their trial against Newcastle but a knee injury is likely to rule him out of round one, meaning Brandon Smith will get the starting gig.
Veteran forwards Dale Finucane and Jesse Bromwich have taken over as co-captains.
Reimis Smith (Bulldogs) and George Jennings (Eels) are the only established signings, with the pair among the contenders to fill prolific finisher Vunivalu's spot on the wing.
Everybody’s heading to Magic Round
The champions have three tough clashes to start the year against 2020 finalists South Sydney, Parramatta and Penrith, who will want to avenge their grand final defeat. Melbourne are faced with three five-day turnarounds but will relish playing at AAMI Park regularly, having last hosted a match there in June.
How will the Storm fare without Captain Cam?
Not since 2002 have they prepared for a season without the legendary rake being central to their plans. In every year except for his debut campaign, Smith has played at least 19 matches.
There's no question that Grant and Brandon Smith can fill the hole ability-wise, but the elder Smith's reassuring presence and outstanding leadership may be missed more than is thought.
Grant set to step into Smith's shoes in 2021
Stat that gives you hope
The simple fact that Melbourne lost only four of 23 games en route to lifting the Provan Summons Trophy last year should give fans ample belief in their team having another fantastic season.
They played four matches without Cameron Smith in 2020, winning two and losing two (though a plethora of stars were rested in round 20's defeat to the Dragons), but Grant's stats at the Tigers should bring peace of mind: 15 games, five try-assists, three tries, 91.8 percent tackle efficiency, 82 average metres and six line-break assists.
Breakout player to watch
The 22-year-old Fijian outside back has impressed in three starts so far and is likely to get more opportunities following the departures of Vunivalu, Earl and Momirovski. Reimis Smith and Jennings appear to be battling it out for the vacant wing spot, but Lumelume is breathing down their necks for a regular position.
Analysing the Storm's 2021 draw
Addo-Carr's confirmed departure in 2022 has freed cash for the Storm to potentially entice other representative players including Dale Finucane, Jahrome Hughes and Brenko Lee to stay put.
Brandon Smith has been given permission to look elsewhere for next season because of his desire to become a starting No.9, while regular first-graders Nicho Hynes and Max King are yet to be locked down.
Depth players such as Cooper Johns, Ryley Jacks, Lumelume, Aaron Pene and Darren Schonig will hope to earn new deals.
A behind-the-scenes look at the Maori All Stars' haka
What you need to know NRL Fantasy-wise
The departure of Cameron Smith should shift more playmaking responsibility to Cameron Munster ($671k), who could take a leap in Fantasy this season – especially if he also gets the goal-kicking duties.
Ryan Papenhuyzen ($658k) is another contender to kick goals, while Smith's replacement Harry Grant ($823k) is already one of the best hookers in the game. Christian Welch ($537k) had a great finish to 2020 and could push towards 50 points a game this year.
"I don't think people realise how much we will miss Cameron, he’s probably the best dummy-half there has ever been. We will miss him there without a doubt but he is also our goal-kicker. Our captain. There are so many things that you don’t realise how well he has done them. We have to make up for them. Even myself, I was blind to that at the start of the pre-season." - Storm coach Craig Bellamy.
Inside the Indigenous All Stars' war cry
The good, the bad and the likely
The good: The Storm express just keeps rattling along with another top-four finish as they go on to successfully defend their title with Grant leaving a new mark on the team's style.
The bad: Melbourne struggle for direction without Cameron Smith and can't maintain their renowned high level of consistency. Even if this scenario plays out it's tough to see the men in purple missing the play-offs, but they could slip down a few rungs.
The likely: Having guided his team into the top two for five consecutive seasons, Bellamy has proven himself a master of not just achieving but sustaining success. The exits of Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater didn't knock the Storm from their perch in recent years, and they have to class to overcome the loss of Smith.
Storm in 2021
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