Just before Mitchell Barnett was reported, Cam Smith thought he’d make his feelings clear.
I was devastated when Cooper Cronk announced he was leaving Melbourne.
I saw him as crucial to my team’s success and 12 months later, when he steered the Roosters around the park with a broken shoulder and no capacity to do anything physically besides occasionally stand recklessly in the path of much larger men with much more intact skeletal systems, I knew I’d been right.
If Cronk had been on the other side, the Storm would’ve won the 2018 grand final. I’m sure of it. Melbourne lost a piece of its heart when he left.
And the bugger did it for the woman he loved, so we didn’t even get the satisfaction of hating him for it. Unforgivable.
Cronk is, obviously, one of the greatest players to ever take a rugby league field. A simple glance at the number of medals hanging around his neck would tell you that.
Two Dally Ms. A Clive Churchill. A Golden Boot. Three premierships, with two different clubs – and two more premierships that were of course expunged from the books, one of which would’ve earned him another Clive Churchill if the judges had been paying proper attention.
But he was something more than just a magnificent player, to those of us who value the power of story in sport.
Cronk was one of the ‘Big Three’ of the Storm, but he was not like the others.
He didn’t spring fully-formed into the spotlight. He wasn’t a prodigy who entered the top grade already playing like a ten-year veteran with a supernatural feel for controlling the game, like Cam Smith. He wasn’t a lightning-fast colt with magic hands, dazzling feet and a penchant for filling highlight reels, like Billy Slater.
And he was a million miles away from Greg Inglis, who was one of the ‘Big Four’ before Brian Waldron’s web unravelled. Inglis seemed to have been designed in a lab by a team tasked with creating a physical specimen perfectly suited to rugby league; Cronk seemed to have been designed from the bits left over.
When Cronk scratched and scrabbled his way, somehow, into the NRL, he was nobody’s idea of a future legend. He was a little man, not particularly quick, with no special skills to recommend him besides a gargantuan appetite for hard work and an unquenchable desire for improvement.
From a player with a mediocre passing game, he became the world’s best at putting men through gaps, hitting chest after chest with perfectly timed ball after perfectly timed ball. From a player with a below-average right foot, he became without peer, inventing new ways to tie opponents in knots with the touch of his boot, a tactical kicker to rank beside Ricky Stuart and Andrew Johns.
From a stop-gap sub filling in at lock, centre, wherever there was a vacancy, he became the supreme organiser, the game manager par excellence, the Platonic ideal of the halfback.
This is why Cooper Cronk is important: he tells us that greatness is not down to pure athleticism. He tells us that there is truth to the nutty legend that hard work and self-belief can overcome natural disadvantages.
Not a lot of truth – it still won’t happen for most of us – but Cooper showed us there was a chance. He tells us that rugby league, even in this latter professional day, is not just for the giant brutes and the acrobatic sprinters. There is still a place for the player whose greatest attribute is his brain.
When I was growing up, my favourite player was Benny Elias. Like Cronk, he was a little guy, not particularly quick. In the days when scrums were still contested and sticking your head into one gave you a better than even chance of copping one across the chops, he didn’t just stick his head in, he mouthed off to every hulking prop he came up against.
He survived in a game like a street urchin, living off his wits, scheming and hustling and bamboozling far bigger men – and tackling like a demon.
In the same era, Peter Sterling was the greatest halfback of all, destroying oppositions purely through his understanding of the game and his ability to manipulate both teams like pieces on a chess board.
I loved players like Elias and Sterling because they were more than just great athletes: they were geniuses.
Cronk may be the greatest genius of his era. He set his mind to turn unpromising, raw material into a fearsome rugby league machine, and such was the power of that mind that he did it.
Rugby league will always need players like Cooper Cronk. It is to be hoped that a whole legion of small, slow, unmemorable youngsters have been watching him and taking notes.