Comparing Melbourne Storm to St George's golden era not as fanciful as you may think

The St George Illawarra Dragons celebrated their centenary this year, although “celebrated'” is probably the wrong word because they finished 12th again.

But recent performances can take nothing away from the club’s feats, which include 11 premierships in a row — as St George — from 1956 to 1966.

“The Dragons have the greatest history in rugby league,” author and publisher Geoff Armstrong said after releasing his book Spirit of the Red V.

“I think the virtues of celebrating your history shines through in sport.”

No other team will ever match the Dragons’ famous streak. Few other clubs can even boast consecutive titles.

Parramatta won three straight (1981-83), before Canterbury triumphed in 1984 and 1985.

The Raiders did the NSWRL double (1989-1990), while the Broncos went back-to-back twice in the 1990s, the second time involving the one and only Super League season in 1997.

And the Roosters won premierships in 2018 and 2019, matching the feat achieved by the club in 1974 and 1975.

Melbourne has not yet won two on the trot, so comparisons between the Storm and the old Saints might be premature.

Then again, maybe not.

St George made the finals every year from 1951 to 1973.

Under coach Craig Bellamy, the Storm have played in 18 of the past 19 finals series. During this run, they only missed out in 2010, the year the club competed for no points as punishment for salary cap beaches.

Since 2003, the Storm have won five grand finals (two premierships have been taken away), lost four grand finals, and finished first on the ladder eight times.

“I’m a little hesitant talking about Bellamy having that [finals] streak because I don’t like what they did [with the salary cap],” Armstrong said.

“But, at the same time, their ability to come back from that … they created a real identity about themselves, and they’ve repositioned themselves as a superbly run, elite club.

“It’s a prodigious achievement.”

They’re no Saints, but they’re getting there

Notwithstanding his criticisms of the Storm’s management more than a decade ago, Armstrong said Melbourne resembled rugby league’s ‘GOAT’ — greatest of all time.

“The more you look into it, the more valid it is,” he said.

He is not alone.

Johnny King was a seven-time premiership player with St George and a celebrated coach, whose grandson, Max, was recently on the Storm’s roster.

King, 79, said he saw a similarity between the Storm and the Dragons teams in which he played.

“I’d like to see the Storm win (back-to-back premierships) because they’re like a military team,” King said.

“They play like we used to play, and it’s good to watch.”

ABC Sport has broken Armstrong and King’s key comparisons into five categories: fitness, defence, discipline, team spirit and management (including talent identification and recruiting).

Fitness

In the 1950s and 1960s, St George was the fittest team in the Sydney competition.

Armstrong said this was a focus of Ken “Killer” Kearney (captain-coach from 1957 to 1961), one of the game’s great innovators.

“He (Kearney) was the guy who introduced circuit training into rugby league,” he said.

“He [also] brought in a bloke called John Gurd.”

Gurd was a physical education instructor at Sydney Teachers’ College.

Kearney’s successor, Norm Provan (captain-coach from 1962 to 1965) is quoted on this in Armstrong’s book.

“Gurd talked about strange things, like aerobics, and the variety of his circuits was designed to prepare us for every facet of the game,” Provan said.

“Not just being able to run for long periods. It worked, and it was enjoyable too.

“One of the effects of Kearney’s attitude to conditioning was that we all became very competitive among ourselves. That stuck through all my years at Saints.”

King agreed with Provan.

“Training with Killer was half-past-five, not 29-past [five],” King explained.

“You had to be on the field. He used to say, ‘Have your shave, shower and s**t before you run on, because you’re not coming off the field until the lights go out on the ground [two hours later].

“And if Killer said we’re running 250 yards, you didn’t run 249 yards.”

The Storm place a similar emphasis on fitness, often overrunning opposition teams in the second half of a match due to superior endurance.

Formation of this attitude can be traced back to one day in 2003, when Bellamy — as their new coach — raced his players around the Tan Track beside Melbourne’s Yarra River.

Bellamy not only beat all the players, who were much younger men, but he sent a message that he wanted fitness to be a focus.

The Storm’s preseason training camps for recruits have also become legendary.

Defence

The Storm have been the NRL’s best or second-best defensive team for the past six years.

“It’s almost inevitable that the team at the top of the table is going to have a good defensive record,” Armstrong said.

“When you think of Melbourne, you think of Billy Slater’s flamboyance but, in actual fact, they’ve been a great defensive side.

“And that was the rock on which the great St George sides were built.”

St George became a high-scoring side when Reg Gasnier started playing first grade in 1959, but the team’s attack was always built on its outstanding tackling.

“They introduced the brick wall — the one line of defence,” Armstrong said.

King said the players trained as they played.

“As far [as] defence and attack, we just went over and over and over everything at training, time after time, to make sure it was dead right,” King said.

“And there were no mistakes, because if you made a mistake it meant somebody had to leave their position to cover your mistake.”

All St George players knew their roles in fine detail.

“Killer used to say it was like having an Alsatian dog behind a picket fence,” King said.

“While there’s no palings or nothing missing, you don’t care how much the dog barks or comes at the fence — he’s not going to hurt you.

