If the Melbourne Storm are to continue their stunning run of success in Round 1 matches they will have to do it with a team that bears little resemblance to the one that bowed out at the qualifying final stage last year.
Remarkably, the Storm have not lost in the opening round of the season since Craig Bellamy took charge in 2003, including last year’s 26-16 win over Wests Tigers and a 26-18 defeat of eventual grand finalists Souths in 2021.
On top of having champion players and a genius coach, much of the Storm’s success can also be attributed to stability from one season to the next, with minimal roster changes for Bellamy to juggle.
The Storm is renowned for putting their players through a gruelling pre-season schedule and having them ready to peak on opening night, with familiarity of combinations playing a big part in the round one glory run.
In a bid to take Bellamy's round one streak to 20, the Storm must overcome last year’s runners-up on their home patch in front of a hostile crowd on Thursday night – and they’ll have to do it without five men who were pivotal to the club’s success during the past decade.
Eels v Storm: Round 1
Brothers Jesse and Kenny Bromwich wore the Storm jersey with pride on 511 occasions before making the move to new club the Dolphins, where they’ll be joined by star back-rower Felise Kaufusi, who played 173 games and won two premierships in Melbourne after debuting in 2015.
Also gone from the Storm side that bowed out to Canberra in last year’s elimination final are hooker Brandon Smith, who has moved to the Roosters, and winger David Nofoaluma, who is back at Wests Tigers after playing six games on a loan deal late in the 2022 season.
Throw in injured trio Justin Olam, Tui Kamikamica and Marion Seve and you have eight changes to the team that lost 28-20 to the Raiders at AAMI Park.
Records supplied by league historian David Middleton show that if Melbourne are to down the Eels in Thursday night’s season opener they will need to equal the record of the 2009 and 2013 Storm sides who also had eight changes to their line-up from the final game the previous season.
After beating the Eels in the 2008 decider, the Storm entered round one in 2009 without three key forwards in Jeremy Smith (Dragons), Michael Crocker (Rabbitohs) and Antonio Kaufusi (Cowboys) as well as a couple of handy centres in Matt Geyer (retired) and Israel Folau (Broncos).
The other members of the premiership side who missed the golden point thriller against the Dragons to open 2009 were Brett White, Sika Manu and Russel Aitken, who had filled in at hooker in the grand final with Cameron Smith suspended.
White and Manu were still at Melbourne but did not start their 2009 campaigns until round seven and round nine respectively, meaning prop Jeff Lima and lock Dallas Johnson were the only members of the grand final pack who faced the Dragons five months later.
Match Highlights: Wests Tigers v Storm
The tight squeeze against the Red V in ’09 and another against Manly in 2014 were the closest the Storm has come to round defeat, both games being decided in golden point.
Seven of the other opening round victories were by single digits, including Bellamy’s debut in 2003 when they were pushed all the way by the Sharks in a 36-32 shootout which featured a Steve Bell hat-trick.
Four years after pushing the Storm to the limit in 2009, the Dragons again headed south to open their 2013 campaign against a Melbourne side with a vastly different look to the outfit that had downed Canterbury in the 2012 grand final.
Coates: "It's a pretty crazy feeling"
Strike centre Dane Nielsen and durable lock Todd Lowrie had moved on to the Warriors, rugged prop Richie Fa’oso headed to the Sea Eagles in 2013 and Jaiman Lowe had called time on his 142-game career.
Premiership winners Sisa Waqa, Kevin Proctor and Bryan Norrie missed round one while the new faces in the line-up included prop Jason Ryles, who had missed the 2012 decider with a hamstring injury and Tohu Harris on NRL debut.
With the Big Three Smith, Cronk and Slater leading the way, the Storm made light work of the Dragons 30-10 to kick start a seven-game winning streak to open the 2013 season.
After the scare in 2014 when Smith’s field goal saved the night at Brookvale, the streak has rolled on and on with wins over the Dragons in 2015 and ’16, Canterbury in 2017 and ’18, Brisbane in 2019, Manly in 2020, Souths in 2021 and Wests Tigers last year to take Bellamy to 19 on the bounce.
With the 2023 opener upon us and the master mentor contemplating life without spiritual leaders the Bromwich boys and Kaufusi and his little mate ‘The Cheese’, a massive challenge looms against an Eels team that beat the Storm twice last year en route to the grand final.
Quizzed on Wednesday about his expectations for 2023 given the changes in the squad, Bellamy he was only concerned with what the squad did this week and focusing on things they could control in the short term.
“If you start making expectations, you’re looking for trouble, you’re thinking about things that are not important and that you can’t really control,” Bellamy said.
Get hyped - Eels v Storm, Round 1
"At the end of the day we can control what we can control what we do today and hopefully we'll be in control of what we do on Thursday night and we can handle them OK.
“We’ve had a few changes through the pre-season with our personnel. Obviously, we’ve had a few injuries, so what we probably thought at the start of the season who our 17 would be, that’s changed a lot.
“We’ve just had to work hard on the combinations and hopefully it can click a little bit against the Eels.”
Any team boasting Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes, Harry Grant and Christian Welch can never be underestimated, but you get the feeling that of this revamped Storm side can conjure a win at CommBank Stadium on Thursday then the match ball might be going straight to Craig Bellamy's pool room.
Match: Eels v Storm
Round 1 -
Venue: CommBank Stadium, Sydney