Storm is rolling on, but history warrants caution
ON the surface the 2017 NRL premiership looks to be a one-horse race with the Winx of the competition, the Melbourne Storm, seemingly unbeatable.
But unlike the champion race mare, the Storm have not become minor premiers because of a late withering run. Since their skinny 12-6 win over the Bulldogs in round one they have been sitting on the top rung of the ladder and finished a stunning six premiership points clear of the field.
It was round six before the Storm tasted the first of their four losses for the season and since the inception of the NRL competition in 1998, only four times have teams gone through the premiership rounds losing just four games. One of those was the Eels in 2001 - the other three the Craig Bellamy-coached Melbourne juggernaut, in 2007, 2008 and again this year.
But while they won the minor premiership in a canter, scored the most points and had the least scored against them for a phenomenal differential of 297, history says the Storm are most vulnerable on grand final day when they have finished the premiership rounds on top of the pile.
This is Melbourne's sixth minor premiership in the past 11 seasons, although the club was stripped of three because of salary cap breaches - 2006, 2007 and 2008.
Yet only once - and that was in 2007 - have they been minor premiers and gone on to convert that title into the major prize. They have been beaten grand finalists on three occasions, and were eliminated in the grand final qualifier of 2011.
Apart from 2007, their grand final victories have been earned without a rails run. Their first, in 1999, followed a third-place finish; in 2009 they came from fourth and in 2012 they were premiers after finishing second.
In other words, and without wanting to put too much weight on history, the mighty Storm appear statistically more beatable at the big dance when they totally dominate the premiership rounds, as they have done these past six months.
The collective observation from all involved this weekend is that a new competition starts, and everyone becomes equal.
That also means the seven opposing coaches more than likely reckon that on their day, when push comes to shove and the ball bounces in the right direction, their team may be able to achieve the seemingly impossible and beat the Storm. And those seven hopefuls nipping away at one supreme being certainly appeals as a palatable Aussie-style challenge.
But, to pinch a line from Star Wars, may the Force be with them.
This is no ordinary Melbourne Storm team. Not only is it skippered by the great Cameron Smith, the soon-to-be most-capped player in the game, but Billy Slater, Jesse Bromwich, Will Chambers and Suliasi Vunivalu are arguably the best players in the competition in their respective positions.
Add to that the off-field mastermind of coach Bellamy, the on-field generalship of Cooper Cronk and a club culture and work ethic that is revered by others, and those seven other hopefuls face a battle of extreme proportions.
My tip to the seven hopefuls? Good luck.