*Note; I wrote this piece days after Cronk had signed with the Sydney Roosters when the emotions were running high and the hurt was still very raw. Suffice to say, I am still devastated, as his self-proclaimed number one fan. I have just been waiting for the right time to publish this emotive outlay which is now – when Cronk faces his former club, coach and team mates for the very first time after a 17-year association at the Melbourne Storm.
Everyone has an idol growing up. For some it is their parents. For others, it is an actor or actress. A favourite member of the Beatles, Guns and Roses, the Spice Girls. A beloved superhero from the Marvel or DC Comic Universe (unabashed Superman fan right here). However, those of us who are genetically wired with a vested interest in sport and barrack for a particular sporting team, would have an adored player that they are drawn too for perhaps phenomenal skill, athletic prowess, the quiet achiever, the honest toiler, whatever the reason. That player for me was Cooper Cronk. Not blessed with talent, slept in when they were handing out natural ability, but his unrelenting impetus to work hard to be the best, made me respect the player, the athlete, the person.
The 3rd of April 2017 will be a day I will never forget. It was a Monday. The most disliked weekday of the five, with the mindset of, make it to the end of the day and the weekend will be one day closer, where work and other stresses are shelved as one focuses on an outlet to escape reality and delve in the passion and unwavering love of a boy and his favourite sporting team. Except this was no ordinary Monday. As news broke that the Melbourne Storm had shelved a scheduled player media interview at their AAMI Park headquarters, replacing it will an impromptu press conference, speculation across all social media platforms went into overdrive. A player signing? The re-signing of Billy Slater? A coaching extension for Craig Bellamy? New sponsorship deal with long-term partners Crown Resorts? Anything but the above would eventuate at 11.30am press conference.
As I peeled my eyes along my twitter feed, one prominent rugby league journo suggested it was a star player quitting the club at seasons end. Suffice to say my anxiety levels were peaking, breaking new unchartered territory, as I feared the worse. Several weeks prior there was a news item published in Sydney’s News Corp press about the likelihood of current rugby league star was about to give the game away for love. For love? Surely this was a gee up. I mean, we are talking about rugby league players here. The stereotypical modern day meat head who only cares about winning a premiership (and loves their monthly pay check).
Cooper Cronk, a 14 year veteran of the Victorian based NRL franchise was rumoured to be the player in question. Having been a certified bachelor in bleak city for most of his Storm career, he had found love, falling head over heels with Fox Sports presenter and personality Tara Rushton. The pair had got engaged over the off-season and it was a forgone conclusion that a long distance relationship was not going to be feasible. With Cronk inking a new two-year deal at Melbourne Storm in late 2016 and Rushton firmly established in Sydney and making inroads as a media and sports journalist at Fox Sports, something had to give. And give it did.
As journalists and television news crews and cameras piled into the AAMI Park media room, in rolled Coach Craig Bellamy, Chief Executive Officer Dave Donaghy and the Storm No.7, one member of Melbourne and Rugby League’s esteemed ‘Big Three’. All sat emotionless and faced the room of waiting scribes as Donaghy addressed the media, thanking them for attending on such short notice and passed over to Cronk. As I gripped my cup of green tea in utter suspense, a visually emotional Cooper trembled when speaking, informing the press and those tuning in via all sorts of mediums of his heart wrenching decision to quit the Storm at seasons end, ending a 17 year association (having signed with the Storm in 2000 as a 17 year-old) with Melbourne Rugby League club for as he so graciously put it “it’s time I put someone else first”. Forever the selfless individual, which again was seen by all post the Storm’s preliminary win against the Broncos at AAMI Park, where Cronk refused to be chaired off by his team mates, instead sought out other departing players and pushed them forward to be saluted and clapped off by the Melbourne faithful. The mark of the man.
My worst fears had been confirmed. My heart sunk. Tears rolled down my face. My favourite player, my hero, my idol and in some regards my role model was leaving Melbourne and quite possibly the game of rugby league or was he? The first of the trio that play in purple was departing the building, reducing the combination to a dynamic duo. The last to make his debut for the Storm would now be the first out the door of AAMI Park. So much for riding off into the sunset together as many had thought would happen in a year or two’s time. Albeit, a blessing in disguise from a transitioning point of view ensuring 1,000 games worth of experience does not leave the joint all at once leaving the club in a pickle.
