Melbourne feel they haven’t just stuck a wedge in their NRL premiership window, they’ve jammed it wide open again.
Last year, with star trio Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater all aged over 30, the Storm were dismissed as title contenders.
They did much to prove the doubters wrong by reaching the final four before a preliminary final loss at home to eventual champions North Queensland.
Heading into 2016, they believe they are an even better team for several good reasons.
Last year’s line-up was the youngest assembled during coach Craig Bellamy’s 13 seasons in charge and they are wiser and more experienced.
“You probably would have said our finishing position (in 2015) was a success considering where most pundits had us picked for finishing,” Cronk said.
“I think we’re better placed now because we’ve got more depth in positions that we haven’t had for a couple of years and we’ve still got Cameron and Billy at the top of their games.”
Without post-season commitments, the Test veterans are feeling refreshed and have been able to devote more time to the squad in the pre-season than they have in years.
“I haven’t been this excited or more prepared for round one since probably 2012 (when Melbourne won the premiership) after having eight extra weeks of training,” Cronk said.
Defence and mental strength, after five of their 10 losses in 2015 were by four points or less, have been a focus in the pre-season.
There’s still a question mark over how Slater will return following major shoulder surgery. However, in his absence late last season, the Storm uncovered a rising star in Cameron Munster.
Teen sensation centre Curtis Scott also created a buzz with his performance in the Auckland Nines and could appear in the backline sooner rather than later.
The Storm pack was under pressure last season as Jordan McLean battled persistent knee and shoulder troubles which restricted him to 14 games.
Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Dayne Weston were also absent through injury but the recruitment of Matt White (Titans), Mark Nicholls (Raiders) should ease the strain on the likes of Jesse Bromwich and Kevin Proctor.
They also recruited former Australian Schoolboys halfback Scott Drinkwater as a long-term prospect to replace Cronk, whose contract finishes this season.
Cronk said he hadn’t put a time-line on his decision and wouldn’t let it affect his form or that of the Storm.
His preference is to stay in Melbourne.
“I’m aware it has consequences and it won’t drag on all year,” Cronk said.
Premierships: 2 – 1999, 2012
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2015 – 4th, 2014 – 6th, 2013 – 3rd
Coach: Craig Bellamy
Captain: Cameron Smith
Gains: Matthew White (Gold Coast), Mark Nicholls (Canberra), Scott Drinkwater (Sydney Roosters), Curtis Scott (Cronulla), Cheyse Blair (Manly), Jeremy Hawkins (Canberra)
Losses: Kurt Mann (St George Illawarra), Ryan Hinchcliffe (Huddersfield Giants), Mahe Fonua (Hull FC), Dayne Weston (Leigh Centurions), Matt Duffie (rugby union), Tom Learoyd-Lahrs (retirement), Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (Warriors), Hymel Hunt (South Sydney)
Strengths: The forward pack, led by Kiwi big man Jesse Bromwich, has more depth than in recent seasons and should put the team on the front foot.
Weaknesses: Are the star trio of Cam Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk past their prime? The Storm’s heavy reliance on those players could prove their downfall.
Best team: Billy Slater, Marika Koroibete, Cameron Munster, Will Chambers, Young Tonumaipea, Blake Green, Cooper Cronk, Jesse Bromwich, Cameron Smith (c), Jordan McLean, Kevin Proctor, Tohu Harris, Dale Finucane. Interchange: Tim Glasby, Kenny Bromwich, Matt White, Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
Predicted finish: 5th