But if that dog knocks a paling down and comes through, there’s going to be a lot of trouble, because he’s through … and he’s going to bloody eat you.”

Discipline

Armstrong explained St George’s discipline through a Gasnier story.

“It was [Gasnier’s] second season,” Armstrong said.

“He came back from [representative] training, and he went up to Kearney said, ‘Oh Ken, I think I might’ve tweaked a calf muscle. I’ll just go into the sheds and get the masseur to have a look at it’.

“Kearney just says to him, with everyone watching, ‘While you’re there, introduce yourself to the reserve grade coach’ and, suddenly, Gasnier’s calf muscle was cured.

“I actually think it said something about Kearney. He recognised he had a young star who was just with a smidgeon of ego there, and he just went whack.”

King remembered the coaching at Saints as being precise, yet simple.

“Every man had a job to do,” he said.

“If you do your job, and every other player does his job, we don’t get beaten.

“Discipline to training. Discipline to any moves you had on the field. If you had a set move on, everyone had a job to do.

“That meant from the front rowers back to the fullback. If there was a move on, it was on. There was none of this halfway through it and breaking down.

“And there were no mistakes. If you make a mistake, the opposition beat you.”

Having researched the tactics of Kearney and Provan, Armstrong said he could spot more and more similarities with Bellamy.

“I think his messages are fairly simple,” Armstrong said.

“He’s about discipline, he’s about fitness, and I don’t think he ever sets out as a coach to prove how brilliant he is. And I think his game plan is fairly simple.”

Team spirit

“I’ve never felt there was any ego about Melbourne,” Armstrong said.

“The other thing that Bellamy is brilliant at that St George were brilliant at, is this amazing ability to recognise which players are worthy and which players aren’t.

“He’s happy to have scoundrels and rascals in his team, but he doesn’t seem to have bad citizens, if you like, in his team.

“And similarly, the St George teams: people like (Johnny) Raper and Billy Smith and Graeme Langlands were sometimes rogues off the field, but they fitted into the St George way of doing things.

“They didn’t rock the boat. So ,one of the amazing things about St George in all those years [was] they never had a major player drama.

“The best problem they had was players in reserve grade who wanted to get transferred in an era when it wasn’t easy to get transferred.

“Kearney used to say St George had the best spirit in the comp.

“I think Bellamy’s got that spirit in Melbourne, too. There’s a real spirit about them.

“Probably because they’re based in Melbourne, to a degree, the players are really tight off the field.”

Bellamy is viewed by his players the same way the former Dragons respected Kearney and his successor Provan.

“There’s an amazing respect for them when you talk to the players,” Armstrong said.

“You say to the player, ‘Who was the greatest St George coach?’ and they’ll say, ‘Norm Provan’. 

“Or, ‘What about Kearney?’, and ‘Oh yeah, Kearney was the best for sure, no doubt’.”

Management

This is the most elusive of all successful club traits: the ability to stay up at the top of the ladder every year.

The Dragons benefited financially from having the first and biggest leagues club in Sydney. It was established in 1953 and boomed in 1956 when poker machines were legalised.

“St George were perfectly placed to take advantage of that,” Armstrong said.

“But they weren’t the only club. Norths and Wests were funded by their leagues clubs. Manly as well.”

Armstrong praised both the Dragons and Storm administrators.

“Melbourne [also] appears to be the best-run club in the comp,” he said.

Storm football department boss Frank Ponissi became Bellamy’s right-hand man in 2007 and recently had his contract extended to 2024.

Ponissi oversees expert recruiting of young players.

“I just did a bit of research on all those guys when they first made their debut in first grade,” Armstrong said.

“So many of them were 21 or under: (Josh) Addo-Carr, (Nelson) Asofa-Solomona, (Jesse) Bromwich, (Cameron) Munster, (Ryan) Papenhuyzen, Brandon Smith, (Christian) Welch, Will Chambers, Cameron Smith, Harry Grant, (Ryan) Hoffman, Slater, (Suliasi) Vunivalu, (Cooper) Cronk.

“Almost like they’ve groomed them.

“St George had this amazing ability to sign players one or two years in advance. So, there was never that period where they were struggling in one position.

“In a couple of instances, they were lucky in that regard. I mean, when Bob Bugden, their great halfback, left at the end of ’61, they signed George Evans.

“He didn’t really work out, [but] at the same time Billy Smith came up through the juniors. They suddenly had the best halfback in the comp again.

“That was like St George in 1959. They’d won three previous comps and they gave four players, who were teenagers, debuts in the first four rounds of 1959.

“I mean, Raper, Gasnier, Johnny Riley were three of them. They were prepared to give kids a go. And that’s a skill.”

Do the Storm really come close?

A question for Armstrong: What is the equivalent of 11 premierships in the modern era, in which the competition has a salary cap?

“Maybe a comparable achievement would be to win five or six in a row,” Armstrong said.

“I don’t know when a team will next win three in a row.”

The Storm could do that within 12 months.

Win it this year, win it next year; stay fit, keep it simple, keep developing young players into champions and immortals.

That is all it will take.

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