The Melbourne maestro, a manufactured, self taught No.7 who through sheer, persistence, endless hours of repetition and a relentless work ethic that is unparalleled, unmatched, superior to every other NRL player, because it had to be, in order for Cooper Cronk to climb to the highest of heights in rugby league. When the Storm lost regular halfback Matt Orford at the end of 2005, instead of going to market, Craig Bellamy decided to throw Cronk the vacated No.7 jersey telling him “I need you to do two things for me. You need be able to kick and you have to be able to tackle”. Throw in a six-week crash course in ‘halves play 101’ with former Newcastle Knights half turned NRL analyst and commentator Matthew Johns, and ‘presto’ Cronk would occupy the coveted purple No.7 jersey for the next 12 years out of the eventual 14 he would now spend in First Grade at Melbourne, forging a remarkable career at the southern NRL franchise.
Cronk is someone who has never rested on his laurels or successes from both an individual and team perspective. He as a player, as an athlete has always been motivated and driven to improve. To improve his game, every aspect of it, be it his running game, passing, kicking, game management, which in turn, assisted to improve the players around him. Cronk unlike other players or people for that matter, is a man who has always been a little different. A little unique or as his former halves partner Brett Finch labeled him, a whole lot “weird”. Cooper has always marched to the beat of his own drum. Someone who keeps is cards close to his chest, who doesn’t share too much of himself, even to those closest to him.
A guy who before pre-season training or during the Christmas break would take himself off to Arizona in the United States to embark upon an altitude training camp, in order to take his fitness levels to a whole new echelon, in order to make himself a better player. Unheard of. The Storm pre-season already has a reputation of being the hardest there is. Maybe Brett Finch was onto something? A bloke who would remain behind hours after training had finished to fine tune his passing game; perfecting his kicking game, practicing field goals; all facets of halfback play from all different points on the field. Training himself, preparing for any situation, any scenario, ensuring that in moments of pressure, muscle memory coupled with his pedantic yet, flawless groundwork ensured he would be ready to deliver if and when required. As he has done time and time again for the Storm, the Maroons and the Kangaroos.
His will and determination to constantly evolve and improve is the one of the major reasons why the Storm have had so much success earning the representative halfback two Dally M Medals (2013 and 2016), a Clive Churchill Medal for best on Ground in the 2012 Grand Final and a Golden Boot – an award handed down by the Rugby League International Federation, for the best player on the planet. Not bad for a guy from the southern suburbs of Brisbane, who landed in Melbourne, signed by the Storm with the club not knowing his best position or who had ever played halfback before, even as a junior running around for the South Acacia Ridge Magpies and St. Lawrence’s College. Cronk is an example not only to every young footballer or every athlete aspiring for greatness, but he is an example of where hard work can take you. The same work ethic that his now former Club Coach lives by. A mantra of “the harder I worked, the luckier I got”.
Cooper Cronk has a reputation of being O.C.D., meticulous and methodical in his approach to his football and his life in general. My favourite Cooper Cronk story which sums him up in a nutshell was he was extremely late home from school one day which had his family worried who contacted the police about their missing son. It turns out, on his way home from school, he would pass a rugby league field and kick 10 field goals straight before picking up his school bag and proceeding home. However, one afternoon, he was not striking the ball all too well. So much so, that he refused to go home until he had kicked ten field goals in a row. Forever the perfectionist. That attitude has never faded and still to this day is evident in all the he does in regards to his preparation, performance and recovery.
A clean skin both on and off the field, a neat freak and it shows. The way he carries himself, the man oozes professionalism. He is intelligent and articulate; well spoken and presented; has also proven to be quite the analyst with Fox Sports hiring him to analyse games. In many ways Cronk should probably be the face of the game. He has become a mentor to every younger player and kid coming through the ranks at the Storm, taking them under his wing, passing on his wisdom, life experience and what he has attributed to his success and longevity at Melbourne and in rugby league. As young 19-year-old rookie centre, Curtis Scott put it “it’s like I’m talking to Dr Phil”.
Not only is Cronk a poster boy for every young footballer in the game, he is a role model for every person, every man or woman that desires change; change for the better. Whilst his well publicised lifestyle is well documented – someone who guzzles a carton of coconut water instead of an alcoholic beverage; who refuses to eat anything out of a cardboard box, opting for fresh organic produce, avoiding fast food, sugar and so on. Whilst not for everyone, his discipline, will power and mental aptitude are traits that are admirable; qualities and behaviours that set a standard for many wanting to make a positive change and can do so. Maybe not to his extreme, but it shows that the onus is upon the individual to make those changes that they desire.
