IT HAS been taboo in rugby league circles since the Melbourne Storm was last year busted for salary cap cheating, but people are again declaring that Craig Bellamy is among the game's best coaches.
It is a remarkable turnaround for Bellamy, who 15 months ago was isolated from the wider rugby league community. But, according to Storm captain Cameron Smith, the coach's standing could not be denied with his rebuilt team defying the most dire predictions to be on the verge of claiming this year's minor premiership.
''Last year there were people saying because of what happened that he didn't really get us to the finals and he was a bit of a myth,'' Smith said.
''But we all knew he was a great coach and we all knew that he was one of the big reasons why we were so successful and he's just proven it again this year.''
Bellamy had earned a reputation as one of the game's great coaches after guiding the Storm to four consecutive grand finals from 2006, winning two of them. However, when the salary cap scandal exploded and the club was stripped of the 2007 and 2009 premierships, admiration turned to criticism that the club had bought its success.
Despite losing a host of players at the end of last season, including superstar Greg Inglis, Bellamy rebuilt the Storm around the core of Smith, Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk by developing inexperienced players into key positions and rejuvenating recycled veterans.
The Storm is now four points ahead of second-placed Manly after 17 wins and just three losses going into round 23. It is a performance that has restored faith in Bellamy.
''He's been a great coach for a long time,'' Smith said. ''… The same people who were criticising him last year, they're the ones who are writing all these stories and they're all on the bandwagon this year saying he's a great coach and he'll be getting the Dally M coach of the year. For us nothing's changed with Craig. He's always been a great leader.''
Smith said the turmoil of last year when Storm played most of the season for no points, had actually made Bellamy an even better coach.
''He's a guy who really is set in his ways in parts of his coaching, and I think it tested him last year because he knew that he couldn't be like that with our situation,'' Smith said.
''You can see he's changed some of the ways he runs his meetings and his training. He takes on a lot of things from the medical staff and the players and the way we're feeling.
''If we need to cut back the time we're spending on the paddock he does that. If we think a meeting's going too long sometimes he'll pull them up … he's more adaptive to how everyone's feeling.''
Smith said he was proud of the way the team had rebounded this season, looking to equal its best run of 11 consecutive wins by defeating last-placed Gold Coast on Saturday.
''Some of the wins haven't been that pretty or enjoyable but we've got there and we've had to play through some hard games and get good wins,'' he said.
''It's been a great effort by the guys this year. We've had a huge turnover and the new guys have jumped on board with what we're about, and we've had to deal with a lot of injuries this year.
''It's been a really consistent year with our attitude. Sometimes our football hasn't been really good but I don't think there's been one game where you can question our attitude.''