The Melbourne Storm have long been at the front of the NRL, and the new year is likely to be no different.
Craig Bellamy seemingly always finds a way to keep his team at the front of the queue, no matter the circumstances put in front of him.
But those challenges look tougher than they have ever been before as the 2022 season prepares for kick-off.
Nicho Hynes, Josh Addo-Carr and Dale Finucane were critical parts of last year’s puzzle and have departed, while there could be more issues with early-season suspensions and players leaving at the end of the year.
Ins: Xavier Coates (Brisbane Broncos, 2023), Sua Fa'alogo (2024), Bronson Garlick (2022), Cole Geyer (2023), Josh King (Newcastle Knights, 2023), Nick Meaney (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 2023), Jayden Nikorima (2022), William Warbrick (2023)
Outs: Josh Addo-Carr (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Daniel Atkinson (released), Aaron Booth (Gold Coast Titans), Dale Finucane (Cronulla Sharks), Nicho Hynes (Cronulla Sharks), Ryley Jacks (released), Max King (Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs), Brenko Lee (Brisbane Broncos), Isaac Lumelume (Canterbury Bulldogs), Aaron Pene (New Zealand Warriors), Tyson Smoothy (released), Judda Turahui (released)
Re-signed: Jordan Grant (2023), Jahrome Hughes (2024), Dean Ieremia (2022), Cooper Johns (2022), Trent Loiero (2023), Isaac Lumelume (2022), Tepai Moeroa (2023), Ryan Papenhuyzen (2025)
Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Jesse Bromwich, Kenneath Bromwich, Xavier Coates, Tom Eisenhuth, Harry Grant, Jordan Grant, Jack Howarth, Jahrome Hughes, Dean Ieremia, George Jennings, Cooper Johns, Tui Kamikamica, Felise Kaufusi, Josh King, Chris Lewis, Trent Loiero, Nick Meaney, Tepai Moeroa, Cameron Munster, Jayden Nikorima, Justin Olam, Ryan Papenhuyzen, Jonah Pezet, Brandon Smith, Reimis Smith, William Warbrick, Christian Welch, Tyran Wishart.
Who plays where?
With Hynes departing the club, it means there is a clear-cut option for fullback. No longer will it be about splitting the 80 minutes or trying to fit two starting-quality fullbacks into the same puzzle.
Instead, there is now one.
Ryan Papenhuyzen will play at the back, and the Storm need him to be fit for the entire season - of that there is simply not a shadow of doubt.
In the event Papenhuyzen goes down, Nick Meaney is the likely backup option.
With Addo-Carr making his departure, and Isaac Lumelume also recently exiting the club, there are far fewer wingers than there otherwise might have been.
Lumelume would have pushed for a starting spot in the side, so his move to Belmore could come as something of a surprise.
That said, Xavier Coates comes in from the Brisbane Broncos and could improve out of sight under the coaching of Bellamy, so takes the first wing spot without so much as a word of debate.
The second wing spot is a little more contentious. Dean Ieremia has yet to fully impress on the NRL stage, while Nick Meaney will also push for a spot. George Jennings made 18 appearances on the wing for the Storm last year though, scoring 11 tries and appears to the front-runner.
Meaney will push him all the way though.
Justin Olam is one of, if not the best centre in the game and will take a starting spot in this Melbourne team with daylight to any competition.
The other centre is remarkably just as easy to pick, with Reimis Smith impressing for the Storm during his first season with the club and recently signing a contract extension which will see him be a pivotal point of the Storm's plans.
Young gun Jack Howarth is clearly rated highly in the Victorian capital though, with the centre and second-row option recently signing on the dotted line for a five-year period.
It's difficult to see anyone else challenging for a spot initially, although Jennings could be shuffled in field if Ieremia or Meaney are picked ahead of him on the wing.
Like most of the backline, there isn't a dispute about who will line up in the halves for the Storm, with Cameron Munster and Jarhome Hughes the men to start in the six and seven once again.
Munster's form needs to improve for Melbourne, but they are still far and away the best options to play in the key positions for Bellamy.
The back up options do look stronger this year than they have done recently. Cooper Johns continues to improve and is the next man into the team, while youngsters Jonah Pezet and Tyran Wishart could also feature at some point.
Jayden Nikorima's signing also adds a level of intrigue.
No Dale Finucane was going to be bad enough for the Storm, but right now, Tui Kamikamica and Nelson Asofa-Solomona are also set to be unable to play.
Asofa-Solomona has refused to be vaccinated against coronavirus, while Kamikamica is currently subject to the NRL's no-fault stand-down rule.
While Jesse Bromwich and Christian Welch will continue to start in the front-row, the rest of the picture and depth options are far less clear.
Brandon Smith is likely to be shited across to lock to start, while back-up options in the middle third will now include the likes of Chris Lewis, Jordan Grant and Josh King.
As mentioned, Brandon Smith must be shifted to lock in an effort to make up for front-row depth, which means Harry Grant will finally have the chance to make the number nine jumper his own.
Grant has the ability to play 80 minutes week in and week out, but needs to find a way to stay fit.
With Aaron Booth having left the club, it means that behind Brandon Smith, the options are thin, meaning if Grant is unable to play, Smith may yet be forced to play hooker, unless Bellamy goes with the stop-gap solution of Jayden Nikorima.
Felise Kaufusi goes into his final year at the Storm still with a firm grasp over one starting second-row jumper, while the other one falls the way of Kenny Bromwich, who has made his spot as one of the best in the competition clear over the past few years.
The duo are both Origin-calibre players and will continue to be a pivotal pair for Bellamy.
Beyond that, Tom Eisenhuth is potentially the next man in, while Jack Howarth could play a part in the forwards too.
Watch out too for young gun Trent Loiero who made a debut at the end of 2021, and Tepai Moeroa, who was used sparingly at the back end the year.
The bench will certainly be lacking talent and depth from what has been there in past years, and yet, Bellamy will still manage to get plenty out of them.
There is no genuine utility this time around without picking a back and hoping he can play hooker. Nick Meaney is the only one you'd consider, but he is too small for the position.
That means it comes down to a half like Cooper Johns, or handing a debut to Howarth, who can play both centre and second-row. Bellamy may not feed him to the wolves in Round 1, but Howarth appears to be in the best 17.
Tom Eisenhuth is the next man picked with his ability to play in the back row or in the middle third, while he could also shift into the centres if it was necessary. Trent Loiero could also be considered for this spot, but probably doesn't make the best 17.
The middle third is certainly well down on depth without Asofa-Solomona or Kamikamica, however, Chris Lewis will do a solid job as he has done before, while recruit Josh King should take the other spot having played 78 games for the Knights between 2016 and 2021.
The best 17
1. Ryan Papenhuyzen
2. Xavier Coates
3. Reimis Smith
4. Justin Olam
5. George Jennings
6. Cameron Munster
7. Jahrome Hughes
8. Jesse Bromwich
9. Harry Grant
10. Christian Welch
11. Kenneath Bromwich
12. Felise Kaufusi
13. Brandon Smith
14. Jack Howarth
15. Tom Eisenhuth
16. Chris Lewis
17. Josh King
Other best 17s
Gold Coast Titans
Manly Sea Eagles
New Zealand Warriors
North Queensland Cowboys
South Sydney Rabbitohs