Top-level rugby league returns to Canterbury on Sunday for the first time since 2019 – a season that saw Rugby League Park host a Manly Sea Eagles-Warriors NRL clash and a Test match between New Zealand and Great Britain.

The COVID-enforced drought ends courtesy of a trial between Melbourne Storm and the Warriors at the region’s spiritual rugby league home (currently known as Orangetheory Stadium), the clubs’ final hit-out before the 2023 NRL premiership kicks off next week.

This momentous occasion has been made possible by the hardworking teams at ChristchurchNZ and Venues Ōtautahi – and it’s had the flow-on effect of several opportunities for the local rugby league community to get up close and personal with the code’s professionals.

As well as school visits, a referees workshops and coaching seminars run by the Warriors, a group of coaches from Canterbury had the opportunity to pick the brain of legendary Storm coach Craig Bellamy on Saturday following his team’s well-attended open training session at Orangetheory Stadium.

Bellamy puts the Storm through their paces during Saturday’s open training session.

Arguably the benchmark rugby league coach of the modern era and undoubtedly one of the greatest of all time, former Canberra grand final-winning player Bellamy took the reins at Melbourne in 2003 following lower-grade and assistant stints under the Raiders’ Tim Sheens and Brisbane Broncos’ Wayne Bennett. Under Bellamy, the Storm have missed the NRL finals just once – in 2010, when the club was forced to play for no points and had its 2007 and 2009 premierships stripped (incredibly, the Storm still won 14 games that year, which would have been enough to see them finish fifth). Since then, he has steered Melbourne to five minor premierships and five grand finals, including wins in 2012, 2017 and 2020, in 12 seasons.

This season will be Bellamy’s 21st in succession at the helm of the Storm, equalling Bennett’s premiership record (1988-2008) of the most consecutive years coaching a single club.

Bellamy was joined by the Storm’s long-serving General Manager of Football, Frank Ponissi, and his four assistant coaches – son Aaron Bellamy, Marc Brentnall, and 2012 premiership teammates Ryan Hinchcliffe and Todd Lowrie – for an absorbing Q&A session with 15 local coaches.

After discussing his journey into elite coaching, Bellamy and his charges covered off wide range of topics, including the qualities they look for in players, methods for motivating and communicating with players, building resilience, consistency as coaches, the importance of managing training time effectively, gleaning techniques from other sports, and what has made the Storm such an extraordinarily successful organisation.

Bellamy also spoke openly about the hardships of the 2010 salary cap scandal – and how those dark days steeled the club for the glittering achievements that followed – as well as revealing he has mellowed significantly from his early days as an NRL head coach, which the 63-year-old credits becoming a grandfather for.

Aside from some good-natured ribbing at the expense of Eastern Eagles coach and New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls assistant Louis Fanene, who starred for the Storm’s inaugural NYC Under-20s team in 2008, you could hear a pin drop as the group of grassroots coaches hung on every word from the NRL icon and his team.

“The Melbourne Storm coming across is a scoop for Canterbury, and for Canterbury Rugby League,” CRL CEO Malcolm Humm enthused afterwards.

“And to have someone like Craig Bellamy – someone most people would call the best coach in the world – and his team in front of our coaches for 45 minutes is gold. It’s really significant for us.

“On behalf of Canterbury Rugby League, I wholeheartedly thank Craig Bellamy and his football department for this amazing experience for our coaches, as well as ChristchurchNZ and Venues Ōtautahi for helping make it happen.

“I think the impact of the past few years on our game locally has been underestimated. You hear all the time that we’re starved of top-level rugby league in Canterbury and to see tickets sales are already close to 11,000 demonstrates that people want to get out and watch the game, engage with the game.

“We’ve just lacked the opportunities, through no fault of our own – we’ve been through a rough time. But this is the start of something. We’ve got new stadium on the way and that will only help bring more rugby league events of this scale to our region.”

Gates open at Orangetheory Stadium at 12pm on Sunday, February 19 for the curtain-raiser trial between 2022 grand final rivals Linwood Keas and Hornby Panthers (12.15pm kick-off) ahead of the NRL trial between Melbourne Storm and the Warriors (2.50pm kick-off).


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