The Sydney Roosters have just announced as big a gamble as I’ve ever seen in rugby league.
They have just signed a halfback for $1 million a season who on December 5 will turn 34 years old. In doing so they’ve virtually assured that either – or possibly both – of hooker Jake Friend or halfback Mitchell Pearce will walk.
However, as bizarre as this deal sounds, it isn’t the Roosters taking the biggest risk; it’s Cooper Cronk.
If Cronk walked away from the game right now his legacy would be assured. He has won everything there is on offer to win in Australian rugby league. He is a two-time Dally M Medallist, five-time Dally M halfback of the year, the 2016 Golden Boot winner, the 2012 Clive Churchill Medallist, a four-time grand final winner, a tri-series winner, a World Cup winner, and a member of the greatest State of Origin team that has ever been.
The bloke with the most crooked nose in rugby league since Gavin Miller had nothing more to prove. Further, it is a pretty safe bet that Cronk, unlike many other league players, has been strategic with the money he has earnt. It is also a very safe bet that – as his career has included 14 successful years in the NRL, 34 matches for Australia, 22 games for Queensland (at $30,000 a pop), as well as the third party deals and other sponsorship he has got – he has pocketed a fair bit of cash.
So while $2 million is very good money, he’s unlikely to be playing on for financial reasons. However, playing on he is.
But if it all goes wrong, that money will be in exchange for his legacy.
And it could all go horribly wrong. Just ask the man Cronk replaced at the Storm: Matt Orford.
The man they called ‘Ox’ played ten great seasons in the NRL, including being on the losing side in the 2006 and 2007 grand finals before winning the 2008 title with the Sea Eagles in emphatic style. In 2010, he played a season for the Bradford Bulls in the English Super League, before retiring at the age of 32.
In 2011, at almost 34, he was enticed by the Canberra Raiders to play on. He played in just six games for the club – all losses – before going on the long-term injured list. It was horrible to watch the once great player struggle so badly. In particular, the 2011 Round 4 match against the Gold Coast Titans was horrific.
With the Raiders leading 22-16 with just a minute remaining, the Green Machine had the scrum feed in their own 20 and just needed to hold the ball to win.
Orford knocked it on at the scrum base. The Gold Coast scored the match-levelling try before winning the game in extra time with a Greg Bird field goal. You can relive the horror if you want.
Just like he did in 2007, once more Cronk is following in Orford’s footsteps. He would do well to heed the lesson the Ox learnt so bitterly.
However, surely that won’t happen to Cronk. It is another safe bet that Cronk has thought this whole matter out carefully.
“It marks the start of a new chapter for me both professionally and personally and I look forward to joining my new teammates and coaches and immersing myself in the club’s culture in lead up to the 2018 season,” Cronk said.
However, the reality is that the powers that be at the Roosters will be hoping it’s the club that immerses in the culture that Cronk brings: discipline, structure, effort, winning.
In the dictionary under ‘professional’ there is probably a picture of Cooper Patrick Cronk. He is to order, discipline and gameplans what Glenn McGrath was to metronomic accuracy and length.
He is superb at guiding a side around the field. His positional kicking is second to none, as is his organisation of his team. Further, you won’t find a better defensive halfback in the game. With an average of just 1.5 missed tackles a game, he’s a bloke who requires no minder.
And if he says he’s still up for the contest and has something to prove, then you’d better believe him. He’s one serious dude.
There are quite a few – including Willie Mason, Paul Gallen and Steve Roach – who believe that the short-term gain of Cronk for the Roosters will cause undue displacement to their established roster. The word has been that either Friend or Pearce will now leave the club, partly in protest at Cronk’s arrival and partly because the club needs to balance their player payments to keep them within what opposition supporters commonly allege to be a salary sombrero.
The Tricolours have now bought two of the hottest properties in rugby league, in James Tedesco and Cronk. They cannot have been cheap. Along with Cronk’s $1 million a season, it is unlikely that the two of them together can be had for anything less than $1.75 million in 2018. That’s almost 20 per cent of a $9.4 million cap for just two players. So how can that work?
There are three scenarios:
Options one or two will inevitably see a backlash from fans who are sick of the seeming inequity of “some animals are more equal than others” (George Orwell, Animal Farm). One source made the comment to me that, “This is why so many people I know have stopped following league – because it’s turned into a plaything for a few wealthy jerks.”
I suspect the club – who have already shed Aidan Guerra, Kane Evans and Shaun Kenny-Dowall – will cut more players. Pearce would be ideal. Friend too. Both would probably be on good wickets.
The question must be asked why any Roosters fans should really be upset about that.
When Sonny Bill Williams came to the Tricolours in 2013, it coincided with the departures of the likes of BJ Leilua and Tautau Moga. It also coincided with the Roosters first premiership for over a decade. Both Pearce and Friend were there before Williams and have remained afterwards.
There are plenty who put the 2013 success down to James Maloney and Williams, with Pearce and Friend as supporting cast. Their failure to really perform when the whips have been cracking in the subsequent seasons adds further weight to that argument. For a side that only lost eight games in 2017, they never convinced. They always gave their opponents a sniff. They always gave the impression they could implode.
The Roosters will hope Cronk can bring his success to Bondi. His focus, his order, his discipline.
But here’s the thing: while a vital part, Cronk was only one piece of the Melbourne magic. Craig Bellamy, Billy Slater and Cameron Smith made up the full picture.
Cronk’s overall win ratio at the Storm was an incredible 70.9 per cent. However, when Smith wasn’t in the side, Cronk’s winning percentage dips dramatically.
I was on the sideline for ABC Grandstand at AAMI Stadium on July 7, 2012. The Raiders – who featured such names as Joe Picker, Travis Waddell and Reece Robinson – were playing the Storm, who were without Cam Smith and Billy Slater. Ryan Hinchcliffe and Gareth Widdop were their replacements and Cronk was the captain.
Melbourne were taken apart, 40-12, with Cronk unable to rally the team or to launch counter-attacks. At the conclusion of the match, I went to interview Cronk, but he signalled in no uncertain terms that he didn’t want to discuss it one little bit.
From that point, I’ve always wondered if Cronk was, in himself, a match winner like Johnathan Thurston or Darren Lockyer or Freddie Fittler or Andrew Johns, or if he is just one vital cog in a well-oiled machine.
The Roosters – and Cronk himself – are betting that he’s a genuine match-winner. The club is betting $2 million and probably a few of their established roster.
Cronk is betting his legacy.
He is betting his legacy that Jake Friend – if he stays – can do a passable Cameron Smith impersonation and keep the forward pack focused, low on errors (especially in their own half) and disciplined in defence.
He is betting that James Tedesco can perform a passing resemblance to the brilliance that is Billy Slater.
He is betting that Blake Ferguson, Latrell Mitchell, Dylan Napa and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves can get with the program and limit their brain explosions, dumb penalties and errors.
He is betting that there will be no player scandals that see Tricolours players sidelined.
He is betting Boyd Cordner learns the art of talking to the referees.
Cronk needs all those things to occur if he is going to succeed. It’s a big gamble. A very big gamble.
If he can take the Roosters to glory, he will emerge as a legendary player in his own right, alongside Slater, Smith and Thurston as an inevitable Immortal.
If he can’t get them the title, there will always be questions about his real value and whether he just rode on the coat-tails of those three legends.
And then there is also the horror story scenario where – like it did for Matt Orford – it all goes horribly, horribly wrong.