Melbourne head into the 2014 NRL season with two very big questions still unanswered.
Will skipper Cameron Smith stay with the club beyond the season? And who will play five-eighth?
Coach Craig Bellamy wants answers to both before their round one clash with Manly and while the No.6 jersey decision is his to make, the future of his favourite son is not so easily resolved.
Smith is signed until the end of 2014 but such is his value, a decision to leave would rock the club.
Forget Billy Slater’s footwork or Cooper Cronk’s game smarts, Smith is the heart and soul of the Storm.
The Australian hooker and captain is the target of a huge deal to lure him home to Brisbane at the end of the year but has given no clear indication of his plans.
Smith says that no player is bigger than the club but time will tell if this is the case with Melbourne.
The captain, as well as Slater and Cronk who underwent surgery, missed much of the pre-season with time off following Australia’s triumphant World Cup campaign.
Lucky for them because Bellamy decided the side needed a shake-up.
After starting 2013 as defending champions, their finals series ended with two uncharacteristic losses to South Sydney and a fired-up Newcastle.
Before Christmas the Storm squad was put through a brutal boot-camp that involved walking 44km in the summer heat before training through the night.
New recruit George Rose said he was ready to hand in his resignation before he’d played a game.
“Bellyache (Bellamy) has gone a little bit old school with the pre-season and he’s been training us hard and has had his angry head on,” said Smith.
“I’ve been really impressed with the way the squad’s looking.
“They’re really healthy and all very fit.”
Smith’s future aside, the biggest personnel change in the Storm’s ranks is at five-eighth.
With England international Gareth Widdop gone to St George Illawarra and veteran Brett Finch retired, there’s suddenly a big hole to fill.
Ben Hampton, who made his first-grade debut in round 15 last year, will get first crack.
Bellamy is also taken with with former Parramatta playmaker Ben Roberts, while ex-Bulldog Joel Romelo won a contract after impressing through the pre-season.
While his preferred position is hooker, Romelo has also been training in the halves.
As well as Widdop, Finch and Maurice Blair, the Storm lost some physicality with the retirement of prop Jason Ryles.
They have a ready-made replacement in former Sea Eagle Rose.
Bellamy has ear-marked Rose for an impact role off the bench and has him in his best shape in years, losing eight kilograms in the pre-season.
Smith said the team’s uncharacteristic inconsistency was the most disappointing thing about their 2013 season.
That and discipline will be a key focus for the season.
“We had a bit of a sit down and a review and we were a little bit disappointed with a couple of areas, mainly our consistency throughout the year,” Smith said.
“We pride ourselves on being very consistent week-in and week-out and we perform to the highest standards and we fell away in that area a little bit.”
Whether or not he will play out his career in Melbourne, Smith predicted the ruthless, clinical Storm of old would be back.
“You’ll see a very hungry Melbourne Storm this year.”
Premierships: 2 – 1999, 2012
Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 5th, 2012 – 1st, 2011 -3rd
Coach: Craig Bellamy
Captain: Cameron Smith
Gains: George Rose (Manly), Ben Roberts (Parramatta), Joel Romelo (Bulldogs), Cameron Munster (Central Queensland), Hymel Hunt (Gold Coast), Felise Kaufusi (North Queensland), Dayne Weston (Penrith), Cody Walker (Easts Tigers), Travis Robinson (Penrith).
Losses: Gareth Widdop (St George Illawarra), Brett Finch (retired), Jason Ryles (retired), Maurice Blair (Gold Coast), Junior Sa’u (Salford Red Devils), Lagi Setu (Canberra)
Strength: An already powerful pack has been boosted by the arrival of hulking George Rose, who’s set to add plenty of punch off the bench. Bellamy has a knack for getting the best out of ageing forwards.
Weakness: Following the exit of Gareth Widdop and retirement of Brett Finch, there’s a question mark over the key five-eighth role. Ben Hampton is the front-runner and his combination with Cooper Cronk will be key.
Money Man: Cameron Smith. Literally. If he quits the club to take the huge dollars at Brisbane it could throw the Storm’s season into disarray.
One to watch: Cameron Munster. Just 19 and yet to make his first grade debut but tipped to be the next Billy Slater.
Best team: Billy Slater, Mahe Fonua, Will Chambers, Sisa Waqa, Justin O’Neill, Ben Hampton, Cooper Cronk, Jesse Bromwich, Cameron Smith, Bryan Norrie, Kevin Proctor, Ryan Hoffman, Ryan Hinchcliffe. Interchange: George Rose, Tohu Harris, Kenny Bromwich, Jordan McLean.
Predicted finish: 3rd