Pressure Points: Cameron Munster will know that 2023 wasn’t his best – but he remains key to Storm’s 2024
Looking back on 2023, the Storm will see a Prelim Final appearance as perhaps the ultimate vindication of what Craig Bellamy has built at the club.
In a year where they weren’t that good, where they had a transitional period for their rosters and where several of their stars were below their best, Melbourne still finished in the top four and, in the end, with relative ease.
No matter that they were pretty rubbish in the finals and, really, should have lost a week before they did – they had enough go wrong to have dropped out but, unlike similarly strong rosters at Souths and Parramatta, didn’t.
The resilient culture that has been the centrepiece of Bellamy’s philosophy as a coach was able to ride it out. This was the ‘next man up’ mentality’s finest hour, even though it didn’t result in anything tangible on the field.
Let’s be clear on this, too. Melbourne really weren’t that good in 2023.
There were a few statement wins, notably away in Sydney early in the year against Parra and Souths, plus three victories over the Roosters, but beyond that, it wasn’t a banner year.
They were never a serious challenger to the Panthers, losing three times by a combined score of 98-26, and while they did defeat Brisbane on two of the three occasions, one required the Bronx to have three men sin binned, another was a glorified Q Cup clash in the final round and the other, when it mattered, saw the Storm thrashed 26-0.
There were some real off-nights in there too. This is a side that lost to Manly, Canterbury, North Queensland and the Titans, conceding plenty of points in the process.
Most of those defeats were in the first half of the year, and yet it was the back end where Melbourne looked worse, winning but often not convincing, always giving the feeling that as soon as the whips got cracking, they would fall away.
At the centre of this was Cameron Munster. He’s so often their most important player, both in terms of the tactical roles that he is given by Bellamy and as a sort of spirit animal for the squad, an off-the-cuff individualist who also gives everything for the team.
His post-Origin slump was prolonged and was reflected in the numbers.
There were six tries before the rep break and just two after, a single line break assist from Round 16 onwards, half the number of line breaks in the second half of the year and half the running metres, too.
Whether this was tiredness, an undisclosed injury or a simple form slump is something that only the Storm will know, but when the system is so dependent on individual brilliance, it can’t easily survive the best players playing badly.
Last year, Harry Grant was often the man to dig the Storm out of holes, and his involvement levels actually went up as the year went on, somewhat masking Munster’s slump.
Jahrome Hughes also kicked in when available, producing multiple assists and contributions of his own in four late season wins over the Eels, Raiders, Dragons and Titans that were ultimately the difference between top four and top eight for Melbourne.
It’s unlikely that Bellamy is likely to change his tactics this late in the day, and every year that he has to decide whether to go again will bring with it speculation.
His tried and tested strategy is to have a few elite gamebreakers – chiefly Munster, Grant and Hughes, plus Ryan Papenhuyzen when fit – and a solid defensive unit that can plug and play as required.
The upshot of this has been in seasons like 2023, where the floor is so high that even in a bad year, the club still make the top four.
That foursome are still well in their prime years, with Grant and Papi 25, Hughes 28 and Munster 29, so there’s no need to change too much yet, and last year saw the club transition out of an older guard in the forwards (everyone who went to the Dolphins) with Christian Welch and Tui Kamikamica, both also 29, the oldest.
With new blood coming through and the best locked down long-term, it’s reasonable to think that Melbourne will come again in 2024 as a force.
If they are to do so Munster will be at the fore, because so much of the best things that they do come through him.
In many ways, the Storm’s attack is quite old school.
Their halves are encouraged to own one side of the field and share duties between 6 and 7, their dummy half leads from the front (and runs more than basically anyone else) and their emphasis tends to be more on spontaneity rather than set patterns.
In an NRL with increasingly rehearsed attacks, the Storm are not really like that at all – and it perfectly suits the players that they have.
It’s no wonder that Grant, Munster and Hughes have been so capable at translating their skill to rep level, because they play rep-style footy every week.
Where that lives and dies, however, is on the performances of the individuals in question.
A lot of the time, it might only take one of them to perform well to win the match, especially if the collective effort without the ball limits how many they concede. That will deliver a lot of results in the regular season, especially at home, through Origin and against weaker opponents.
Against the best, however, usually something more is required. By the end of 2023, it was clear that most sides were able to shut Munster out of matches, which in turn cut off half of the field for attacks.
At 29, it’s unlikely that Munster’s decline is terminal, and it would be very like the man to come back with another barnstorming season to prove everyone wrong.
It might be, however, that the game has changed around the Storm and that their now-old fashioned approach no longer works.
With every team able to analyse every movement Munster has ever made, it could be that his style of footballer is less effective.
Plenty of the most progressive teams in the comp are looking to systems over stars, and with good reason.
Then again: Munster and Melbourne just finished above all but two of those sides, with a system of their own that has continually delivered results.
Throw in a bit more fitness from Papenhuyzen, an extra year of maturity in the forwards and one of the brightest talents in the game in Sua Faalogo and it might be that the Storm will have enough elite talent in their spine to win it all again.
If they are to send Bellamy out on a high, it’ll be Munster who is the main man. After a poor end to 2023, he’ll be as motivated as ever to make it happen.