A team which has only been around for 15 years can’t usually claim to have much history.
Especially in a competition like Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) which has existed in one form or another since 1908.
But Melbourne Storm is an anomaly in so many ways. And in winning Sunday’s NRL Grand Final against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs from Sydney, it has shown again what an extraordinary team it is.
I won’t bore you all with the minute details – I know that rugby league is not the biggest game in the world. Really it’s only Australia, New Zealand and the north of England which take it seriously.
But the Storm’s story as a team translates into any language.
Created out of a huge division in the game in the late 1990s known as the Super League War, Melbourne Storm was a team that only a few powerful players and businessmen wanted.
With no strong history of rugby league in Melbourne – the game there is eclipsed by Australian Rules Football (AFL) – it had very little foundation. It was set up and remains 100 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited.
Even Melbourne’s Sunday Age newspaper back in 1999 called the Storm “an unexpected and initially curious addition to the landscape”.
And yet that same year – only its second in existence – Melbourne Storm won the whole competition. The Grand Final. A pull-together side based in AFL territory waltzed into rugby league’s heartland in Sydney and took the trophy.
“Unexpected” didn’t quite cover that one.
And though things were a little quiet after that initial success, between 2003 and 2009 Melbourne Storm was the real deal. It made the playoffs for every one of those seven year, it topped the end-of-season table in three of them and won the Grand Final in two.
Impressive for any team, let alone a comparative newcomer.
And consider this too – there are 16 teams in the NRL, 11 come from in and around Sydney with the others from Queensland and New Zealand. But suddenly and – here’s that word again – unexpectedly, the hottest team in the competition was from a city where they barely played the game.
It was all going better than anyone could have expected.
And then it all went horribly wrong.
Melbourne Storm cheated. And got caught.
In April 2010, the club admitted that for five years it had been running an elaborate scheme to pay its players.
It had kept two sets of contracts, two sets of financial books. The real ones – which paid players AUD $3.17 million more than the NRL “salary cap” allowed – were kept hidden, while the fake ones were shown to NRL officials when it came time to check the books each season.
It might not sound like “cheating” in the classic sense of the world, but it was. Top-flight players were turning out in Melbourne colours on hugely inflated salaries, and in doing so were breaking the NRL’s rules.
The punishment was swift and harsh.
Melbourne Storm’s premierships from 2007 and 2009 were stripped. It was fined almost AUD $1.7 million. Competition points already won in 2010 were nullified and the club was barred from receiving any more that season. Even if it won all its games in 2010, the Melbourne Storm would still come stone-cold last.
It showed that the NRL was serious about its rules and sounded a warning to any other club which might have been cooking its books.
And now here we are, two years later, and Melbourne Storm – a club that perhaps only survived its initial years because of promises and strong financial backing, and was nearly destroyed by greed – is number one again.
What’s impressive is that through all that turmoil, it was Melbourne’s on-field ability which never wavered and eventually saw the club through.
To a rugby league fan like myself, the Storm is a joy to watch. A group of players who know how to play as a team, consistently, and are rarely beaten as a result. There are some superstar players for sure, but they are simply cogs in a bigger machine which knows how to win.
So yes, everything about Melbourne Storm has been unexpected.
Except maybe it’s redemption.