I lost a best friend to brain cancer at the age of 27. We all grieve and deal with loss in our own certain ways. I found consolation in Cronk’s lifestyle and holistic outlook on health, wellness and well-being. Whilst I had always venerated and respected his sporting ability and accomplishments on the field, it was his lifestyle away from the rugby league field that assisted me to make changes and place much more of an emphasis on preserving, improving my health, lowering my risk factors to certain illnesses and diseases and ensure that when father time eventually catches up, I’ll be in reasonable shape to tackle impending challenges that life throws up with age. I took solace and drew a lot of inspiration in his life off the field and how that was making him better on it. But I digress….
Whilst I am certainly no athlete, I am sure that Cronk has had a similar impact on many others like myself be it health or another facet of their life. What you see is what you get with Cooper Cronk. He practices what he preaches and that is what resonates with so many people. It is not just words. It’s actions. Many in this world could learn a thing or too about being transparent, accountable and respecting yourself and others, doing away with the narcissistic, conceited, self-absorbed behaviour that many exhibit on a daily basis and surrounds us (Generation ‘selfie’ as i often refer to them as). Cronk is a sportsperson and a individual who always has and continues to not seek attention, popularity and approval of others. He is also someone who is forever side stepping the limelight, instead heaping praise on others. Admirable qualities that many should indulge in for a change.
It is quite fair to say that I am quite brazen and forward in my love and affection for the man that is Cooper Cronk. The shock and disappointment that he won’t be at Melbourne Storm in 2018 still hurts. That he will no longer combine to put on a trademark inside, outside, inside set piece with Smith and Slater; their combinations and trick shots that every rugby league fan has learned to appreciate. That there is a real possibility that he may pull on another club’s colours. Selfishly, I had hoped Cronk would retire and transition into business, media and specialised coaching.
The 2017 Grand Final was his final game for the Storm. The football God’s were kind and fairytale came true although Cronk was on the front foot with a post game interview stating “there’s no such thing as fairytales in Rugby League, all there is, is hard work and you hope that hard work pays off with a result like this” – it would be the perfect way to draw curtains on a magnificent 323 First Grade NRL Game career for the one club. One thing rugby league lacks in modern times, is romance. To see Cooper finish his illustrious rugby league football career in purple would have been about as romantic as one could get. But it was not to be.
Many are now debating if his brilliance will be replicated at the Roosters in 2018. Out of the Melbourne Storm system; a system he helped create and establish over a 14-year period. Will he be able to be afforded the same opportunity to play on the front foot as he did in Melbourne, where forward packs made his job as a halfback smooth more often than not. Will he be the same player without the direct message from his mentor Craig Bellamy? A coach who does not mince his words as opposed to a more contentious Robinson. Will he be the same player without his other two-third’s alongside him? This remains a hotly contested argument between fans and media commentators alike – that it has been the brilliance of Slater and Smith that has made Cronk the player he is. Whilst Tedesco is an amazing talent and Friend is an honest toiler who’s service and control from dummy-half are modest at best, both are no where in the league of his two former Storm team mates.
If the Roosters flounder in 2018, you can bet your bottom dollar, the pressure will be enormous on Chairman Nick Politis, Coach Trent Robinson and Cronk himself. Cronk thrives on pressure, relishes it even – it somewhat heightens his senses and contributes to his performance. But this pressure may be unlike he has never encountered before; pressure that may put a dent in the player’s legacy. After fracturing a playing group by seeing a 28-year old Mitchell Pearce, an Origin representative, Premiership winning, 10-year club veteran move on in order to bring Cronk to Bondi, Roosters fans will be wondering what was the point of the ‘band-aid solution’ or quick fix signing a 34 going on 35 year old halfback ‘if’ they go backwards or fail to lift the Premiership Cup aloft next October when they had a younger halves pairing that would be around for much longer. You can bet the arguments that have been bandied around above will come to the fore.
