For a Storm fan, last year’s grand final loss – the second in three years – was hard to take.
But there was something else about that night that made it harder to swallow.
The vision of Cooper Cronk after the final whistle.
After a week of subterfuge about the nature and extent of the injury suffered in the preliminary final, there he was – his left arm hanging from its busted hinge – smiling and hugging his coach and team-mates.
The coach and team-mates of less than 12 months.
For a shattered Jesse Bromwich, it was like watching a lover who has left him and is happier for it.
“It did hurt seeing him celebrate with them after playing alongside him and looking up to him for such a long time,” Bromwich told Wide World of Sports.
“In the moment you’re so down, and lost, and looking up it was just a bit weird seeing him celebrating with the other team.”
Bromwich was looking for some sign of regret and sadness from the ex-team-mate who moved to Sydney for love.
He was thinking surely Cooper feels closer to the men in purple slumped on the ground, particularly the two other champions he had spent 14 seasons, seven grand finals and numerous Origin series victories with.
More poignantly, it was enduring the salary cap scandal – the ugly chapter in the Storm’s short but stunningly successful history – that reinforced their bond.
However, there are also images of him providing comfort to his former team-mates, including a weeping Will Chambers and the great and now retired Billy Slater, the man with whom he shared an almost symbiotic pairing – so perfect was the timing and execution of their plays that the exhilarating results will forever dominate the footage of their era.
But that era was over.
Cronk, the ultimate ruthless professional that he is, had moved on.
As Luke Keary told the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday in the lead-up to tonight’s grand final replay: “He doesn’t just seem like he’s an iceman, he is an iceman”.
At half time in the Storm’s 2017 premiership decider against the Cowboys, the game was as good as over.
Commentating the game was Blues legend Andrew Johns, who understood the resentment towards a team from an AFL city that had continued to dominate the code and build the foundation of Queensland’s decade-long State of Origin dynasty.
Yet, during the break, he told viewers to put aside state and club allegiances and to watch and appreciate the magic of the Big Three, probably the greatest spine the game will ever see, for the final time.
While watching, I wondered whether the Storm’s period of sustained dominance really came down to the fortuitous discovery of three underrated teenagers from Queensland?
There is that now famous Brisbane Norths under-19s team photo of them seated together in their Golden Circle-sponsored jerseys.
Without the benefit of hindsight – and this is often the case when looking at a team of talented juniors – there is nothing, other than perhaps a look of precocious confidence, to reveal what they were to become.
In fact, even at the peak of their powers in one of the most brutal sporting codes, there is a slight innocuousness about the three of them.
Billy the Kid kept his boyish features and the high-pitched voice of a jockey.
I watched Smith, the accountant with thinning hair, at training the other week and couldn’t believe this slightly framed man standing among thickset monsters has averaged 40 potent tackles a game over 16 seasons.
And then there is Cronk.
He differs from his two team-mates in that the effort and hard work are apparent. If the results weren’t so wonderful to behold he would be labelled a bit of a try-hard.
Like all less gifted sportsman at the elite level – and remember, these types play a significant role and are more prolific than many people realise – he accepted what nature had given him and worked on what could defeat those who couldn’t help but take their ability for granted.
With typical modesty, Cronk – who began as a hard working bench utility – said recently if he hadn’t landed at Melbourne he’d be retired and few would remember his name.
While there was a certain fortuitousness about his early career – the sudden unexpected departure of star halfback Matt Orford, being coached by a man who values and rewards hard work, and having Smith and Slater around him from the beginning – there is no doubt if he had begun at any other half-decent club, he would have made a name for himself and seriously increased the premiership chances of that team.
Smith and Slater have already been labelled by many as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. The same has not been said of the halfback Cronk, who has the Immortal Johns just ten years his senior occupying that position.
The attributes of his fellow famous team-mates are exhilarating and obvious. Smith has always been lauded as the leader who controls a game with a sublime minimalism and Slater’s speed, creative runs, defensive reads and superb offloads are why people watch the game.
Cronk was an engineer, an organiser, and a disciplinarian with a powerful work ethic. He could be seen after each try, dwarfed by his team-mates, issuing stern instructions from that round earnest face.
