A Question of Legacy: Why Cronk’s Time at the Roosters Matters
There is plenty to talk about heading into the 2018 NRL season, but the most fascinating sub-plot is surely Cooper Cronk’s switch to the Sydney Roosters. While much of the discussion has centered on the Roosters’ bold acquisition of two of the game’s biggest stars (with James Tedesco also joining their ranks), far more interesting is what Cronk’s move could mean for his personal legacy.
The Storm Dynasty: End of an Era
Cronk’s departure is the beginning of the end for the Melbourne Storm dynasty. Even if the club continues to be successful for years to come, it clearly sits on the precipice of a new era. Cronk has left, Cameron Smith and Billy Slater probably have one or two seasons remaining, and coach Craig Bellamy won’t stay around forever.
So, how will history remember these four men?
Billy Slater ranks comfortably among the top few fullbacks of all time, nestled alongside Rugby League Immortals Graeme Langlands, Clive Churchill and future inductee Darren Lockyer. He has been the NRL’s best fullback for a decade and there is nothing that could significantly alter his status at this point.
Cameron Smith is greatest hooker to ever play the game, with an ever-widening chasm between him and second place; he will be an Immortal and future debates will only bother to consider whether he is the best rugby league player the world has seen.
As for Craig Bellamy, he is destined to become one side of an endless triangular debate (joining Jack Gibson and Wayne Bennett) as to who is the finest rugby league coach of all time.
Cooper Cronk’s Legacy
The situation with Cronk, however, is far less clear-cut. His outstanding record – seven grand finals (four wins), two Dally Ms, a Golden Boot, and a Clive Churchill Medal – means that he already commands a place among the game’s best ever halfbacks. Yet, somewhat bizarrely, with his career trapped in the same historical groove as Johnathan Thurston, it could be said that Cronk has never even been the premier playmaker in the competition.
The real elephant in the room, though, is that Cronk has only ever played a handful of important games without Cameron Smith in the number 9 jersey. One of those was the 2008 NRL grand final, when the Storm were annihilated by Manly. Similarly, he’s played all of his club football under one coach – Bellamy – and often been surrounded by a cast of impressive backline talent.
Rugby league is a team sport and so individual successes are inherently intertwined, but never before have four sporting careers been so tightly tangled. Cronk’s move is fascinating because, for the first time, it will pry his contributions away from those of his long-term teammates and ultimately provide some insight into the big question, one which fans have long debated:
Has Cronk been steering the Storm or has he been a cog in the Melbourne machine?
As Cameron Smith observed, there was no obvious impetus for Cronk to keep playing.
“[H]e’s played over 300 matches for our club, multiple premierships now, if I was in those shoes … that would’ve done me I reckon.” Smith told the Herald Sun.
“I’d like to just finish while I knew that I was still playing well, I was one of the best players in the game – not saying that he won’t be – but you just finish on top and you can’t get better than a premiership.”
Those final comments are particularly revealing, highlighting the risk that, in Smith’s view, Cronk is taking.
Cronk, too, is fully aware of the implications of his late-career move. An unusually thoughtful and erudite footballer, he is famously meticulous in his planning and his decision to go to the Roosters was not made lightly. As he said in the lead-up to his announcement, “I need to make a smart decision and they don’t happen overnight.”
While Cronk could have joined any number of teams (or simply retired as a one-club legend, as many predicted), he chose a Roosters side stacked with talent and guided by an elite coach. In doing so, he has given himself every opportunity to succeed in the absence of Smith and Bellamy. He now has the perfect platform to show that he can win a premiership with another club and prove himself as the best playmaker in the game.
Can Cronk Succeed?
So, the question, then, is can he do it? Critics of the move, which saw 28-year-old NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce discarded by the Tri-colours, have pointed out that the 34-year-old Cronk’s best years are probably behind him. In the majority of cases, this would be true, but in this instance it is the classic error of misapplying the general to the specific. Cronk, who has consistently improved with age and was sublime for Melbourne in 2017 (showing none of the signs of a player on the wane), has the potential to be the exception to the rule.
There are a few reasons for this.
First, Cronk is renowned for his diligence and preparation; it can be guaranteed that he will keep himself in optimal physical shape over the next couple of years. Secondly, he has managed to avoid serious injuries throughout his career and therefore is not dealing with the legacy of multiple knee or shoulder reconstructions (for example), as others of his vintage have often done.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly – and rarely noted – is the fact that Cronk is a player who has never relied heavily on his physical attributes. When Greg Alexander lost his acceleration, the end was nigh. Benji Marshall was among the best players in the world at his athletic peak, but has had to settle for being a merely good footballer since. Other examples abound.
Cronk isn’t like them. Sure, he’s quick enough to get through a gap and undoubtedly strong for a halfback, but his success has been due to unerring precision, rather than athletic brilliance. In Cronk’s game, there’s rarely a chip-and-chase, never an audacious side-step, hardly even a lengthy cutout; rather, we find a staple of high percentage plays produced with metronomic timing and subtle variations, so clearly the product of endless, perfectionistic repetition.
In short, age need not hamper Cronk in the same way it has others – at least not yet. (Interestingly, all of these points apply to Smith, too).
There are other things in Cronk’s favour. For example, the burden of representative football has been lifted and recent history shows that is no small consideration. Brad Fittler, for example, played the best football of his career in his early 30s with representative duties behind him (his brilliant form eventually led to a memorable return for NSW in 2004). Cronk’s sole focus in 2018 will be club success, while the likes of Smith and Slater undertake another grueling Origin campaign.
All things considered, Cronk is well placed to succeed in his new environment.
As to what will happen, who knows, but Cronk has opened himself up to the best and worst case scenarios.
If Melbourne continue their dominance and take out the competition with a rookie halfback calling the shots, Cronk’s Storm tenure could begin to look slightly less impressive. If he also fails to fire at the Roosters, history may start to be unkind.
On the other side of the coin, if Cronk can win a competition (or two), he will elevate himself to a new echelon of greatness. A fifth grand final win would sweep him past fellow legends Allan Langer and Peter Sterling (four each) and leave him behind only Bobby Bugden (six) as the most successful halfback of all time. It would also see him join a very select group of no. 7s to win premierships at two clubs, dissolving any lingering doubts (however faint) about his reliance on his Melbourne teammates. If the Storm also happen to stumble in his absence, Cronk’s historical influence will be magnified immensely.
Of course, the actual outcome will likely be somewhere in the middle. Both sides are expected to be successful and there’s every chance they will fight it out at the business end of the season – but you just never know.
There’s no escaping the fact that Cronk has rolled the dice. In Smith’s words:
“…it’s the uncertainty of what will happen in those next two years…”
Therein lies the gamble. Cronk is facing a huge test – and he knows it.
“It’s one hell of a challenge,” he notes, “but everyone can play football when things go their way. It’s when adversity hits you, you really find your true colours and I’m looking forward to that.”
There you have it, in his own words.
No matter what, Cooper Cronk will retire as a modern rugby league great – no one questions that – but exactly where he will sit in the pecking order of the all-time champion playmakers is still to be determined. Much will depend upon this final chapter, and you can be certain that Cronk will be doing everything in his power to make it the best one yet.