NRL: There's one question Cooper Cronk hasn't asked Craig Bellamy

By James Matthey

Cooper Cronk. Photo / Getty Images
Cooper Cronk. Photo / Getty Images

Cooper Cronk will forever be one of Melbourne's favourite sons.

He's won three premierships with the Storm (though two were officially stripped for salary cap infringements), a Dally M Medal and a Clive Churchill Medal.

He, along with hooker Cameron Smith and fullback Billy Slater, has been at the core of Melbourne's success over the last decade. The diminutive halfback will play his 300th NRL game in Saturday night's preliminary final against the Cronulla Sharks, and he reflected on his football journey with Smith in a video posted on the Storm website.

The two have known each other since they were teenagers growing up in Queensland when Smith often drove Cronk to training for Brisbane Norths in the early days of their careers.

Cronk's reputation today is built on his ability to keep cool and calm no matter what the game situation, but he revealed his frustration nearly prevented him from making it at the top level to begin with.

"To be honest, my first pre-season (with the Storm) I thought was too hard. I didn't think that I was cut for it," Cronk told Smith. "I didn't have the best pre-season, was sent back to Brisbane Norths, and to sum it up, I spat the dummy a little bit.

"Things turned ... that pre-season leading in to 2004 I didn't stop training, I thought if I had a poor pre-season again that's basically the end of my footy career so I worked really hard, the worlds aligned and got an opportunity.

"As they say, the rest is history."

While he's in the top echelon of the game's playmakers right now, Cronk wasn't always a fixture in the halves. Despite wearing the No. 6 or No. 7 throughout his junior days, he was often filling a utility role for the men in purple when he started in the NRL.

He played everywhere from fullback, five-eighth, halfback, hooker and even the back row, and only got a decent run in the halves in 2005 when regular pivot Scott Hill got injured before halfback Matt Orford suffered a similar fate.

While Cronk said he was happy playing any position if it meant getting a first grade gig, he did enough when he got a continuous run in the ball-playing roles to convince coach Craig Bellamy he was the right man to replace Orford when he left for Manly at the end of the 2005 season.

The now-32-year-old didn't understand why Bellamy put his faith in him instead of looking on the open market, and a decade on, he still doesn't know why the man known as "Bellyache" trusted him with the most important role in the team.

"Matt Orford decided to leave and I don't know why, I've never had this conversation with Craig, I don't know why he chose me or why he didn't go out and get anyone else," Cronk said. "But I was given an opportunity.

"I was told two things in 2006. Craig told me he'd pick me if I made my tackles and had a good kicking game. That whole pre-season I practised tackling and I practised my kicking game."

Making the transition from bits and pieces team member to bona fide playmaker is not an easy one, but from the outside, the Queensland and Australian representative has managed it with ease. He credits Bellamy and Matty Johns - who worked as a coaching consultant with the Storm - for teaching him what makes a genuine halfback.

In the 299 games he's played so far, there's been plenty of highlights. Smith said one moment that stands out for him is the perfect ball he provided for Billy Slater to slice through the Bulldogs' defence 15m out from their tryline and score a four-pointer in the 2012 Grand Final.

Attacking the line, Cronk double pumped - drawing a defender and creating enough space for Slater to burst through on his left shoulder. But despite having worked on that set play all week, he revealed one of his teammates actually needed to take credit for the decisive moment.

"The funny story behind that is I actually didn't want to do that play," he said. "We practised it all week and I think the game was four-all.

"(Back-rower) Ryan Hoffman was the reason we did it because he was telling me it would work and I was a little bit hesitant because it was a bit of a tricky play, but we got there in the end."

"Of all people, Hoffy?" laughed Smith.

"Yeah Hoffy, he was the reason why we did it," Cronk replied.

Melbourne fans won't want to think about a time when Cronk doesn't step out in the No. 7 jersey, but the reality is he, and 30-year-old five-eighth Blake Green, are closer to the end of their careers than the start.

However, Cronk is adamant the future is bright down in the Victorian capital.

"Brodie Croft played his first game in the halves this year and he has a bright future along with Josh Drinkwater."


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