Time and again Melbourne have shown they are no one-man team.
Yet forward Felise Kaufusi admitted he was unsure how the Storm would cope in 2021 following the retirement of arguably rugby league’s greatest player, Cameron Smith.
“To be honest I didn’t know if we were going to be as good without Cameron,” said Kaufusi, who played alongside Smith for six years.
“I guess it was like being cast into the ocean and seeing if you sink or float.”
But instead of struggling without 430-game veteran Smith, who retired after last year’s grand final victory, Melbourne have only got better.
The Storm this season recorded the greatest for and against in history, scoring 40 points or more in a game 12 times to claim the minor premiership.
And they equalled Eastern Suburbs’ record 19-game winning streak of 1975 on their way to booking a seventh straight preliminary final – much to co-captain Jesse Bromwich’s surprise.
“I wasn’t sure how we would go without Cameron; we had a lot of people on our back so I am very proud of what we have achieved so far,” Bromwich said.
Of course Bromwich had heard it all before during his 12 seasons at Melbourne.
The Storm supposedly weren’t the same after star playmaker Cooper Cronk defected to the Sydney Roosters at the end of 2017.
And Melbourne apparently would need time to rebuild after legendary fullback Billy Slater’s 2018 retirement.
Yet the Storm juggernaut kept rumbling along.
The defending champions are hoping to book their fifth grand final appearance in six years this week.
So how do they keep the bar so high for so long?
“(Coach) Craig Bellamy and (football manager) Frank Ponissi do a great job and that feeds down – working hard helps as well,” Bromwich said.
“Guys come in, buy into what we are doing and they reap the rewards.”
Co-captain Dale Finucane predicted Melbourne would keep silencing their critics with Bellamy at the helm.
And that’s locked in for another five years, with Bellamy in July re-signing with the club until at least the end of the 2026 NRL season.
The master coach has been at the Storm since 2003 and has led the club to three premierships in 2012, 2017 and 2020.
Titles in 2007 and 2009 were rubbed out due to salary cap cheating.
“I think every time someone influential has left the side that has been the narrative, that we won’t be the same,” Finucane said.
“But this side has continued to flourish and Craig has a lot to do with that – he’s been the nucleus of it over the last two decades.
“Craig speaks about the next man up mentality. There is an expectation to not do what the player did before them but play to their own strengths.
“To have achieved what we have this year is exciting but it is at the back of our mind now – our focus is the preliminary final.”
Brandon Smith has worn his retired namesake’s No.9 jersey this season and said the club still owed a lot to the elder Smith and what he gave during his 14-year captaincy.
“There’s still bits and pieces of Cam Smith getting around at this club, whether it be the way we train or the way we hold ourselves at training or the skills and stuff that he taught us,” the Kiwi Test rake said.
“It’s not like he’s actually gone fully gone from the club – him, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater set up a foundation for us younger players to kind of build off.”
The 25-year-old, who has successfully tag-teamed in the hooking duties with Harry Grant, said a premiership in 2021 would be a way of repaying Smith for the hours he spent working with his young teammates to ensure Storm success beyond his retirement.
“Hopefully we can win one just to prove that all the years he gave me, Harry (Grant), Jarome (Hughes), Paps (Ryan Papenhuyzen) and all the advice he gave us, it’d be great to win a premiership for him,” Smith said.