Of the three, he was always the one most likely to leave for another club. I’m certain he was signing with the Titans in 2012 before financial catastrophe hit that club.
And during the announcement of his departure from Melbourne one reason for that became evident.
“I’m jealous of the guys who have their families here, who have their loved ones (and) have football in the same city,” Cronk told journalists.
“If it was a football decision, I’d be staying here for a long period of time.”
Slater married a Melbourne girl and called the city home years ago. Smith had been here with his childhood sweetheart from the beginning, but even the most ardent supporters suspected he would eventually return to Brisbane.
In 2014 he was on the verge of signing with the Broncos, but he realised that if you’re away from home long enough it no longer feels like home.
While his two mates spent time off with their families, Cronk was in a Richmond bookshop-cafe studying works on self improvement and the code of the samurai.
Significantly, the one team-mate he did not comfort after the grand final was Cameron Smith.
What happened there?
Was Smith closer to Cronk and therefore more devastated by his decision to play on? Was Cronk not entirely truthful about his plans to leave for the Harbour City? Did Smith want Cronk to be enshrined with him and Slater as a one-club glorious triumvirate?
Surely he couldn’t begrudge Cronk a chance to marry and start a family.
Or was it that he chose the Roosters?
The Storm and the Roosters. Clubs with equally formidable modern-day records of minor premierships won and grand finals played but at polar opposites in recruitment philosophy.
With no juniors to speak of, Melbourne has relied on recruiting youngsters from the game’s heartland and outposts, and picking up its castoffs who are looking for a shot at glory, and seeking revenge on those who didn’t see the potential.
The Roosters, in a perpetual recruitment cockfight against the eight other Sydney clubs, have thrived on the back of the formidable business interests and influence of eccentric chairman Nick Politis and his fellow board members.
Many bemoan the inordinate influence of business on sport and the description of clubs as brands. But there is often a passionate link between corporate life and elite sport.
Many leading businessman – and even those in the arts and academia – identify with and profess their disappointment not to have succeeded in sport, a more primal and gladiatorial version of their own field.
And it was in that gladiatorial spirit that Politis, after acquiring Cronk’s signature, declared without apology or reference to any debt owed to the developmental model of the Melbourne Storm.
“I hope he wins us a premiership while he’s here, that’s the plan,” Politis told the Courier Mail.
The sword of Politis struck again with the recruitment of Melbourne’s long-time assistant Adam O’Brien, another name in a long list of former Storm coaches at other NRL clubs.
On Monday, James Tedesco twisted the sword in an already gaping wound when he told NRL.com: “He (O’Brien) is with us now”.
How much of Trent Robinson’s style, if any, has been copied from Bellamy?
Robinson is his own man and won the 2013 premiership in his first year but he, like Shane Flanagan, looked at Melbourne as the blueprint.
There appears to have been a significant ground shift. The traditional poaching has continued, in fact ramped up.
In 2018 they added the master orchestrator Cronk and the explosive James Tedesco to a side brimming with talent that had led the comp for much of 2017.
But this Roosters outfit is a serious contender for back-to-back titles. Under Robinson, the former glamour club has shifted its emphasis to meticulous planning and defence as a platform for launching its multiple attacking weapons, a la the Storm of 2007.
And it has a serious commitment to winning culture.
Highly successful teams share the same characteristics.
A blend of the more austere aspects of good culture: discipline, leadership, responsibility, accountability, selflessness and respect, with the more emotional uplifting ones like passion and comradeship.
Finally, improvement is the first step to back-to-back premierships. And Captain Cronk, the prince of self improvement, is at the helm.
It’s amazing that the Storm – the sole representative of one great city – and the Roosters, the central representative in name at least of another – have never had a real rivalry.
The most significant vision of Cooper Cronk after the grand final was the one of him with his wife, because it was love – not money or disharmony – that finally put an end to the Big Three.
But no club ever forgets a club that cost them a premiership.
Especially when the loss was orchestrated and celebrated by a former favourite son. It was like a dagger to the heart.
For the Storm, a new rivalry begins tonight.