REGULAR SEASON
Wins: 19
Losses: 5
Position: 1st
Home Record: 10 wins, 2 losses
Away Record: 9 wins, 3 losses
Longest Winning Streak: 12 (Rounds 12-24)
Longest Losing Streak: 2 (Rounds 25-26)
Players Used: 28
Player of the Year: Cameron Smith
Tries Scored: 3.6 per game (sixth most)
Tries Conceded: 2.2 per game (fewest)

Melbourne Storm fans, we’re sure, can’t help but wonder what might’ve been in 2011. After a tumultuous 2010 season where the club was stripped of titles and minor premierships, it seemed the Storm were on track for ‘revenge’. And after Round 24, Melbourne sat four points above their nearest rivals on the table, following a club-record 12-match winning streak and just three losses. Then, somehow, all the good work came undone and just five weeks later after losses to the Sea Eagles and Roosters – and following a finals victory against the Knights – the Storm were eliminated from the competition by the Warriors.

In 2011 the Storm had everything to play for – a phrase the club itself used to promote a team that were battling for nothing but pride the season before – and they began the year with a bang. Dominant victories over the Sea Eagles, Gold Coast, Bulldogs, Eels, Panthers and Knights had the club in great shape (and at the top of the table) before the representative season began – then, as the Origin Series hit its straps, the club found top gear, too.

The ‘big three’ of Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater again showed the way forward for the Victorians in 2011, leading a new-look team to the top of the premiership table and to the Minor Premiership. Slater, in particular, again proved his worth at the back for Melbourne – he was awarded the Dally M Medal as the league’s best player for his outstanding, reliable and match-winning ways in the No.1 jersey.

Where They Excelled: A new-look outfit they might’ve been, but in 2011 the Storm showed they once again possess the defensive determination, communication and aggression to make scoring incredibly difficult for opposition teams. The Storm were beaten only six times in 2011 (by the Cowboys, Warriors, Raiders, Sea Eagles and Roosters in the regular season, and the Warriors again in Finals Week Three), and that outstanding record came on the back of ultra-reliable defence across the board. This season the Storm again proved defence is an attitude – and theirs is first-class. Melbourne possessed the stingiest defence this season, conceding a measly 12.9 points and 2.2 tries per match. Their defensive success rests with their competitiveness in contact – they also conceded the fewest line-breaks (2.8) and missed tackles (27.5) per game in 2011.

Where They Struggled: Statistically, the Storm struggled in very few areas – they were, quite simply, brilliant in most facets of the game in 2011. Against the Warriors in Finals Week Three, the visitors just had all the answers to the Storm’s attacking raids – they’d well and truly done their homework on Melbourne’s lethal attacking unit. On reflection, the Storm could be criticised for their lack of second-phase play – they offloaded just 10.4 times per game (fourth fewest) and perhaps their lack of unpredictability cost them in their most important match of the season. In the final weeks of the competition, when they won just one of four matches, that offensive predictability cost them dearly.

Missing In Action: The Storm’s last-week-of-finals exit can’t really be blamed on injury – the Victorians were close to full strength with only Adam Blair out of action. The Wests Tigers-bound Blair was suspended for five weeks for his involvement in the Brookvale brawl, and played no further part in Melbourne’s premiership campaign. The Storm also lost centre Beau Champion (shoulder), impact forward Sika Manu (leg) and key playmaker Cooper Cronk (ankle) for short stints but no injury really cost the Storm entering the finals series.

Turning Point: The Storm lost precious momentum in the final weeks of the competition, with defeats at the hands of the Sea Eagles (Round 25 – 18-4) and the Roosters albeit with rested players (Round 26 – 40-8) ending the club’s dominant 12-match winning streak. Against Manly at Brookvale, however, the Storm didn’t just lose the match – the Sea Eagles showed the other teams in the competition the blueprint to success against the Minor Premiers. Manly belted the Storm, relying on a game plan of repeat sets of six, bruising defence and expansive offence. The Warriors copied the Sea Eagles’ formula a few weeks later, belting the Storm in attack and in defence and, in particular, playing an expansive brand of football. That initial loss to the Sea Eagles gave all oppositions hope – and the plan – to succeed against the Storm who at the time appeared unbeatable.

Best Games: Melbourne weren’t short of standout performances in 2011 – in most of their matches, in fact, they played strongly and to plan. However, there are a few matches that’ll stick out in fans’ memories for a while to come – the 38-0 thumping of Parramatta in Round 5; the seven-point away win against the Broncos in Round 9; back-to-back away victories against the Wests Tigers in Round 15 and the Warriors in Round 16; and a courageous and determined 8-6 victory over a highly motivated St George Illawarra.

Worst Games: The Storm were the most consistent team in the competition in 2011 – it seems unfair to isolate those few matches they performed under-par. There were only a few games this season that Melbourne would be disappointed about – and unfortunately for fans some of those poor performances came at the wrong time of the year. In Finals Week Three against the Warriors, the Storm didn’t really perform terribly – it was more a case of the Warriors playing strongly, understanding where the Storm’s trick shots were likely to come from and, ultimately, how to tactically go about ending their season. The performances against the Roosters and Sea Eagles a couple of weeks earlier were disappointments, more so in the fact they occurred when the club should’ve hitting their straps. Two home losses – against the Raiders in Round 10 and the Warriors again in Round 7 – were slightly disappointing on reflection, as was the away-from-home thumping in Round 3 against the Cowboys. But every team’s entitled to an off night or two during the season, right?

Hold Your Head High: The Storm’s entire team can be proud – collectively 2011 was a great effort that fell just short of the grand final. The club performed strongly throughout the season and were just outplayed in their biggest game of the year.

Individually, Melbourne’s stars continued to shine in 2011, resulting in several accolades. At the Dally Ms the Storm featured prominently – Cameron Smith (Captain of the Year, Hooker of the Year and Rep Player of the Year), Billy Slater (Fullback of the Year), Cooper Cronk (Halfback of the Year) and Craig Bellamy (Coach of the Year) were rewarded for some outstanding achievements and performances. But it’s the rise to prominence of several younger players that will excite fans most – young English five-eighth Gareth Widdop and promising prop Jesse Bromwich continued to develop in their second year of NRL. Widdop (25 matches – 16 line-breaks, 16 try assists eight line-break assists and two tries), in particular, relished the opportunity to take on more responsibility after the departures of Brett Finch and Greg Inglis, shining throughout the regular season and performing strongly in the finals.

Coach Craig Bellamy says: “We weren’t quite good enough on the night… the Warriors played well and obviously controlled the ball well. I’m certainly disappointed but at the same time, as I said to the players, I’m really proud of what they’ve done this year. They’ve given me, they’ve given each other, they’ve given our staff, and they’ve given all our supporters one hell of a ride this year. I’m real proud of them.”

Conclusion: A disappointing ending after such a promising regular season it might’ve been, but for Storm fans there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the 2012 season and beyond. This year Craig Bellamy’s outfit proved they can and will meet any challenge they face – and in 2011 they faced the biggest of them all. A restructured, rebranded and reshaped club faced up to almost everything the opposition threw at them this season – and following the off-season departures of the likes of Aiden Tolman, Ryan Hoffman, Brett Finch, Jeff Lima, Greg Inglis and Brett White, they did an outstanding job. Can they be as competitive in 2012? All signs point to yes!