The Roosters have attempted to replicate the Sonny Bill Williams scenario which helped deliver them the 2013 Premiership. There’s just one problem. Cronk is no SBW and from looking at their roster, the halfback position was not the area of their list that needed most attention. Quite the contrary. It is their middle which is of most concern. Roosters lack genuine size upfront. Most premiership contenders and top 4 teams are blseesed with a formidable 4 prop or middle-third rotation. The ability to lay a platform with your two big men and have the ability to substitute them with two bigger men to maintain the momentum and dominance in the ruck. The stuff halfback’s dream of playing behind. No No.7, no matter how good they are, cannot perform or dominate if the pack is not going forward. Cronk benefited from the size and power of the Storm pack and bench. The Roosters showing in 2017 when up against bigger sides struggled – their preliminary final against the Cowboys was the perfect example of this. Yet somehow it ended up being Mitchell Pearce’s fault. Will it be Cronk’s fault if history repeats itself in 2018?
An impending move to Sydney beckons, as does a promising media career with Fox Sports as a commentator, panelist and analyst is already on the cards, along with an agreed coaching role with the Melbourne Storm, to help coach the Storm’s halves, just like Matthew Johns imparted his knowledge and wisdom on a young Cooper many years ago. What else is there left to prove? What else is there left to gain? Why would Cooper Cronk actually want to play against the club he loves so much and has given him everything? My heart, my head and my gut instinct say that Sunday 1st October 2017, will be the final time, we will see Cooper Cronk play in the NRL. (How wrong I was)
And as his self proclaimed No.1 fan, I was more than at peace with him finishing up, legacy in tact and would have been forever thankful and appreciative for the moments and memories he gave to me and every other Storm and rugby league fan. What I am not at peace with is him in another club’s colours. Just like Walter, Langer, Lockyer wearing another club jersey other than a Broncos one. Sterling, Price, Hindmarsh being seen in anything except Blue and Gold. Ettinghusen, Gallen not in the Black, White and Blue of Cronulla and so on. It just would not only look right, it doesn’t feel right from a fans perspective. One club players are held in a different esteem compared to their counterparts. One club players exemplify and portray fidelity, devotion and loyalty. Cronk albeit his 17 year association with Melbourne Storm, can no longer be seen in this light. Which to me is disappointing and he will no longer be known as just an out and out ‘Storm legend’ like his now former teammates in Slater and Smith.
The modesty and humility of human that is Cooper Cronk again wanted the focus not to be about him, and deflected praise citing that ”as long Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Craig Bellamy are this club, Melbourne Storm will continue to be successful”. Take a compliment Cooper. Gee whiz. God knows he’s earned it and deserves all the accolades, raps and plaudits that have come his way. History will be more than kind to Cronk. For a runt of the litter in rugby league ability terms, to teaching himself to become the number one halfback on the face of the planet, his records are legendary and in some manner, unmatched and not likely to be surpassed
I was on hand at ANZ Stadium to witness history, saw the Storm win their third premiership in their 20 years of existence; saw what was and is the final time, three of the greatest players that have ever laced on a boot play together at club level; and saw the final chapter close on the Cooper Cronk story at Melbourne. Without knowing it, I was also in attendance for the Rugby League World Cup 2017 Final which we now was Cronk’s last ever representative game, equaling rugby league Immortal, the little maser, the late Clive Churchill with 38 Tests for Australia, third highest tests in Australian Rugby League Test history, equally another legendary half who has also called time on his rep career in Johnathan Thurston. Cronk sits behind Darren Lockyer and incumbent captain and record holder, Cameron Smith.
It has been an immaculate journey, mirroring an immaculate human being, with an immaculate career that was thoroughly deserving of an immaculate finale. Goodbye Cooper. The happiness, good times, countless smiles, tears and cheers will be forever remembered. Time goes by, but memories last a lifetime. I have plenty (including being the owner of his 2017 Premiership winning game worn jersey – don’t ask me how much, but I will say, one can certainly live a full healthy life with one kidney). But from 2018, Cooper, you are the enemy. Consider my unwavering affection, a thing of the past – just like your Storm career now is.
Cronk’s move to the Sydney Roosters confirms something. Regardless if it is 14 years or 14 minutes, players are only ever on loan to the fans. Our emotional attachment, investment and sense of ownership of players at a club is fraught with heartbreak and disappointment. Just look at the modern day horse trading that has seen Moses Mbye end up at Wests, Aaron Woods in his first season at Canterbury, now calls Cronulla home and I’m sure there will be more mid-season swaps before the clock strikes 12.00am after June 30. Which brings it all back – that there is no one, no player is bigger than the club. Whilst it is easier said than done, I’ll be endeavouring to not get too hung up on any player at the Storm now or in future years like I did with one Cooper Patrick Cronk.