Cooper Cronk has proven himself one of the game's best halfbacks. Picture by Phil Hillyard.
Cooper Cronk has proven himself one of the game's best halfbacks. Picture by Phil Hillyard.

How Cronk crushed myth to challenge Immortality

"IF you have the will you can teach the skill" should be on Cooper Cronk's rugby league tombstone.

In his retirement press conference on Monday, Cronk, understated to the last, downplayed his own achievements, remarking that his job at Melbourne was taking the ball from one all-time great (Cameron Smith) and passing it on to another (Billy Slater).

The 35-year-old does himself a disservice, because he can stand alongside any of them.

As dominant as Cronk was in his Melbourne years, when he led them to four grand final wins (two of which were stripped), claimed two Dally M medals, captured halfback of the year five times and a Clive Churchill Medal, there was still a persistent and patently false notion that Cronk was a systems player, propped up by the Melbourne machine and made to look better than he was.

Cronk may have had talent around him and the greatest coach of the modern age leading the way, but he is not of the system, he is a system all his own.

Since he became Melbourne's halfback in 2006 he has never posted less than 15 try assists in a season and seven times he has averaged more than one try assist a game.

His next try will be his 100th in first grade, a measure of his dangerous and perennially underrated running game and his excellent support play.

Cooper Cronk after announcing his retirement. (AAP Image/Danny Casey)
Cooper Cronk after announcing his retirement. (AAP Image/Danny Casey)

Cronk is the total package, a player of many strengths and few, if any, weaknesses, and he has been this way for a long, long time.

Billy Slater was more spectacular and the sheer weight of Cameron Smith's achievements naturally swallow much of the accolades.

But Cronk was the straw that stirred the drink, for club, state and country, a fact which became all the more apparent in his absence.

In Cronk's Origin career Queensland only lost one series - in 2014, when Cronk went down with a broken arm 10 minutes into game one, which forced him to miss game two.

Cronk built himself into greatness.
Cronk built himself into greatness.

From there, the Maroons were outscored 18-8 across the remaining 150 minutes, scoring but one try and losing the series. It was a shocking short-circuit for one of the most ruthless and efficient attacking units in the game's history.

Cronk returned for Game III and Queensland cantered to a 32-8 victory. The Maroons did not lose another series on his watch.

With so much talent around him Cronk was willing and able to fit into whatever role the team required - he could be the dominant playmaker or effortlessly slip back into a more complementary role.

Cronk could be whatever his team needed to be - no wonder Trent Robinson called him the greatest team man he'd ever seen.

The other major feather in Cronk's cap is the premiership he won with the Roosters last season, broken shoulder and all.

Cronk was equal to his Melbourne contemporaries. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.
Cronk was equal to his Melbourne contemporaries. Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images.

His remarkable courage to play at all aside, the victory gave Cronk something Smith and Slater can never have - a championship without the Storm trappings, a victory outside the system.

Those same critics who called him a system player can downplay his contribution in that 21-6 win over his former club, but they are not worth listening to.

Grand finals are won in 80 minutes but premierships are won over an entire year and it was Cronk who elevated the Roosters from preliminary final disaster to humming premiership machine.

In that dominant victory, when Cronk showed extraordinary bravery to play at all, the Roosters took on the qualities that made Cronk great.

In the preliminary final defeats of 2014, 2015 and 2017 the Tricolours were undone by a lack of attention to detail, a lack of execution, lapses of concentration that made things harder than they should have been.

What Cronk did last year should never be forgotten. AAP Image/Dean Lewins.
What Cronk did last year should never be forgotten. AAP Image/Dean Lewins.

In the three finals wins last year, those imperfections were shorn away and by grand final day the Roosters were a marvel of precision and aggression, for whom no contest was too small to win, no second effort not worth making.

That has always been Cronk's way because he is a legend born through perfection of practice, the manufactured halfback who worked his way to the top and then worked some more.

Everything he is, he has built himself to be. There can be no higher praise.

Under the old Immortals criteria, when there were only eight men deemed worthy, Cronk probably doesn't make the cut.

But including four new players last year and expanding the concept has changed everything. Smith and Thurston are certainties, Slater should make the cut and Cronk in with every chance.

Cronk stands with the giants. Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images.
Cronk stands with the giants. Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images.

Slater's dominance, Smith's total mastery of his position and Johnathan Thurston's singular greatness are more recognisable than Cronk's strengths, which are his intelligence, his decision-making, his immaculate kicking game and ability to bring all the disparate elements of a team together and direct them towards the common goal of victory.

Could he have carried inferior teams above their station, as Thurston did with North Queensland? It's a question we can never answer.

The two are very different players, which is why they worked so well together for state and country.

Thurston and Andrew Johns are the two premier halfbacks in rugby league history, that cannot be questioned.

Cronk is right there with Allan Langer, Ricky Stuart, Arthur Summons, Keith Holman and Peter Sterling, a hall-of-famer without question and a worthy Immortal.

CRONK FACT FILE

Debut: Melbourne v Cronulla at Olympic Park, Melbourne, May 8, 2004 (Round 9)

NRL Games: 357* (2nd all time behind Cameron Smith) - 323 Storm, 34 Roosters

Grand Finals: 8 (2006-09, 2012, 2016-18)

Premierships: 5 (2007*,2009*,2012,2017-18) *Stripped due to Storm salary cap breach

Tries: 99

Dally M Player of the Year (2013, 2016)

Clive Churchill Medallist (2012)

Dally M Halfback of the Year (2006, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2016)

State of Origin Games: 22 (2010-2017)

Never lost a series when playing all three games.

Tests: 38 (2007-2017)

2 World Cups, 2 Tri/Four Nations titles.

Golden Boot (2016)